13 April 2009

It’s All Auvers! (How Vexin)

The Cathedral of St-Pierre in Beauvais: Then it fell into the swamp.

Easter Sunday afternoon is an ideal moment for a leisurely drive in the country — and happily, very few French people seem to agree with me. Yesterday, Bernard fired up his new Kia, and we charged north, into the Vexin, to check out a couple of sites.

Our first stop was the town of Beauvais, home to what is surely the unluckiest cathedral on earth, Saint-Pierre. Those of a superstitious bent might be inclined to blame the local bishop, who condemned Joan of Arc to the stake in 1429, yet many of the mishaps occurred before that fatal barbecue. A previous Romanesque structure burned to the ground three times before the locals decided to try something new. The present construction began in 1225, getting no further than the choir and transept. In 1284, part of the vaulted ceiling around the choir caved in. So, they stopped work on the rest of the structure, in order to make repairs. Then they started again on the transept and a bit of the nave, which were progressing nicely until 1567, when somebody had the bright idea to erect a steeple. One of the tallest of its kind, it promptly collapsed, taking with it much of the roof and ceiling.

The locals were getting tired of ponying up for this project, and in 1600, they ceased work, with only one bay of the nave completed. A long, shingled covering was thrown over the south side, “temporarily,” against the day when construction might resume. (It never did, and the covering in still in place.) Now the interior is crammed with braces and scaffolding; it’s a bit unnerving to walk around there. Saint Peter, the cathedral’s patron, is of course the rock on whom Jesus would build His church, yet you start to wonder whether He shouldn’t have considered some other material.

Van Gogh’s home in Auvers

Next, we went to the town of Auvers. Though less well-known than Monet’s Giverny as a tourist destination, Auvers was the final home (and resting place) of Vincent Van Gogh, and his old neighborhood is densely packed with buildings and landscapes he painted, and the homes of his portrait models. It’s a perfectly charming town, yet in most regards not much different from any other in France: perhaps only Van Gogh’s special gifts could detect the artistic possibilities here. Several sites are easily recognizable from his paintings, but others are not, so the city has thoughtfully put up all-weather signs with reproductions of the pertinent works, along a little trail that takes you from Van Gogh’s home (over an inn) to his grave.

The original…

… and the artist’s rendering

In his own time, the locals were more interested in another artist, Charles-François Daubigny, who lived in town and whose monuments jostle Van Gogh’s for our attention today. I confess I’ve heard of the guy but couldn’t identify a single of his paintings. Over time, as Van Gogh’s reputation exceeded Daubigny’s (and almost every other painter’s), Auvers embraced him. In a park stands a modern statue of the artist, by Ossip Zadkine, a fascinating image. Van Gogh stands, emaciated and unsteady, a brush dangling from one hand and the other tools of his trade strapped to him like the instuments of a saint’s marytrdom. An all-too apt portrait, and a sobering reminder that what is tourism to us was painful reality to others.

NOTE: Yes, the beloved Quatrelle has gone to her reward. The new Kia is comfortable and more luxuriously equipped (air conditioning!), yet I’ll miss the old Quatrelle. She kept me young, somehow, probably because no sensible grownup person would ever go near her.

1 comment:

Girl From Texas said...

I'll miss that car !