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France - Notre-Dame des Alpes, Le Fayet

Notre-Dame des Alpes, Le Fayet

by Jonathan Evens

Rereading parts of William S. Rubin’s Modern Sacred Art and the Church of Assy (Columbia University Press, 1961) while on my sabbatical art pilgrimage, I noticed a reference to Notre-Dame des Alpes in Le Fayet, a church that is very close to Assy itself. Notre-Dame des Alpes was mentioned because it was the church that made the priest at Assy, Fr. Jean Devémy, aware of Maurice Novarina as an innovative church architect. The church has rightly been described as an essential stage in understanding the revival of sacred art in the twentieth century [1] but is overshadowed by the fame and significance of Notre-Dame de Toute Grâce du Plateau d’Assy. On the ground, this is apparent through the ease with which the church of Assy can be found compared with the relative difficulty I encountered in identifying where the church at Le Fayet is located.

There are at least two reasons for the significance of Notre-Dame des Alpes. First, the architecture of the church was the inspiration for the church of Assy, Novarina being the architect for both. Second, the decoration of the Le Fayet church represents the first stage in the revival of sacred art that Fr. Marie-Alain Couturier sought to move beyond at the church of Assy.

The municipality of Passy in the Pays du Mont-Blanc region has long shown an openness to contemporary sacred art, which culminated in the consecration of the church of Assy in 1950. The chapels of Saint-François de Sales, Praz-Coutant (1928); the Most Holy Redeemer, Guébriant (1933); Saint-Anselme, Sancellemoz (1934); and Martel de Janville (1937), and the churches of Saint Joseph Chedde (1934) and Notre-Dame des Alpes Le Fayet (1938), are testament to that openness and interest.

The decoration of Saint-Paul, Grange-Canal, in Geneva by Maurice Denis, Alexandre Cingria, and others in 1913–15 had served as a manifesto for modern sacred art and had led to the founding in 1919 of the Ateliers d’Art Sacré by Denis and Georges Desvallières, as well as the Groupe de Saint-Luc et Saint-Maurice (Group of St. Luke and St. Maurice) by Cingria, François Baud, Marcel Feuillat, Marcel Poncet, and Georges de Traz. Both groups produced significant work for a significant number of churches in subsequent years. [2]

While these developments generally remained controversy-free, the publication of the Manifesto of Futurist Sacred Art in 1931 led to a censure from Pope Pius XI in a speech given in October 1932 at the inauguration of a new Vatican Art Gallery. The rationalist design by Alberto Sartoris (who had strong links to the Futurists) for Notre-Dame du Bon Conseil in the Swiss Alps at Lourtier also created a scandal in the Swiss press in the same year.

This then was the background to the design, construction, and decoration of Notre-Dame-des-Alpes from 1935 to 1938. The decoration of the church was put out to tender in July 1936, the competition being open to “French and foreign artists approved by the architect.” The invitation to tender was addressed to French and Swiss artists of renown in the field of religious art, and the panel assessing the responses included the philosopher Jacques Maritain, the Catholic art critic Maurice Brillant, and the director of the École des Beaux-Arts in Geneva Adrien Bovy [3]. The process and the resulting work was therefore set up to be a showcase for the revival of sacred art in France and Switzerland during the first half of the twentieth century in which Denis, Maritain, and Cingria had played key roles. It was this stage of the revival that Couturier challenged and sought to move beyond in the commissioning he later undertook for Notre-Dame de Toute Grâce.

With his first church at Vongy, Novarina had used the hull shape of boats from nearby Lake Geneva to form the roof. Here his roof evokes the double sloping roof of a local cottage or chalet (as he was to repeat at Assy), which extends far beyond the walls in order to be ready to shrug off the extremes of the Alpine weather. Low walls and a sweeping roof can withstand the weight of winter snow, while “the sharp pitch . . . encourages the heavy deposits to slide off” and the overhanging eaves “protect the walls from the piling up of drifts.” The low roof also “reduces the internal volume, making comfortable heating possible.” [4] As at Vongy, under the double sloping roof is a triangular grid containing stained glass at the west end of the church.

As part of his regional style, Novarina made significant use of local materials: granite for the walls, and oak for the frame and roof. In 1938 Couturier spoke of this type of religious architecture that builds on regional traditions as “a signal example of what sacred art should be . . . an art common to the time and place in which one lives.” [5]

The low roof combined with oak-carved Stations of the Cross by Jean Constant Demaison, located where the beams join the walls, create a Nordic feel to the building that reminded me of Trinity Church in Arvika, Sweden, where the wooden ceiling is painted in a Nordic ornamental style. Again, a similar effect is also found at Assy, where the same low roof is combined with carved beams by Demaison. A self-taught sculptor, Demaison undertook many sacred art commissions in the Haute-Savoie.

Three artists from the Group of St. Luke and St. Maurice were selected for commissions: Baud for sculptures, Cingria for stained glass, and Paul Monnier for the sanctuary mural. Other artists used included Paul Bony, Demaison, and Jean Hebert-Stevens [6]. Bony and Hebert-Stevens were both active in modernist circles of church decoration, Bony having created windows (later removed), with Couturier, for Notre-Dame de Paris, and Hebert-Stevens being part of the L’Arche group founded in 1918 that included the Benedictine architect Dom Bellot, Ferdinand Py, Henri Charlier, and Pauline Peugniez.

Baud’s stone reliefs on the exterior of the building depict scenes that form transitions or show links between the prophecies and prophets of the Old Testament (Isaiah, Moses, Daniel) and the events of the New (Joachim and Anna, Mary’s childhood, and the Annunciation). Baud’s work featured in other churches decorated by the Group of St. Luke and St. Maurice, such as Notre-Dame de l’Assomption in Finhaut, where he contributed a Last Supper carving for the communion table and a Christ in Glory for the pulpit.

For the sanctuary fresco, Monnier depicted the Assumption of Our Lady of the Alps sheltering under her cloak the saints of Savoy. It was Gino Severini who introduced Monnier to mural painting, and as a result, Monnier decorated the church of La Roche in Fribourg (1932) and Notre-Dame du Valentin in Lausanne (1934) in addition to producing numerous mosaics, stained glass windows, and antique glass tiles.

Novarina imposed considerable constraints (possibly related to cost) on Cingria in relation to the windows, with thirty-six windows requested for the gable of the façade, six each for both side altars, and eighty in eight bays for the nave. Cingria chose to use slab glass, or dalles de verre, in which thick glass pieces are embedded in a sturdy matrix of concrete or cement. This technique is sometimes referred to as glass mosaic, or transparent mosaic, and Cingria was one of the first in Switzerland to use it.

For the nave, Cingria used the format of three central narrative panels in the bottom row with three equivalent symbolic panels above. These central panels are framed by brighter, more decorative panels. The windows above the side altars center on a single portrait (St. Teresa and St. Anthony of Padua, respectively) surrounded by abstract decorative windows.

Cingria also innovated with the west window by creating a circular Eucharistic Sun as a counterpoint to the triangular trellis Novarina had designed above the front porch within the frame of the pitched roof. The Eucharistic sun appears near the top of the triangle, surrounded by its rays, while the lower levels of the triangle darken into the night sky, where stars appear.

Cingria had, together with Maurice Denis, dreamed of “creating a movement of rebirth of religious art in France and in all Catholic countries.” His dream became reality through collaborations with Denis and Severini; support from Maritain; the publication in 1917 of La Décadence de l’art sacré, which elicited considerable interest throughout Catholic intellectual and artistic circles; and the Group of St. Luke and St. Maurice, which he founded and through which he was involved in the building, restoration, and decoration of more than seventy churches in Switzerland during the interwar years. Notre-Dame des Alpes, the only church outside Switzerland decorated by the Group, represented the culmination of this significant body of work, which would later be superseded by the commissions given by Couturier and the writings of Couturier’s colleague Fr. Pie Raymond Régamey in the journal L’Art sacré.

Notre-Dame des Alpes à Saint-Gervais le Fayet can be reached by telephone at 04 50 58 13 17.

NOTES

1. “Passy, Pays du Mont-Blanc: Mini-guide culturel.” <http://passy-culture.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/PASSY-mini-guide-culturel-light.pdf>

2. “L’église Notre-Dame des Alpes à Saint-Gervais-le Fayet: une collaboration entre un architecte savoyard et un artiste genevois.” <http://www.okam-design.com/lada/files/Fayet-article.pdf>

3. Ibid.

4. William S. Rubin, Modern Sacred Art and the Church of Assy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961).

5. Ibid.

6. “L’église Notre-Dame-des-Alpes,” Culture, Histoire et Patrimoine de Passy. <http://www.histoire-passy-montblanc.fr/patrimoine-de-passy/patrimoine-religieux/eglises-et-temple/leglise-notre-dame-des-alpes/>