ArtWay

‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord’ – that is what art does. Phyllis Novak

Art and the Church

France: Chapel of Thérese and the Holy Face, Hem

 Chapel of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, Hem  

by Jonathan Evens

The Chapel of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face (Chapelle Sainte-Thérèse-de-l’Enfant-Jésus et de la Sainte-Face) in HemFrance, was designed by Hermann Bauer and built in 1956–58. Featuring mosaics and windows by Alfred Manessier, sculptures by Jean Roulland and Eugène Dodeigne, and a tapestry of the Holy Face made by the Plasse Le Caisne studio after a painting by Georges Rouault, the church is a fine example of art sacré after World War II.

I had come to Hem to see the work of Manessier, not knowing that I would also see an image by Rouault, a favorite artist of mine. The combination of Rouault and Manessier in a shared space is appropriate, as Manessier has been described by Werner Schmalenbach as “after Georges Rouault the only great painter of Christian art in our age.”[1] In 1947 Manessier received a visit from Rouault, who advised him to take up stained-glass design. From 1948 to 1950 Manessier worked on six windows for the Churchof Saint Agatha of Bréseux and then went on to promote the modern concept of stained-glass architecture found in Hem.

Rouault was a figurative expressionist who painted circus players, prostitutes, and judicial figures as well as the iconic Holy Face of Christ. He painted such figures “as penetrating types of the misery of human existence” but with the insistence that “divine meaning is given to human life by the continuing passion of Jesus Christ.”[2] He summed up his vision in several studies titled Sunt lacrymae rerum (“There are tears [of grief] at the very heart of things”), a quotation from Virgil’s Aeneid. 

  

The image of the Holy Face on the tapestry at St. Thérèse’s, based on a 1946 painting by Rouault that is now in the Vatican Museum, emphasizes “the conquest of death,” which Rouault (and his weaver-interpreters) conveys “by giving the face a serene expression with wide open eyes and by using calm harmonious colours.”[3] Rouault was apprenticed to a stained-glass maker and often used thick black outlines in his work, which were regularly compared to the lead lines in stained glass. Yet he was commissioned for stained glass only in old age, whereas Manessier, after taking Rouault’s advice, went on to create over seventy windows.

Manessier, in contrast to Rouault, was a lyrical abstractionist who thought of stained glass less as a design than as “the simultaneous creation of a light-filled architectural unit, thought-out and created by the painter at one go,”[4] as he put it. Though he shared Rouault’s concern with suffering, he avoided figural depictions, his goal being not to “portray a man in his state of suffering, but suffering itself . . . to translate this through the use of equivalent signs and colours.”[5] “I start painting,” Manessier explained, “when I feel a very close coincidence between the scene that I have before my eyes and my inner state. That relationship releases a creative joy which I long for and need to express.”[6] His aim, in other words, was to incarnate inner experience in visible form: “more and more I want to express man’s inner prayer.”[7] And abstraction was, for him, the means to achieve this end. “The further I penetrated into non-figuration,” he said, “the more I approached the inwardness of things.”[8]

  

Manessier’s artistic approach grew out of his experience on retreat with the poet Camille Bourniquel at the Trappist monastery in Soligny-la-Trappe in 1943. During the Salve Regina on the first evening, he “felt profoundly the cosmic link between that sacred chanting and the world of nature all around, which thrust itself into the silence of the twilight”; at this moment, he said, “nature was appeased.” He saw in his mind songs rising and falling and thought that if he “could succeed in grasping this inner light, this rhythm, this meaning,” he “could do more than render a visible image of it,” he “could give its essence.”[9]

The stained glass at St. Thérèse’s in Hem is Manessier’s attempt to re-create the experience he had at La Trappe Abbey for all who enter the space. Forming a light-filled architectural unit, it skillfully demonstrates the concept of stained-glass architecture. Stained glass here is not windows but walls. There is no narrative; instead, a loose, cubist, concrete grid holds a great chromatic richness. The play of light and color created in the room is redolent of the Carmelite spirituality of Thérèse of Lisieux, the chapel’s namesake and the inspiration for Manessier’s design. Stained glass here creates spiritual space—a sense of prayer and a glimpse of heaven.

Another artist whose work can be found here is Jean Roulland. After discovering Germaine Richier’s sculptures in the Dujardin Gallery in Roubaix in 1956, Roulland turned definitively to that medium, which has led to his becoming known chiefly for his tormented lost-wax cast (cire perdu) bronzes. His expressive work shows no concession to the decorative aspects of sculpture in its relentless focus on the contorted anguish of human misery. Roulland is a featured artist in Calais, at Home and Away (Calais, d’ici et d’ailleurs), an exhibition space at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Calais that serves as an introduction to the town’s artists.

 

Roulland was collected by Philippe Leclercq, the wealthy manufacturer who had the chapel at Hem built, and was commissioned by him to create a bust of Pope John XIII (pictured above) and a processional cross (Christ de Procession). The processional cross shows the influence of Richier in that, as with Richier’s crucifix at Assy, Christ is made one with the cross and reduced to the most minimal representation possible. This has the effect of emphasizing the subhuman state to which torture, torment, and suffering reduce us. The crucifixes of these two artists, along with the Holy Face and Passion images of Rouault and the Crown of Thornspaintings by Manessier, are part of a strand of twentieth-century art that equates the suffering of the crucified Christ with that of the numberless victims found in a century characterized by persecution, torture, and war.

 

Roulland was a close friend of Eugène Dodeigne’s as well as a fellow member of the Groupe de Roubaix, a group of artist friends characterized by their northern origins. Dodeigne has said that he views sculpture as a struggle against the material—a struggle that can be sensed in the stressed and patterned surfaces of the Soignies blue limestone he has sculpted since moving to Bondues in northern France in 1949. In contrast, his smaller limestone forms, as here with his sculpture of St. Thérèse, are highly polished. His work, in both monumental and modest scale, conveys a mastery of the balance of volumes and lines of force.

For all that the works by Rouault, Roulland, and Dodeigne contribute here at Hem, it is Manessier’s glass that sets the tone and creates the spirituality that imbues this marvellous space. When reviewing Manessier’s exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 1962—for which he was awarded the international prize for painting (to date, the last occasion that a French artist has been awarded this prize)—Jacques Lassaigne wrote of Manessier’s “majestic orchestration of vibrant tonalities and pure rhythms.” Lassaigne also suggested that at various points in Manessier’s rich career “a kind of pause of meditation and inner transformation” had “enabled him to transform the powerful impressions which he had received . . . into new means of evoking and glorifying secret presences.”[10]

Reflecting now on my visit to Hem, these words are an accurate description of the experience I enjoyed there at this first stop on my sabbatical art pilgrimage. 

 

[1] J. P. Hodin. ManessierSanta BarbaraCA: Praeger Publishers, 1972.

[2] W. Dyrness, Rouault: A Vision of Suffering and Salvation, William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1971.

[4] Frances Spalding, “Part Three: A Sense of the Sacred?”  March 20, 2012. GreshamCollege, Holborn, London.

[5] J. P. Hodin. ManessierSanta BarbaraCA: Praeger Publishers, 1972.

[6] J. P. Hodin. ManessierSanta BarbaraCA: Praeger Publishers, 1972.

[7] J. P. Hodin. ManessierSanta BarbaraCA: Praeger Publishers, 1972.

[8] J. P. Hodin. ManessierSanta BarbaraCA: Praeger Publishers, 1972.

[9] J. P. Hodin. ManessierSanta BarbaraCA: Praeger Publishers, 1972.

[10] J. P. Hodin. ManessierSanta BarbaraCA: Praeger Publishers, 1972.