Lamb’s Holm, Orkney – The Italian Chapel

At the start of WW2 a submarine slipped between the islands into Scapa Flow and torpedoed the Royal Oak. Churchill ordered that barriers should be built to block the four channels. There is a very good display about this work at the Fossil Museum on Burray – website – an excellent museum with lovely tea room, and friendly staff.

In the later years of the War, Italians captured in North Africa were sent to Camp 60 on Lamb’s Holm. They were not happy being used on what they saw as war-work, but were persuaded it was legitimate. You can imagine that thirteen Nissan huts were not very much like home (especially in Orkney weather), but the Italians planted flowers, laid concrete paths, and made the best of a bad job – they even had a band.

This plan is on a display board – can we re-open the narrow gauge railway? – and the painting of casting concrete blocks is by Domenico Chiocchetti.

Chiocchetti also made this statue of St George, made up from a framework of barbed wire covered in concrete.

What the camp still lacked was a chapel, but a new commandant, Major Buckland, an enthusiastic padre, Father P. Gioacchino Giacobazzi, and the artist, Chiocchetti, enthused the others. Late in 1943 two Nissan huts became available – and a work of art was created.

The Italian Chapel on the island of Lamb’s Holm (HY 488007) is now a major Orkney tourist attraction. Previous visits have been free, now they sell us a ticket for £3, but I would rather pay something and know the chapel is being properly looked after.

As well as the usual guidebook, the Italian Chapel has been written about more fully – Donald S. Murray, And on this rock, Birlinn 2010, and Philip Paris, Orkney’s Italian Chapel, 2013 are non-fiction, – there is an interview with Philip Paris on youtube. 

Julie and I have both read a novel by Kirsten McKenzie, The Chapel at the Edge of the World, 2010. Julie has reviewed it on her northernreader blog – think link is here.

Having their Nissan huts, the corrugated iron was hidden with plasterboard, and the painting on it is amazing. I like the wheat and grapes – eucharistic images.

The altar, altar rail and holy water scoop were fashioned out of concrete, the paintings are beautiful, and I seem to remember that the lamps were crafted out of old corned beef tins.

The Madonna and Child was based on a holy picture that Chiocchetti had carried with him through the War. The painted windows are of St Francis of Assisi and St Catherine of Sienna.

The prisoners left the island on 9 September 1944, almost before the chapel was finished. Fortunately it was not demolished with the rest of the camp. In 1960 Chiocchetti was invited back to do some restoration work, and kept links with Orkney for the rest of his life (he died in 1999). Other former prisoners also kept links. One of those who visited in 1992 was Bruno Volpi. He wrote “People cannot be judged by their precarious situations. Their culture, spirit and will to express themselves in creative thoughts and deeds are stronger than any limitation to freedom. This is the spirit that gave birth to the works of art on Lambsholm.”

 

 

 

 

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