Thursday, September 15, 2011

Swindle in Provence: How to Buy a Medieval Abbey Without Money

In 1791, during the French Revolution, the revolutionary authorities launched a fire sale of national assets. The outstanding Montmajour Abbey, located on a rocky hill near the city of Arles in the south of France, was put on the block for the attractive price of 62,000 livres. Montmajour consisted of several buildings dating from the medieval period to the 18th century.   A commoner, Mrs. Elisabeth Roux-Chatelard, bought the land and monastery. However, there was a major snag: She was insolvent. It was not a deterrent for the entrepreneurial lady. To make money, she striped and sold the abbey’s wooden doors, panels and roof timber. Then for good measure, she sold the stones as well; the abbey became a profitable quarry. Her demolition zeal didn’t go unnoticed. She justified her actions by stating that the 18th century monastery that she was taking apart had been far too opulent for the  monks who should have lived in poverty.
It is worth pointing out that the monks of Montmajour have never been poor. The history of the Romanesque Benedictine Abbey of Montmajour goes back to the 10th century. The heyday of the community was between the 12 and 14th centuries when the abbey attracted thousands of pilgrims from all over the south of France. Successive popes and local rulers lavished privileges on the monastery. Its abbots enjoyed seigniorial rights. One of these outlandish privileges was the right to fish sturgeons in the near by Rhone River.
Moreover, these caviar-eating monks ran a lucrative indulgence business along with a relic exhibition. Indeed, Montmajour was the only abbey that could exhibit for a fee, a small piece of the True Cross of Jesus Christ. In the 12th century, a separate chapel had to be built to
                                Figure 1 Monks ‘burial ground
accommodate the overflow of the faithful. Montmajour became too wealthy for its own good. Spiritual and material prosperity rarely go hand in hand. The abbots regarded Montmajour as a cash cow and neglected the spiritual side of their tenure. The abbey was built on an island surrounded by marshes, but that was not a deterrent for uninvited guests. During the upheaval of the Hundred Years War against England it became a magnet for marauding soldiers. The religious wars of the 16th century brought additional hardships to the community.
At that time, the abbots were no longer elected by the monks and most of them only visited the abbey to pocket the rent. Consequently, monastic duties were side-tracked and the remaining monks were left to fend for themselves. The religious authorities decided to bring some order to the community. The congregation of Saint-Maur was selected, thanks to its reputation for redressing wayward monasteries. The Maurists took control and proved better builders than spiritual saviors. Needless to say that the resident monks were neither co-operative nor appreciative of the spiritual revival imposed on them. The Maurists built the imposing monastery that Mrs. Roux-Chatelard left in ruins a century later.
                         Figure 2 Montmajour Abbey in the 19th century
Montmajour suffered another indignity in the hands of the infamous Cardinal de Rohan, its last abbot. Rohan lived the high life of a debonair Parisian aristocrat who had access to the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Like his predecessors, he was more interested in the revenues of the abbey than in its maintenance needs. He had already resigned as abbot when he got embroiled in the scandalous affair of the diamond necklace. Montmajour’s income may have been used by Rohan to buy a 2,000 livres necklace for the queen. It was an exorbitant amount of money for the period. This scandal was the first nail in the coffin of Marie Antoinette who became the poster girl for all excesses. Subsequently Rohan was expelled from the court and went into exile in the remote abbey at la Chaise-Dieu in Auvergne in central France.
Montmajour was secularized four years before the Revolution and its nine remaining monks (down from fifty) were expelled.
Mrs. Roux-Chatelard had to sell the abbey, and by the end of the revolution in 1795, Montmajour had been divided into more than twenty lots. Although the all-out destruction stopped, the indignities continued. The new owners used the still standing mediaeval buildings as barns, storage and stables. Sheep and cows were kept in the Romanesque cloister and drank out of the Count of Provence’s sarcophagi. The monk’s burial ground was also used as drinking troughs.
Mrs. Roux-Chatelard was not alone in converting historic buildings into quarries. It was a profitable business during and after the French Revolution. The near-by monastery of Saint Guilhem-le-desert was also dismantled. Sections were shipped to New York City. The Cloister of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fort Tryon in northern Manhattan is also the product of revolutionary zeal.
The misfortune of Montmajour ended in the mid-19th century when several Romantic artists and painters from Arles pooled their funds to save the abbey from further degradation. A slow restoration program began. When in Arles, Vincent Van Gogh spent time in the abbey sketching its inspiring ruins and surrounding landscape. He wrote that he went 50 times to the abbey, so fascinated he was with the site. Van Gogh complained that he could not paint there because the strong mistral wind prevented him from setting up his easel.
War again brought devastation to Montmajour. During WWII, the German army used the church as a depot for confiscated weapons. In 1944, before retreating the soldiers set them on fire. It was a miracle that the roof didn’t collapse.
Arles and Montmajour have been included in the UNESCO Heritage landmark list. Montmajour is one of the special sites that one can visit over and over and always discover something new to admire. Sturgeons are no longer fished in the Rhone, Montmajour is no longer an island only accessible by boat, mosquitoes are no longer pestering the visitors, but the mistral is still blowing.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Lord of the Castle: Picasso in Vauvenargues

“Art is the Elimination of the Unnecessary”
Pablo Picasso was a high-volume artist; he was also famous for his many witty and provocative quotes like the one above. True to his words, his Vauvenargues castle epitomizes his minimalist taste in interior decorating. Picasso was in his early 80s when he purchased the rustic and austere 17th century castle, 20 minutes away from the city of Aix en Provence in the south of France. The castle’s setting is enchanting, nestled on a small hill in a valley next to the small village of Vauvenargues. Picasso’s castle came with extensive land at the foothill of the famous Mont Sainte-Victoire so many times painted by Paul Cézanne who lived on the other side of the ridge.

Picasso bragged about having purchased the Saint-Victoire of Cézanne. He may have been shortchanged! Although the mountain is visible from the castle, one fails to recognize it, because it looks so unremarkable. Cézanne painted the other side of Sainte-Victoire which is much more striking.
During the three years (1959-62) Picasso and his second wife Jacqueline, who was 40 years younger, spent in Vauvenargues, the castle was primarily used as an over-sized storage space for his sizeable collection of paintings by Corot, Cézanne, Matisse, Braque and many others, as well as a junk-yard for refuse Picasso collected to make his thought-provoking sculptures.
Picasso was tired of the hustle and bustle of the Riviera; the castle’s peaceful surroundings offered a welcome change. Both countryside and castle reminded him of his beloved Spain. Actually Vauvenargues looks like many unadorned castles of Castile around Madrid. Vauvenargues was also strategically located between the Riviera and the cities of Arles and Nimes where Picasso and his aficionados travelled to enjoy bullfights.
When Picasso bought the castle its walls were bare, having been stripped of their fineries by the previous owners. Picasso bought some basic furniture, had heating installed and a bathroom built. He painted a faun playing the pipe on the bathroom wall to keep Jacqueline company, but Vauvenargues was too isolated, cold and uncomfortable for her taste.
The castle is as it was when the couple left for good in 1962, minus the art collection which was relocated to Mougins on the Riviera, their last home. Picasso gave Jacqueline the castle causing resentment and a feud between Jacqueline and Picasso’s four children from previous relationships. After his death in 1973, Jacqueline brought his body to Vauvenargues to be buried. The unmarked grave is located under a grassy mound by the castle’s front door. It is guarded by a monumental sculpture. Jacqueline committed suicide in 1986 and her body is resting next to Picasso’s.
Vauvenargues remained a well-kept secret for the following 20 years. Jacqueline‘s daughter by her first husband inherited the property and kept it closed to visitors. The village folks do not seem to have welcomed Picasso in the first place. After his death, they took action to prevent the castle from becoming a shrine and cause traffic havoc in the quaint valley. Now visitors are allowed during the summer months from mid-June to mid-September; visitors cannot roam free in the park surrounding the castle, and their number is also strictly limited. Vauvenargues is worth a visit. There is little so see, but much to feel: Picasso’s spell is overpowering.
Before starting the guided tour, visitors are invited to watch a short film on Picasso’s busy life in Vauvenargues. The artist is surrounded by the devoted and adoring Jacqueline, kids, and dogs. He seemed to enjoy the country life. Never a fashion icon, he usually wears casual and mismatched clothes, like a striped pullover and tartan trousers. He looks very healthy and fit for an 80 year old man. In 2011, the tour included a display of etchings made during the last years of his life.
Picasso once stated “There are only two types of women- goddesses and doormats.” I wonder how many of each type he had among his many muses, mistresses and wives.