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Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Benedictine Abbey of St. Michael’s in Farnborough | Stolen framed prayers | Crypt of Emperor NAPOLEON III

Stolen framed prayers for the Crypt of Emperor NAPOLEON III

 Benedictine Abbey of St. Michael’s in Farnborough
 Stolen framed prayers
Master wood-carver Patrick Damiaens from Maaseik (Belgium) has been chosen to make three unique wooden prayer frames for Farnborough Abbey in England.

By Denzil Walton for Flanders today  04-03-2015

A little over a year ago – between the 16th and 20th February, 2014 – the Benedictine Abbey of St. Michael’s in Farnborough, Hampshire, England received some visitors.

There was nothing unusual in this. Every year, thousands of people visit this magnificent 19th century abbey when it opens its doors to the public every Saturday afternoon.

Unfortunately, these particular visitors didn’t queue up at the abbey shop and pay their £3 for the one-hour guided tour. They broke into the abbey under cover of darkness, entered the crypt and stole historic framed prayers in French and Latin from the tomb of Prince Louis, son of Napoleon III (nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte).

Benedictine Abbey of St. Michael’s in Farnborough

Prince Imperial

Prince Napoléon Eugène Louis Jean Joseph Bonaparte (16 March 1856 – 1 June 1879) was the only child of Emperor Napoleon III of France. He died aged 23 while fighting for the British Army under Lord Chelmsford in the Zulu War in South Africa. He met a horrendous death, suffering 18 assegai spear wounds and a mutilated face.

When his body was retrieved from the battlefield a number of handwritten prayers were found in his wallet. These were returned to his mother, the Empress Eugénie, who had them engraved and mounted on specially commissioned wooden prayer frames. These were placed in the family’s crypt in Farnborough Abbey. Until their theft, they were used regularly by monks during mass.

Replacements necessary 

Despite all the efforts of local police and an international appeal amongst antique dealers, the prayer frames were not retrieved, so thoughts turned to their replacement.

“The prayer frames had been carved by an unknown wood-carver in incredible detail. Finding someone to make exact replicas was always going to be a difficult task,” said Abbott David Cuthbert Brogan. “However, after making some initial enquiries we came upon the internet site of Patrick Damiaens from Belgium. After seeing pictures of what he is capable of carving, and in particular the highly-detailed and delicate floral designs of which Patrick is such a master, we knew we had found someone capable of equalling, or maybe even exceeding, the work of the original craftsman.”

One of the stolen framed Prayers, Crypt Napoleon III

A challenge to rise to

Following discussions over capabilities, timing and costs, the job was given to Damiaens. “It was a great honour to be asked to carve replicas of these beautiful prayer frames,” he remarks. “I was also very excited about the challenge involved, as the level of intricacy and detail in the originals is exceptional. For much of the time I will be carving under a powerful magnifying glass!”

It’s a challenge he is keen to meet, explaining that he is always looking for jobs that push his techniques to the limit and force him to develop new skills. He will spend some time in museums in Paris acquainting himself more fully with original carvings done in the very ornate Napoleon III style. This includes detailed acanthus leaves, small satyrs and the emblems of the emperor. 

Napoleon III

Made from French walnut

The original prayer frames were made of walnut, as will the replacements. “Walnut is ideal for this type of job, thanks to its very fine grain,” Damiaens explains. He has already started working with his preferred furniture maker and has selected some ideal cuts of French walnut. The furniture-maker will make the frames and pass them onto Damiaens to carve. The largest of the three frames measures sixty by eighty centimetres.

Damiaens will be working from photographs of the originals. From these he will make his own technical illustrations, which will form the basis of his carvings. When the prayer frames are completed, he hopes to travel to Farnborough for their official unveiling in 2016.


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