Flemish wood carver recreates relics stolen from English abbey

Summary

The only full-time wood carver in Flanders has been asked to create unique wooden prayer frames for a 19th-century abbey in England

“A difficult task”

A little over a year ago, the Benedictine Abbey of St Michael’s in Farnborough, England, received some visitors. Every year, thousands of people come to see this magnificent 19th-century abbey when it opens its doors to the public on Saturday afternoons.

But these particular visitors weren’t your typical heritage lovers; they didn’t queue up at the abbey shop and pay their £3 for the one-hour guided tour. Instead, 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 (and nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte).

Prince Napoléon Eugène Louis Jean Joseph Bonaparte 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, Empress Eugénie, who had them engraved and mounted on specially commissioned wooden prayer frames.

The works were placed in the family’s crypt in Farnborough Abbey. Until their theft last February, they were used regularly by monks during mass.

Despite the efforts of local police and an international appeal among antique dealers, the prayer frames have not been retrieved, so thoughts turned to their replacement. “The frames were made by an unknown wood carver in incredible detail. Finding someone to make exact replicas was always going to be a difficult task,” abbot Cuthbert Brogan told local reporters.

Through the magnifying glass

After making some initial enquiries, Brogan stumbled upon the website of Patrick Damiaens, an ornamental woodcarver in Maaseik, Limburg. “After seeing pictures of what he is capable of,” said Brogen, “particularly 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”.

We knew we had found someone capable of equalling the work of the original craftsman

- Abbot Cuthbert Brogan

Following discussions about the work, timing and costs, the job was awarded to Damiaens. “It was a great honour to be asked to carve replicas of these beautiful prayer frames,” he tells me. “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 Damiaens is keen to meet, explaining that he is always looking for jobs that push his technical skills to the limit and even 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.

The original prayer frames were made of walnut, as will be the replacements. “Walnut is ideal for this type of job, thanks to its very fine grain,” he explains.

Damiaens has selected some ideal cuts of French walnut and sent them to a furniture maker with whom he often works. The furniture maker will make the frames and pass them onto Damiaens to carve. The largest of the three measures 60 by 80 centimetres.

Damiaens has photographs of the originals, from which he’ll 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 next year.

Photo by Henny Van Belkom

Who is Patrick Damiaens?

  • The only full-time ornamental wood carver in Flanders
  • Specialises in carving the decorations on 18th-century Liège-style furniture
  • Studied furniture-making at the Sint-Jansberg College in Maaseik for six years and ornamental wood carving at the Don Bosco Institute in Liège for four years
  • Works in close co-operation with a staircase maker, two cabinet makers, a panel-builder and a furniture restorer
  • Has customers throughout the world
  • Has been awarded this year’s Ereteken van de Arbeid (Belgian Gold Honour Badge of Labour) for his work. This recognition of his skill is awarded by the Koninklijk Instituut der Eliten van de Arbeid (Royal Institute of the Elites of Labour)
  • Does not own a mobile phone, has flown only once and has never visited England