ArtWay

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

Art and the Church

Switzerland: Church of St. Paul in Geneva

Église de Saint-Paul à Grange-Canal (Church of St. Paul in Grange-Canal), Geneva

by Jonathan Evens

The manifesto for the renaissance of modern sacred art is written in stone, glass, and paint at Saint-Paul à Grange-Canal in the upmarket municipality of Cologny in Geneva, Switzerland. Cologny is well known for having been visited by Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John William Polidori, and other friends in the summer of 1816, a trip that spawned the development of the classic tales Frankenstein and “The Vampyre.”

Located at the southern end of Cologny at the dead end of the Avenue de Saint-Paul, the church isn’t something one stumbles upon; it has to be deliberately sought out—and great beauty awaits those who do. The obituary of its architect, Alphonse Guyonnet, published in the Bulletin technique de la Suisse romande, notes that the church caused a sensation in French-speaking Switzerland and abroad when it was completed in 1926, because its creation and design made clear—contra popular opinion at the time—the religious possibilities of modern art and its compatibility with the demands of tradition, liturgy, and doctrine. [1]

The construction of Saint-Paul à Grange-Canal began in 1911 when, as a result of growth in the Roman Catholic population, the Catholic Church authorities in Geneva appointed Father Francis Jacquet to create and oversee a parish in Grange-Canal. Himself an artist, Fr. Jacquet determined from the outset that his new church would be a place of artistic beauty. He began by appointing the young Guyonnet as architect. Over the course of his significant career Guyonnet built and restored several churches in Switzerland—in Corsier, Carouge, and Tavannes—working with artists from the Groupe de Saint-Luc et Saint-Maurice (Group of St. Luke and St. Maurice), which he joined in 1926 but with whom he first worked here at Saint-Paul à Grange-Canal. 

The church is Romanesque in design. Inspired by the simplicity and authenticity of the early church, Guyonnet employed simplicity of line and volume, creating harmony by linking internal and external design and by making sure the artists’ decorations were made in the same spirit as the architecture. In doing so, he was following the vision of Fr. Jacquet.

To realize the decoration Fr. Jacquet gathered around him a group of young artists from the region, including Alexandre Cingria, Marcel Poncet, and Georges de Traz. He also enlisted the talent of the internationally renowned French artist Maurice Denis, who along with Guyonnet directed the artists in carrying out the iconographic program devised by Fr. Jacquet using a wide range of techniques. Fr. Jacquet passed away in January 1919, seven years before the decorative work was completed. His brother Anthony took on the management of the work following his death, but the significance of the renewal of sacred art that Fr. Jacquet had initiated at Saint-Paul à Grange-Canal is demonstrated by the fact that in 1919 both Denis and Cingria set up groups that went on to produce significant work for many churches in subsequent years: with Georges Desvallières, Denis founded the Ateliers d’Art Sacré (Studios of Sacred Art) in Paris, while Cingria, along with Poncet, de Traz, François Baud, and Marcel Feuillat, established the Group of St. Luke and St. Maurice in Switzerland.

The church design and iconography are dominated by a huge canvas depicting the life of Saint Paul, the church’s patron, which fills the apse and was painted by Denis in 1916. The painting has a muted palette of pastel blues, pinks, grays, and mauves, which Denis favored ever since his visit to Rome in 1898. This visit “stirred his interest in classicism, and initiated a shift away from the more spectacular, subjective Symbolism of Gauguin and Van Gogh towards what he saw as the reassertion of the classical values of Paul Cézanne. In subsequent articles Denis disseminated the view that classicism was the essence of the French cultural tradition.” [2]

Denis also prepared cartoons for the stained glass windows along the top of the nave, which are dedicated to saints of the region, and those along the aisles, made in memory of Fr. Jacquet. In addition, he prepared the cartoon for the baptistery mosaic of Christ’s baptism, which was executed by Charles Wasem. This mosaic brings together Christ’s baptism with other New Testament scenes of baptism and prefigurations of baptism from the Old Testament.

The remaining windows at Saint-Paul à Grange-Canal were designed by Alexandre Cingria, Marcel Poncet, and Charles Brunner. Cingria’s Curé of Ars window (pictured above) is one of the most important of his career. It represents scenes from the life of the French parish priest Fr. Jean Marie Baptiste Vianney (1786–1859), who was canonized by the Catholic Church in 1925 because of the radical spiritual transformation he effected in the village of Ars. From top to bottom, the window depicts Fr. Vianney being persecuted by demons; the appearance of John the Baptist to Fr. Vianney; his encounter with an anonymous rider who gives him money to fund the building of a new chapel dedicated to John the Baptist; and a crowd of pilgrims thronging to Ars to hear Fr. Vianney preach. Art historian Lada Umstätter notes similarities between the ministries of Fr. Vianney and Fr. Jacquet. [3]

In addition to the Curé of Ars window, Cingria designed four windows for the narthex, featuring such Old Testament saints as Job, Jacob, and Joseph.

Poncet has four windows in the main body of the church, plus three other windows behind the organ depicting Old Testament saints. He also designed the coffers on the nave ceiling, which were executed by the decorators Wercur and Hohler of Geneva.

The sculptor Casimir Reymond, who studied painting at the School of Fine Arts in Geneva before turning to sculpture, was commissioned to make a statue of the Virgin and four bas-reliefs. The latter are embedded in the pilasters and depict the Curé of Ars, St. Philomena, St. Anne, and St. Anthony. Reymond’s other commissions include work for Lausanne Cathedral, the Federal Supreme Court, and Denantou Park. 

On the ceilings of the aisles Georges de Traz created an inventive fresco-style composition featuring false vaults, based on the Acts of the Apostles (pictured below). In addition to images of the Four Evangelists, there are eight narrative scenes: Pentecost; St. Peter healing at the temple gate; the stoning of St. Stephen; St. Peter confusing Simon Magus; St. Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch; St. Peter’s vision at Joppa; St. Paul at the Areopagus; and the arrival of St. Paul in Rome. These semicircular scenes are surrounded above by foliage and flowers, as well as by an alternation of figure-inscribing medallions and hexagons. The medallions depict the four prophets preceding Christ—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel—plus St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, and St. Gregory. The ten hexagons show events from the Old Testament that prefigure events in the New Testament. 

The sculptor and engraver François Bocquet executed a set of bas-reliefs of the Stations of the Cross, which span the aisle walls. He also prepared the plaster model for the tympanum on the exterior, which was carved by the stonemason Caccia of Lausanne. It features Christ sitting on his heavenly throne, surrounded by the Four Evangelists, raising his hand as a sign of welcome and blessing.

The welcome shown to artists and their work at Saint-Paul à Grange-Canal gave significant impetus to the broader renaissance of sacred art in the twentieth century.

SOURCES

1. Nécrologie Adolphe Guyonnet, Bulletin technique de la Suisse romande, Volume (Year): 82 (1956). 

2. Notes for Lot 401, Le réveil d’Ulysse, in the Christie’s auction of November 6, 2013.

<http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/paintings/maurice-denis-le-reveil-dulysse-5734397-details.aspx>

3. Lada Umstätter, “Vitrail du Curé d’Ars.” <http://www.okam-design.com/lada/page.php?id=5>