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Past Meets Future

Cistercian Abbey of Fontaine-GuérardDriving through the European countryside can be full of surprising rewards, since the land is deep with human habitation over centuries. I remember with great fondness driving around Normandy and, having followed a sign on a whim, stumbling upon a ruined abbey called Fontaine-Guérard (shown at left). As I recall it (this was in 1997), we drove up to this emerald green space, with a perfectly clear spring-fed stream, and a gleaming white building (lots of pictures here and here), tucked away in a little valley. I had never read about it, and we had no intention of going to see it that day, but it ended up being one of the most extraordinary places we visited, imbued with an ineffable holiness.

This memory was brought back to me by reading an article by Marie-Guy Baron (Sarkis réveille Saint-Jean-du-Grais, August 7) in Le Figaro, about another Cistercian ruin I had never heard of, the Priory of Saint-Jean-du-Grais, near Azay-sur-Cher. The monastery was founded in 1127 by the Count of Anjou and Hugues de Payen, founder and grand master of the Templars, before he left on crusade. It is now privately owned, but an association of sympathetic people assists the owner in maintaining the property. This summer, an Armenian artist (born in Istanbul) named Sarkis has designed 39 stained-glass windows, made by Ateliers Duchemin in Paris, now placed in the priory.

Saint-Jean-du-Grais, near Azay-sur-CherTalking about how he came to know the place, Sarkis says, "That the crusades left from here was not all that interesting to me. When I arrived, I felt sadness, there were so many absences. Life had disappeared. The extraordinary tower made me think of a force bursting up from this nature and from these absences."
He chose three colors: red for the chapter room to signify faith and the word; yellow in the refectory recalling daylight, richness, and food; and blue in the dormitory for dusk.
Each window is engraved with the name of a city that seems to draw a trajectory from Mayence to Jerusalem, passing through Vienna, Constantinople, Tripoli, Beirut, Baghdad, Cairo, or Gaza. So, the route of the Crusades thus recalls the invisible but very present history of Saint-Jean-du-Grais.
There is also an installation of 20 "habit-sculptures," designed by Domenika Vogler, hanging from the dormitory eaves, a crystal dove birdbath for the garden, and a crystal bell (designed with Olivier Juteau) to be placed in the belltower is now on display in the refectory. (The bell does not make any sound, "better to imagine all the world's sounds.")

Erwan Ballan, installation in the Chapelle Saint-Jean, Guern, 2004I was also intrigued by an article (Art vivace à la chapelle, August 5) by Hervé Gauville for Libération, about the 13th year of a contemporary art exhibit shown in eighteen small churches in the Pontivy and Morbihan areas of Brittany. I love the juxtaposition of old and new in this sort of exhibit, which I also admired in the Annette Messager installation in the Couvent des Cordeliers in Paris this summer (see post on July 10). It's called L'Art des Chapelles, and their Web site is excellent, with lots of images, so you should go and take a look, too.

Lastly, an article (Plougastel célèbre les 400 ans de son calvaire, August 9) from France 2 tells the story of a little town called Plougastel-Daoulas, near Brest (the far western part of Brittany). In 1944, German troops had dug themselves into this area of France, trying to resist the advance of the allies. After extensive bombing of the little town, the Americans entered Plougastel on August 28, 1944, to assess the damage. One of the soldiers to enter the town that day was John Davis Skilton, and he happened to be an art lover. Here is how he recalled that day for the article:
As we were making our way through the ruins, I perceived something near a destroyed church, the profile of a sculpted Calvary scene in the shadow. Its beauty struck me immediately.
Skilton, who has since become a curator at the National Gallery of Art here in Washington, had his fellow soldiers bring the statue pieces jutting out of the earth under cover.
Calvaire de Plougastel-DaoulasWhen the war ended, he created the Plougastel Calvaire Restoration Fund, based in New York, to raise money for its reconstruction. The work concluded on August 8, 1949, with an identical restoration. The American francophile was named Honorary Citizen of the town of Plougastel on July 16, 1959, a distinction made official by his signature in the town's golden book. A square in the town has been named after him, in homage to his memory.

Today the majestic structure, a powerful emblem of religious architecture, has just concluded a new stage of restoration, during which its 182 statues were removed. This recent cleaning enhanced the yellow stone of the base, which comes from the neighboring town of Logonna, different from the darker volcanic stone of Kersanton, from which figurines are sculpted and often used in Brittany for statuary.

The history of this Calvary, like many others constructed in Brittany, has been reported through the centuries as a "mixture of truth and legends," according to the mayor, Dominique Cap. The monument was probably constructed as an ex-voto to thank God for having stopped the plague that had broken out in 1598. The project was attributed to a noble of the time, the Sire de Kereraod who, afflicted by the disease, asked God to make him its last victim and promised to construct a Calvary in gratitude. The presence of statues of Saint Sebastian and Saint Roch, "anti-plague" saints, "is a proof that the monument was erected following a pledge made during a plague epidemic," according to the mayor. Intended to make the Gospels known to a population that could not read or write, the Calvary is a sort of open-air picture book, illustrating scenes from the New Testament, from Christ's birth up to his burial. Each of its four sides treats a specific theme, and the scenes are presented like a text to be read.

All week long, several events have been planned around the Calvary, including a spectacle bringing together 250 actors, as well as an exhibit of several dozen works by the painter and sculpter Noël Pasquier, admirer of the edifice.
That theater work will be presented by a Breton-speaking troupe called Ar Vo Bagan on August 13 and 14.

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