Chiocchetti's altarpiece painting
The uninhabited, windswept Lamb Holm, among the Orkney Isles, must have been a chilly shock for the hundreds of captured Italian soldiers who arrived there in January 1942. The chapel they built is a testament to the survival of the human spirit in wartime.
A white-robed Virgin is painted on the wall behind the altar, in her lap sits an infant Christ holding an olive branch. They're surrounded by a circle of angels (one of them is sheathing a sword) and a banner which touchingly reads, 'Regina pacis ora pro nobis' ('Queen of Peace, pray for us'). Few messages could be more appropriate for this deceptively ornate concrete and metal church, built by prisoners of war.
This altarpiece image was painted, like much of the chapel, by the captured Italian soldier Domenico Chiocchetti between 1943 and 1945. He took inspiration from Nicolo Barabina's Madonna of the Olives, shown on a postcard from his mother. Add in the two Italian saints in the windows on either side of the altar and you get a clear message about the nature of this Catholic chapel, dedicated to peace. In more ways than one, the chapel built on Lamb Holm was a reminder of home, of Italy, and something greater than the war that had caught up so many lives.
A Church Recycled From Leftovers, Flotsam and Scraps
Unlike many churches, the Italian Chapel isn't built from stone; the body was formed by connecting two domed, corrugated iron, Nissen huts, meant to be used as prisoner barracks. There's a brick foundation, with corrugated metal sheets then nailed to a wooden frame, in an overlapping pattern to protect against the rainwater that represents the greatest structural threat to these buildings.
The chapel's white facade with its Gothic pinnacles is made from concrete and cement, leftover from the construction work of the prisoners' working days. Much of the timber, and perhaps the church bell, came from sunken ships intended to block harbour approaches, while the paint and other materials were donated by sympathetic locals.
There's a danger, then, of seeing this as a low-budget pretence at a 'real' church – but for the Italians it was an attempt to create something familiar in a strange and hostile landscape, and a spiritual escape from their difficult material circumstances.
Corrugated iron buildings first appeared in the 1840s, and had been popular with breakaway groups of Scottish clergy who were denied permission to build new, permanent, churches of their own. Ready-made buildings were also popular with colonial expeditions, which had a demand for rapid-assembly cottages, churches and schools.
The Italians probably hadn't seen these 'tin tabernacles', and likely weren't consciously following that tradition. But they were no doubt seeking the same advantages as those earlier builders. Corrugated iron buildings were quick and cheap to build, and didn't suggest the permanence of a sturdier structure (the Italians hoped to go home, while colonial and Scottish church-builders wanted to eventually upgrade).
Who Were the Builders?
Chiocchetti was an artist, and he'd been responsible for decorating stage sets for the theatrical productions put on by the PoWs. He was a natural choice to recruit plasterers, sculptors and others from among his fellow prisoners, and directed them in covering the interior with trompe l'oeil pillars and carvings, as well as producing an ironwork screen and concrete furniture like the font and altar. More than most, this project made a virtue of necessity.
From the moment they arrived, the approximately 500 Italian prisoners needed something to distract from their homesickness and the bleakness of their new surroundings. One PoW, Bruno Volpi, considered that such depression could only be alleviated by thoughts of something nobler. The entertainments and sports were not enough, and neither were beautification efforts like flowerbeds or Chiocchetti's barbed-wire-and-cement statue of St George. The Italians needed a place of worship.
But why were they Britain's prisoners in the first place?
A Worldwide War
Since the 1920s, the Fascist government in Rome had attempted to join the top rank of European powers, and recapture imperial glory. The best way to do that was through overseas conquest. Mussolini, Italy's Fascist dictator, was confident enough by June 1940 to join Germany's war against the Allies, in hopes of consolidating British and French North African territories with Italy's colonies (which would join up the Horn of Africa with modern-day Libya).
During the battles for the desert, Allied forces captured tens of thousands of Italian soldiers, including the thousand or so sent to two Orkney PoW camps, on the isles of Burray and nearby Lamb Holm.
The Italians were needed in Orkney in particular because of the large natural harbour and an Admiralty order of 1939.
Scapa Flow had been the base for Britain's First World War Grand Fleet, and was put to the same use for the next major war, even though its defences had been neglected during peacetime. A serious weakness was exposed early in the war when a German submarine slipped in and sank the battleship HMS Royal Oak. In response, the Admiralty ordered the building of barriers along Scapa Flow's eastern approaches, essentially forming causeways between several smaller islands like Lamb Holm and Burray.
By the end of 1941, however, the war caused labour shortages for such a big construction project. Meanwhile, in North Africa, Allied forces were struggling to feed and house their Italian prisoners. Both problems were partially solved by shipping some Italians north and having them build what became known as the Churchill Barriers.
Postwar Usage and Legacy
The Italians left behind more than just a few roads connecting small isles. Far from being rejected by Orcadians, the chapel has been embraced by a local preservation committee, with several rounds of restoration work carried out – including in the 1960s when Chiocchetti himself returned to touch up his earlier work.
The chapel receives thousands of visitors a year, and is a rare survival of the cheap and temporary 'tin tabernacle' model. More than that, it stands as a symbol of reconciliation and hope, and – with all that concrete, plaster and trompe l'oeil – evidence that a church doesn’t need centuries-old stone to carry a powerful message.
The Italian Chapel, Orkney
4 https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/6980183 5 https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2544020
For more, especially the James Sinclair Collection at Orkney Library & Archive:
Orkney's Italian Chapel:
Donald S Murray, And on this rock: The Italian Chapel, Orkney
Philip Paris, Orkney's Italian Chapel: the True Story of an Icon