A labor of love in wartime – The Italian Chapel, Orkney

Orkney is known for its Neolithic monuments and settlements, but the islands also have their fair share of WWII history and associated sights.

One of these is the Italian Chapel on the tiny island of Lambholm in the southeast corner of Orkney. Built by Italian prisoners of war during WWII, its shell is a pair of prefab metal Nissen huts (aka Quonset huts in the US). The Baroque style entry masks the hut’s shape but once inside, the half cylinder of the shelter is obvious. The trompe l’oeil painting on the interior surface completely transformed the cold, impersonal shack into a sublime if tiny place of worship. Even standing up close, it’s hard to believe that the walls are painted plaster and not ceramic tiles. Two painted windows imitating stained glass flank the Madonna and Child above the altar, the colors even more vibrant with light streaming through the small windows. The artist, Domenico Chiocchetti, was one of the POWs who got permission to build the chapel rather than help fortify naval barriers, a breach of the Geneva Convention, btw. Other prisoners were skilled in ironwork or did electrical work. The POWs were shipped elsewhere just before the chapel was completed, but Chiocchetti stayed behind to finish the job. In 1964, he presented a set of carved wooden Stations of the Cross to be added to the chapel. He died in 1999.

A new chapter in the story of this hallowed place is that three of the (14) Station wall carvings were stolen this past August, only a couple of weeks before my visit. I’m not aware of any particular value attached to the images taken; I’m assuming they were simply the ones that came off the wall most easily. What I didn’t know until validating facts for this post is that the door had been kicked in a few months before, so the August theft was the second attack on the church in only a few months. The Pope had sent a blessing to the chapel on its 70th anniversary in May; a few days later the door was vandalized. It makes me wonder if the chapel might have been unviolated had it stayed under the radar. No way to know.

The artist’s daughter is working to get replacement plaques – the wood carver who created them is still alive – but unless the thieving perps are found and punished appropriately, I suspect the chapel will need a guard, at least for the near term. It seemed a good reason to put a few extra coins into the donation box.

On the one hand, Orkney seems miles and miles away from the ‘real’ world, with its acres and acres of open farmland rolling down to the water in all directions. On the other, nasty incidents like the theft described above prove that there are jerks even in this apparent paradise. Even so, as with every other place I’ve been, there is more to fill a second visit and I’d love to go back. It feels the perfect place for an artist or writer or photographer to hole up for a few creative weeks. Or perhaps when the archaeological dig at Ness of Brodgar opens again in mid-July they’ll need a tea lady? That I could do.

This entry was posted in All Suzanne's travels, European art, Orkney travel, Scotland and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A labor of love in wartime – The Italian Chapel, Orkney

  1. Never been to Orkney, would love to visit and this little chapel looks beautiful. What a shame about the theft – not something you would expect to happen somewhere like this.

  2. lanceleuven says:

    I can’t believe that such thefts would occur in such a remote location. What a terrible shame. Yes, the chapel is stunning. It’s astonishing what they managed to achieve with so little.

    “a breach of the Geneva Convention, btw”

    The official excuse, as I recall, was that it was to help the islanders travel from one island to another. It’s amazing how much the rules can be bent when the ‘bendee’ is prepared to lie big enough!

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