The Church’s Eldest Daughter; “Pius the Last”


Abolishing All Things Romanesque in France

By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, SEPT. 13, 2007 ( George Weigel gave us the brilliant visual metaphor of France’s cultural dichotomy in his 2005 book, “The Cube and the Cathedral.” Looking out over Paris from La Grande Arche, the cube-shaped monument that houses the International Foundation for Human Rights, to the Gothic Cathedral of Notre Dame, Weigel ponders two very different ideals vying for dominance over the cityscape.

Of these two worlds, so seemingly opposed, Weigel asks, Which is better suited to protect human rights and the moral foundations of democracy?

Weigel, however, wasn’t the first to ask such questions. Before either the cube or the cathedral even existed, the question of the Church’s role in France’s turbulent political landscape left a deep mark on country’s art and architecture.

After several summer vacations in that fascinating country, I was struck by the numerous manifestations of the powerful and passionate relationship between Rome and France, once known as “the eldest daughter of the Church.”

In the 11th century, a time of international awareness and political upheaval, Romanesque art blossomed. The Normans had conquered England and had extended French influence to unprecedented lengths by annexing Sicily and Jerusalem.

The First Crusades opened the road to the Holy Land, putting people in contact with hitherto unknown cultures. Pilgrimages multiplied exponentially, and Europe became a well-beaten track of polyglot travelers exchanging impressions and ideas.

But the glue that held this cosmopolitan world together was the Roman Church. All over Europe, while liberally employing individualized decoration drawn from Celtic design, Byzantine icons or even Islamic motifs, churches maintained uniform elements as a link to the churches of the early Christians of Rome.

Everywhere from Santiago de Compostela in Spain, to Cluny in France, to Monreale in Sicily, to Speyer in Germany, people prayed in unique spaces that nonetheless pointed to the leadership of Rome and the Successor of St. Peter.

Romanesque churches lack the drama of Gothic architecture. No flying buttresses mimic curling tendrils and no brilliantly colored glass bathes visitors in otherworldly light.

These churches display stability. Massive piers and rounded Roman arches anchor the buildings to earth. Like the Church established on Peter the rock, “the gates of hell shall not prevail” upon them. They seem as steadfast as St. Peter himself, ready to hold out until the end of the world.

Romanesque churches were the first to employ sculptural decoration in over 500 years. The portals and capitals of these basilicas are alive with stories of saints, dramatically reminding pilgrims to follow their examples.

Like the fourth-century Christian sarcophagi that inspired them, the sculpted reliefs of Romanesque churches engrave Church doctrine in stone. The Last Judgment, carved in harsh angularity and violent slashes on the door of St. Foy, not only reminds faithful of the inevitability of judgment, but also transmits the sobering fear of being held accountable for our sins. 

The Chapel of St. Michael at Le Puy was built by French bishop Gotescalk after his return from a pilgrimage to Spain in 962. For hundreds of years, the stunning sight of the tiny chapel perched on a finger of lava rallied the faithful for pilgrimages and soldiers for the Crusades.

These churches proudly proclaimed their allegiance to Rome through their decoration and structure. During the years of the French Revolution, the revolutionaries destroyed many Romanesque churches because their solid presence formed a link with the Church of Rome, which was intolerable to the new government.

After studying in Italy in 1835, French architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc began restoring Romanesque churches, and today a few of these glorious monuments still proudly proclaim an age when the world turned to Rome for guidance.

Exile and martyr

The Directorate of Revolutionary France did not limit itself to defacing Romanesque churches; it also struck at the papacy. The little town of Valence, amid its lovely gardens and spectacular mountain views, also preserves the heart of Pope Pius VI, who died there in 1799.

Many Vatican visitors smirk knowingly when faced with the splendor of St. Peter’s Basilica, “It’s good to be the Pope!” But I doubt many would switch places with Pius VI, the humiliated exile who was eventually killed by the hardship of his imprisonment under Napoleon.

While much attention is paid to the more scandalous papacies of centuries past, we should recall the truly heroic witness of many of Peter’s successors. Pius VI was one such witness.

Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Braschi from Cesena was elected Pope in 1775. Like Pope John Paul II, he was a young pope — elected at 58; he was also both handsome and athletic. 

Similar to John Paul II, he traveled, and was hailed by contemporary poet Vincenzo Monti as the “Apostolic Pilgrim,” a precursor to the “Pilgrim Pope.” Pius VI journeyed to Vienna in 1782 to try to personally reverse the anti-papal policies instituted by Austrian Emperor Joseph II. He was the first Pope to travel outside Italy since Pope Paul III had visited Nice in the 16th century.

Pius VI avidly commissioned art and architecture and founded the Pio-Clementine museum, but his domestic successes could not stave off the international noose that was growing tighter around the Church.

The hangman would be Napoleon, the ruler of the new Republic of France who had turned his hungry eyes toward Italy. In 1796, Napoleon showed up with an army and a shopping list. He forced the Pope to sign the Treaty of Tolentino on Feb. 19, 1797, which demanded land, money and art.

Rome was declared the Tiburtine Republic, and Pius VI was deposed. A year later, 80-year-old Pope Pius VI, the 250th successor to St. Peter, was deported on the night of Feb. 20, 1798.

Weak and ill, Pius VI set out bearing witness to Christ’s words to St. Peter: “When you were younger, you fastened your belt and went about as you pleased; but when you are older you will stretch out your hands and another will tie you fast and carry you off against your will” (John 21:18).

After three months imprisonment in Siena, unrest in Rome convinced the French to transfer the Pope. Officials planned to take him to the island of Sardegna, but instead, he was sent to the Certosa Monastery outside Florence.

Although plagued by gradual paralysis, the sickly Pope was then shuttled from Florence to France. City officials mocked him, isolated him, and even made him pay for his own deportation, but the faithful of each town found him to be a true father, offering prayers and blessings. One cold, rainy day in Tuscany, farmers left their fields to kneel in the mud for the Pope’s blessing.

As with St. Peter and St. Paul, even Pius VI’s jailers were moved by his forbearance. Captain Mongen, who had escorted the Pope as far as Parma, considered himself a true son of the revolution. But when it came time for him to take leave of the Pope he fell to his knees, kissing his foot along with the other priests and Catholic dignitaries.

Unlike the Avignon Popes who chose to make France their home, Pius was brought as a prisoner to his new nation. Pius VI finally arrived in Valence on July 14 (Bastille Day). Fearful of his presence, the Department administration prohibited any contact between the Pope and the people, especially the 32 priests under arrest for their loyalty to Rome.

Soon the administration ordered the “former Pope” sent to Dijon. The people of Valence, who had been secretly visiting and tending to the Pope, fought to keep the now-dying Pontiff with them.

Pius VI’s last days were spent in prayer. On Aug. 28, after he was given the last rites, the Pontiff spoke one last time, forgiving his enemies, and in the first hours of Aug. 29, he died.

Officials stored Pius VI’s body in the basement of his prison. His death certificate read: Giovanni Braschi, occupation Pontiff.

His successor, Pope Pius VII, brought the body of Pius VI back to Rome, but his heart was sent to the Cathedral of Valence to rest among the people who had loved him.

The gleeful directorate proclaimed the death of “Pius the Last,” but they were wrong. Pius VI’s correct epitaph is written on his tomb in St. Peter’s: “In sede magnus, ex sede maior, in coelo maximus” (Great on his throne, greater off it and greatest in heaven).

Mary and Matisse

The 20th century brought huge setbacks to religious art in France. While virtuous stories of classical heroes had already partially replaced biblical subjects during the Revolutionary era, the few remaining sacred themes were upstaged by fruit, nudes and water lilies.

Although the postimpressionists fought against what they perceived as the moralizing constraints of their Catholic legacy, many were simultaneously drawn to the challenge of following in the footsteps of monumental religious art. 

Several “bohemian” artists took on at least one religious commission. Van Gogh, Chagall and Gauguin each brought his individual techniques to sacred subjects.

A mile outside Vence, a charming town perched in the mountains above Nice, Henri Matisse produced the Chapel of the Holy Rosary. This four-year project (1947-1951) was the artist’s only religious commission.

Born in 1869, Matisse had begun a professional career in law when he decided to follow his love of art. Painter Gustave Moreau brought the promising student into his studio where Matisse met Georges Rouault, who would become one of the greatest religious artists of his age.

In 1905, Matisse and Rouault founded “Fauvism,” a paganizing movement, which glorified intense sensation in art.

The two painters parted ways soon after. Rouault’s art embraced the sinful misery of the human condition, while Matisse rejected any form of suffering in his work.

Matisse achieved great success, making sculptures, paintings and even theatrical costumes. He eventually moved to Nice, drawn by the bright colors of the Mediterranean.

In 1941, an illness left him bedridden. His bright, painless world collided with the hard reality of suffering. In this difficult time, a Dominican sister nursed him, and her faith inspired the artist.

Matisse accepted the commission from the Dominican sisters of Vence in 1946 to decorate the Rosary Chapel. His old friend Picasso was horrified. “A church!” he cried. “Why not a market? Then you could at least paint fruits and vegetables.”

But Matisse dedicated himself exclusively to the chapel. He made hundreds of preparatory drawings and attached his brushes to long, light bamboo poles so he could paint the murals while in his wheelchair. He designed everything: the windows, the murals and even the chasubles.

The artist died in 1954, leaving the chapel as his last major work. “I built this chapel with the desire to lay bare my soul,” he wrote.

The Rosary Chapel makes a strange contrast to Romanesque architecture. Where St. Michel le Puy on its high perch is visible for miles, Matisse’s chapel blends in with the white houses nestled on the Vence hillside. 

Sunlight pours into the chapel through tall narrow windows; and stained green, yellow and blue by the colored glass, it tinges the white walls with soft hues. Two naves of unequal length, one for the sisters and one for laypeople, meet the altar at oblique angles.

The wall decoration consists of figures outlined in black against a background of white tiles. The Madonna and Child grace the wall along the nave, while St. Dominic stands behind the altar.

Picasso scoffed that it looked like a bathroom, with its antiseptic atmosphere, but the simplicity of the chapel belies its complex origins. Matisse sensed and appreciated the universality that had characterized Christian art.

Like Romanesque relief sculpture, the sharp black brush strokes of the murals create dramatic energy. Islamic floral patterns in the stained glass interact with heavily outlined figures drawn from Byzantine icons recalling the cosmopolitan era of the 12th century.

Matisse’s fervor found its best outlet in his representation of the Stations of the Cross on the entrance wall. The images form a pyramid with diagonal lines leading the eye to the central image of the crucifixion.

Father Marie-Alain Couturier, his theological adviser, interpreted the harsh black lines as “letters written in haste, under the shock of some very great emotion.”

Father Couturier assisted Matisse in the preparation of the chapel and even posed for the figure of St. Dominic. Dominic is faceless, because Matisse wanted each person “to see him or herself reflected in the face of the saint.”

Even in the age where the secular had completely taken over art, Father Couturier and others valiantly endeavored to pull the new artistic geniuses back into the tradition of great Christian art.

From the Middle Ages to the Matisse era, the Church has managed to inspire great works and heroic gestures despite political turmoil and upheaval. In the millennium-old duel of the cube and the cathedral, the Church continues to rise to each challenge with faith, grace and beauty.


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