Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Two churches in Berry - Gargilesse, Le Menoux

I'm just back from a music festival, Le Son Continu at Chateau d'Ars, near La Chatre, in Berry - the heart of George Sand country.

Just getting up on Monday and driving home seemed an anticlimax. We needed some gentle meandering around Berry first, and fortunately the good people of the Berry tourist office (that's two departments, Cher and Indre, working together) were at the festival with lots of information and a splendid fuchsia pink 2CV. That gave us a couple of ideas for a day out; two interesting churches, and a bit of scenery en route.

So off we went, through Neuvy Saint Sepulchre with its wonderful round church (UNIQUE EN FRANCE as the sign on the main road proudly claims, in big capitals) round which the houses and towers huddle for protection from the truck-plagued main road, and by small lanes through the countryside. This is bocage, where every lane runs between hedges, and mature trees shelter lazy cattle from the sun, and even though the wheat is now golden and ready to harvest, the landscape still swims with green.

Gargilesse is a pretty village; church and chateau top the slope above the Gargilesse river, and small houses cluster around them, tucked into tiny declivities or straggling along the road. In the dusty square in front of the chateau gates, someone has made a delightful fern garden under a spreading tree. The tourist office has been installed in an ancient dovecote, the nesting slots patterning the inside walls starkly with light and shadow.

It's hot outside. As soon as I step into the church I feel the chill, and I see the green and black streaks of humidity on the walls. A huge painted Christ looks down at me from the apse vault. I look at the finely carved capitals of the crossing and I see Saint Peter - at first, anyway, I think it's St Peter holding up his key - then I realise he has a little fiddle in one hand., and when I look at the next figure, he's the same... and the next one... Then I realise, there are three of these fiddle players on each of the capitals, and there are four capitals on the inside and four on the outside, which makes twelve plus twelve... these are the Twenty-Four Elders of the Apocalypse, shown on the great doorway at Santiago de Compostela, but here, they guard the centre of the building.

Then I find dark steps leading downwards. The walls each side are slick and wet, and the wooden handrail feels vaguely sweaty. It's a mini-pilgrimage through the dark dankness, and then out into the blazing light and colour of the crypt. Almost every surface is painted; three great windows on the river side of the church, where the ground falls away, light the narthex.

A huge Christ of the Apocalypse biting a sword between his teeth scowls down on the sanctuary; the three Kings have crowns and neatly curled beards like Henry III of England on his tomb in Westminster Abbey (and he died in  1272, so perhaps that gives a date for the painting?). The dead wriggle and clamber out of their tombs as angels blow horns to announce the Last Judgment. This is terrifying stuff, nothing pretty about it; the later paintings, perhaps fifteenth century, show the instruments of the passion - the spear, the nails, the cross. Somehow the painters at Gargilesse always seem to have been concerned with the tough side of life, the torturer's art, the destructive and awesome.
When I came out of the church at Gargilesse I was struck blind by the glare of the afternoon sun. I felt I'd emerged from a strange undersea world of gloom and damp, from the subterranean folds of a grotesque brain.

 The church at Le Menoux couldn't be more different. From the outside it looks like one of those identikit small nineteenth century churches you find all over France; neo-Romanesque detailing, a slim central spire, all done in crisp and clinical white stone, with as little life in it as a technical drawing of a building.

Then you go inside, and psychedelia breaks loose. Not what you were expecting, at all. (Unless, of course, you had that useful little booklet from the Berry tourism people.)
 When Bolivian artist Jorge Carrasco arrived here in the 1960s it was a dull whitewashed space. By the time he'd finished with it, it was a glorious chaos of colour. Only the slender ribs of the vault and the arches of the windows and side chapels are left white, both emphasising the lines of the architecture and bringing a little spaciousness and light to the design.

Amazingly, despite the psychedelia and bad trip imagery that would have suited Hunter S Thompson, the church breathes a spirit of contented peace. Light pinks, pale spun gold yellow, the intense blue of a twilight sky, come to life as the sun comes out from behind a cloud. In Le Menoux, nothing stirs, except two gardeners working on a strip of lawn, and there's not even a breath of wind; in the church, colours swirl, the universe is made and remade over and over.

It's difficult to imagine two churches so different. But Le Menoux is just what a medieval church would have been like - an explosion of colour and imagery. The frescoes at Gargilesse have faded; would their colours originally have been as saturated and as shocking as Carrasco's?

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