I had great plans to visit the Cogne Lace Museum yesterday. Lace-making has a venerable history in this region of the Italian alps, and I’m always interested in any opportunity to nose in local craft museums. Sadly the museum has limited opening hours, so I cast around for other ideas and spotted the church opposite. It looked inviting in the sunshine, with its colourful fresco paintings surmounting the doorway arch. I wandered over, doubting it would be open, and so I was surprised when the door gave as I pushed against it.
I entered complete darkness. The door swung shut behind me, and I had a moment of complete panic in case I was unable to get out. I grabbed the handle and satisfied myself that I wasn’t imprisoned. It was after all only Monday; the idea of being trapped till next Sunday was most unappealing.
As I grew accustomed to the gloomy interior and wandered down the nave, I saw I was surrounded by carved and heavily gilded tableaux. I scrambled over and around the old wooden pews to have a better look at the detailing and to try and decipher the imagery. A bronze plaque promised enlightenment, but after some time spent in deciphering the Italian, I realised I was being told not to put my hands beyond a non-existent corded barrier. So it was back to just looking and guesswork. I recognised one tableau as something to do with the Passion, but that was as far as I could get. I became frustrated by my visual and cultural illiteracy. How many generations had it been since the stories being told by these statues resonated with the casual visitor? In this post-Barthèsian age of image saturation and proliferation, we are free to read into imagery what we will in the way we want to. But faced with this set of religious allegorical works, I felt cast adrift and impotent. In vain I searched for some text, some explanation.
Eventually I found a notice in a glass case. More time attempting to translate the Italian. It referred to a statue from the Tre or Quattrocento; a plain white alabaster statue about a metre high carved in the local Valdostanan tradition by some unknown sculptor. Sant’Orso, apparently. I was none the wiser but eager to find the only piece of artwork in the entire church worthy of a notice. Eventually I spotted it high above my head, too high to view even if I climbed on a pew which I was not inclined to do. The blown up photo above is as close as I could get. Who was Sant’Orso? If I had full Internet access, I could enlighten us all. But I have to remain in ignorance, in the knowledge that a peasant from the early 1400s could have told me all I needed to know without googling anything.
So much information to hand, so much educational opportunity, yet I sometimes feel alarmingly ignorant. I’m sure there’s an allegory in this somewhere if only I could read it.