Orkney: The Italian Chapel

Saturday, July 13, 2013

After Highland Park, the other 'must see' on my trip to Orkney was the Italian Chapel. I'm not a religious person as such, but the story of these Italian prisoners of war, creating something so stunning, literally out of nothing mainly from scavenged items was hard to shake off. While the camps are no more, the Churchill Barriers are a permanent monument to the efforts of these prisoners. The Italian Chapel in comparison was built with basic materials and items with a limited shelf life. While those from that era are gone now it is a testament to Orkney that the bonds and Chapel remain today.
The barriers connect several southern islands to Orkney and have proved to be a lasting addition to the transport network, as well as an important defence against maradening U-Boats. Just driving across these on a summers evening was an amazing experience. Seeing these huge wrecks deliberately placed and sunk to provide protection to the naval fleet, it felt like we were back in the 1940's and a place where time had stood still.
When driving across the first barrier it is very easy to miss the Italian Chapel, which is on the first and smallest island called Lambsholm. Just after crossing the barrier, take an immediate left turn off the road past Orkney wine and head up to a tiny car park, beside the above statue. Prior to this trip I had read the excellent book by Philip Paris on the Chapel and I'd suggest to anyone thinking of visiting Orkney to read it as well. Not only does it explain the background to the Chapel, but how the community embraced these POW's and some of the hardships they, and their creation faced afterwards. We also took the wise decision to visit the Chapel in the evening just to take some photographs thereby reducing the numbers of tourists if any. While the Chapel does close the door at tea-time to visitors, a steady stream will visit during the day. So to obtain those memorable outdoor photographs without obstruction, make a small recon trip beforehand. With a car, it is very easy to criss-cross Orkney with little delay.
The size of the Chapel is the first thing that strikes home. Journeying around Orkney you will see many remnants from WW2 including bunkers and old huts, some of which are falling into ruin while others have a new life. The Italian Chapel is built around 2 of these iron huts and adorned with an intricate and lavish entrance. To some this may look like an odd fusion but once you step inside you forget the origins of the building.
The initial area of the Chapel contains various guidebooks, neatly laid out into languages. A recommended donation of £1 for a book is suggested but from my time in the Chapel visitors were donating in excess and signing the visitors book. The funds go to the preservation of the Chapel and every penny I'm sure counts. It is difficult to put a finger on the atmosphere within this unique piece of history. I've been to some of the largest and busiest religious buildings in Europe; where the religious element is almost diminished due to the throngs of visitors.
The Chapel is peaceful and the atmosphere is the most memorable and touching I have experienced within a church, chapel, cathedral or anything along these lines. The skill of the craftsmen involved is inspiring and moving. The iron work and the iconic painting are nothing short of jaw-dropping. Art has the power to transmit emotions and messages. I loved the Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition in London last year and I'd put this experience alongside that master every time.
And there are secrets within this Chapel. The book highlighted one particular touching aspect that may be lost on many visitors. Perhaps my appreciation had been heightened by the book and the research. This unique setting and backdrop, the Chapel felt like an escape from the outside world. Heading down to the altar itself was a feeling of almost a second home.
It is sad fact that after the completion of the Chapel the POWs did not have very long before they were moved off Orkney once and for all. It's design, construction and locating of key materials had given all the men a sense of purpose whilst they were marooned on this remote island with it's harsh weather. The Italian flag flies to this day beside the Chapel and the spirit of those men lives on. I left the Italian Chapel content and satisfied; that out of conflict something so beautiful and permanent can be created. A remarkable piece of history.

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