A Hex Against Evil? Or Carpenter’s Notes? Chapel’s Mystery Markings Raise Intrigue

September 1, 2023 By Matt Kelly, mkelly@virginia.edu Matt Kelly, mkelly@virginia.edu

There’s a fine line between magical and mundane, and the University of Virginia Chapel has the marks to prove it.

Etched into a soaring wooden beam inside the chapel is a set of strange markings discovered during the building’s renovations. From one perspective, the scratches look like a six-pointed star. Or perhaps a series of X’s and rectangles. Or maybe something like a tic-tac-toe grid.

The marks could be a hexfoil to ward off evil. That’s a leading theory among the historic-preservation experts working on the chapel.

But there is a second theory, albeit less intriguing: The marks are simply a carpenter’s century-old – and boring – notes scratched into the lumber.

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Either way, there’s no firm explanation from either UVA experts or the renovators. Among those leaning to the more exotic explanation are the craftsmen helping refurbish the chapel.

“Our conservator discovered some interesting hex marks on one of the wooden trusses,” said James Zehmer, senior historic preservation project manager at UVA Facilities Management.

Ethan Minkema, a conservator working for John Canning Co., historic restoration and preservation experts based in Chesire, Connecticut, discovered the scrawl. The markings, only found in one place in the chapel, are about the diameter of a baseball.

Minkema’s father, Ken Minkema, a religious historian at Yale Divinity School, said the marks were similar to ones coming from Scots-Irish building traditions.

“These are the sort of markings that are often meant to ward off evil spirits or bewitchment and generally to protect the building,” Ken Minkema said. “This is an ancient practice and not one restricted to Europeans alone. Since this was more of a popular practice, I would conjecture that a carpenter or joiner made the marks, rather than a foreman or architect.”

Ken Minkema wrote a short paper, “Hexfoil Markings in Early Modern Structures,” in which he noted that the most popular practices were “apotropaic,” or preventive and protective, to ward off or nullify any attempts by evil forces to curse, bewitch or possess.

“Still another form of apotropaic magic was the use of diagrams,” Minkema wrote in his paper. “These markings have been found in buildings dating from the 17th to the 19th centuries and ranging from Scandinavia to England to the United States. Commonly, they appear to be no more than a series of hash-like, overlapping incisions in a geometric pattern, probably made with a knife, draw blade or rasp, usually engraved in a rafter, beam or sheathing.”

Weird symbol carved in the chapel
The markings could be a hexfoil to ward off evil, or perhaps a carpenter’s diagram. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Ken Minkema said he could not say definitely the marks were hexfoils, but he said they resembled ones he had seen both in photographs and in person, including a similar one from Knole, Sevenoaks, England, where they were referred to as “witchmarks.”

“European popular or lay magical practices were strongly informed by ancient folk traditions, and tenaciously preserved, though often covertly,” Ken Minkema wrote in his paper. “Even the advent of Enlightenment rationalism could not make people abandon their so-called ‘superstitions.’ By the early modern period, as historian Stephen Wilson points out, Europeans at home and in the Americas still lived in an enchanted world, one populated by supernatural forces, in the form of devils, other infernal beings and their human agents, that could bring mischief, harm and even death.”

Louis Nelson, professor of architectural history at the School of Architecture, questions whether these markings serve those functions as late as the 1880s when the chapel was built.

“I will say that apotropaic symbols are certainly common in the 17th and 18th centuries, but they do not commonly persist in American construction into the later 19th century,” Nelson said. “And the geometric nature of the scratching makes me wonder of the carpenter is trying to determine an angle or to resolve something on the fly.”

It is difficult to determine who worked on the chapel, as most of the construction records were destroyed in the 1895 fire that heavily damaged the Rotunda, the University’s library at the time.

Inner workings of the chapel
Ethan Minkema, a conservator who found the mysterious markings on a beam in the chapel, works on restoring the original luster to the interior arches. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Zehmer said there was no indication that the materials used in building the chapel had been taken from another building, suggesting that the markings, whether a hexfoil or part of a carpenter’s diagram, are specific to the chapel.

“Ethan Minkema laid his hands on almost every surface of the chapel, and did not find any other ‘witch marks,’” Zehmer said.  “We also haven’t found any on other UVA buildings. There are plenty of Roman numerals, but that was a common technique in mortise and tenon framing.  Perhaps the framing for the chapel was so specialized that they brought in timber wrights who have a background in shipbuilding or church building who might have brought this tradition with them.”

There is also the chance that the design may be haphazard.

“It looks like it was done with a pen knife, not a very skilled job,” said Garth Anderson, a UVA facilities historian. “These timbers laid around for a while before being erected into place. Some joiner is looking to hide this rather than plane it off.”

So unless a provable explanation emerges, the chapel’s mystery marks will remain just that: a mystery.

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications