Monday, July 6, 2015

The Tree of Life and Light - Vitraux de l'Arbre de Vie et de Lumière du Collège Saint-Joseph à Reims...

L'Arbre de Vie et Lumière - Chapel Saint Joseph -  Reims
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit the Cité du Vitrail in Troyes in the Aube département and the Champagne-Ardenne region (approx 125km from Reims). L’Aube-en-Champagne has the status of Capitale Européenne du Vitrail due to the abundance and quality of its stained-glass.

Indeed, along with the Seine-Maritime département (of which Rouen is the capital) nowhere else in France is such a concentration to be found.

 In 2011 it was decided that an establishment – namely La Cité du Vitrail - would be dedicated to this art.

 The pieces on display range from the oldest and/or simplest forms of stained glass....

 To the more contemporary and/or complex...

It was set in the former barn wing of the Hôtel-Dieu-le-Comte in 2013 and offers a permanent exhibition of works to which temporary exhibits are added, tracing the history of le vitrail from the Middle Ages to the present day.

Unfortunately I visited thebeautiful Medieval town of Troyes, once the historical capital of the Champagne region, on a Tuesday; most museums and many churches are shut. La Cité du Vitrail, thankfully, was an exception.

The exhibition hall is actually quite small, but that didn’t stop me spending ages looking at the exhibits.

And so it was here that I learnt of L’Arbre de Vie that comes from… Reims! I don’t know how I had managed to be completely unaware of its existence, but this state of complete ignorance made the discovery all the more magical.

Draft of L'Arbre de Vie - Cité du Vitraux -  Troyes
Maybe I had sub-consciously blocked the inauguration of this major stained-glass work out of my mind (in 2014 – just last year!) as I had been so upset by the relatively recent additions to the Reims Cathedral.

Neither the cathedral, the Basilique de Saint Remi nor indeed the central church of St Jacques have solely Medieval stained-glass windows, and those visible today are certainly not in their original state.

Marc Chagall -  Reims Cathedral
As Reims suffered such devastation during the First World War, it was necessary to replace windows where mere repair work was simply impossible.

Brigitte Simon - Reims Cathedral
 Today, the cathedral has beautiful stained-glass from Marc Chagall (1887-1985) and Brigitte Simon (1926-2009).

Brigitte Simon
The work of Maria Helena Vieira da Silva (1908-1992) can be seen in St Jacques.

And since the celebration of the cathedral’s 800 years in 2011, several pieces by Imi Knoebel (1940-) have been added. At first sight,these truly took my breath away as I found them teeth-grindingly, mouth-foamingly, poke-yer-eye-out awful in their gaudy, inappropriateness... But hey, ‘A chacun ses goûts’. I am trying to learn to appreciate them since they are here to stay. Anyway, enough of those...

Once I had seen the draft and samples for L’Arbre de Vie et Lumière in the Cité du Vitrail in Troyes, I promptly went to see the ‘real thing’ in Reims.

This was designed by Jean-Paul Agosti in 2012 with the final work later created with the collaboration of the Atelier Simon-Marq in Reims for inauguration in 2014.

This establishment of maîtres-verriers has existed since 1640 ; twelve generations have succeeded each other, bringing their expertise to the creation and restoration of stained glass right up to the present day.

From the 1950s, the atelier introduced the work of great contemporary painters to religious edifices eg Marc Chagall in the cathedral.

For the chapel of Saint Joseph, Agosti stated that he wished the whole work to resemble a “prism of light which breaks down like a rainbow” and thematically sought to create a symbol of joy and youth.

Indeed, Agosti was commissioned to create a major stained-glass project, of which L’Arbre de Vie was the central piece, above the main entrance to the chapel of an old rémois secondary school.

Looking away from L'Arbre de Vie, you are overwhelmed by colour and light. On your right...

Or on your left...

The Collège de Saint-Joseph is situated half-way between the Basilique de Saint Remi and the cathedral, built in a quartier that witnessed dramatic urban and industrial growth following the creation of the Vesle canal in 1840-1848). Following the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, the Brothers of the Ecoles Chrétiennes started to construct the establishment which would later become the Jésuit college.

The buildings of the court of honour were constructed in 1873, the same year in which work on the Grand Théâtre de Reims was ended. The chapel itself was built between 1874 and 1876 and was the work of the young rémois architect, Edouard Lamy (1845-1914).

Whilst it took three hundred years to build the cathedral, it took just two years in order to complete the chapel that, in part, drew inspiration from Victor Hugo’s novel, Notre Dame de Paris. Despite its neo-Gothic air, the construction was very much of its time, combining traditional forms and paintwork in the style of the Middle Ages with the modern materials available.

So it was that the chapel displayed a Gothic vaulted ceiling alongside brick and cast-iron pillars, similar to those used in the Eiffel Tower and the Pavillon of Victor Baltard (cf Metro entrances). The design was ambitious in size, with a sumptuous initial decoration of stained-glass windows that led it to be compared to La Sainte Chapelle in Paris, although I think that might have been pushing it a little.

 Cast-iron columns, painted in red and blue, with gold fleurons led down the nave, to which an upper-floor galerie was added, above which a series of tapered arches towered. The chapel itself was crowned by a 60-metre spire that was used as a landmark for approaching planes.

 In spite of the ravages of the Great War, which brought so much loss to so many, La Chapelle de Saint-Joseph was one of the few edifices in Reims to be left standing, though not to say ‘unscathed’.

The vaulted ceiling had suffered significant damage, the stained-glass had, for the large part, been blown out by bomb explosions and the spire had started to lean. Restoration work was commenced even before the re-opening of the school in 1919.

Up to the end of the century, several projects of greater and lesser scale were undertaken to bring the chapel in its entirety to its former glory. Unfortunately much of this work was undone by old Father Time and ‘Lothar’, the incredibly violent storm that wreaked havoc on the city in December 1999.

The vast task of restoration, of which L’Arbre de Vie is an integral part started in 2008. An appeal was made for donations which indeed came in from former members of the Collège des Jésuites de Reims, Les Amis de la Chapelle Saint-Joseph, numerous Champagne houses (Bollinger, Roederer, Laurent-Perrier, Taittinger…), companies, the city hall, and the Fondation Crédit Agricole.

Once the roof covering had been repaired, the spire straightened and consolidated, the main façade renovated, the stone and paint work restored, work could commence on the stained-glass windows…

The mission undertaken by Agosti to create new windows must have been daunting and exciting in equal measure.

Daunting, because this is one of the largest stained-glass projects to have been carried out in the last twenty years in France and is certainly the biggest private one. Exciting, since the artist was given a vast surface of 320 m2 on which to work his theme.

Only three pieces of stained-glass, dating back to renovation in 1924, remained in the chapel choir. These were cleaned and maintained in their initial position.

Agosti decided to move away from the original subjects of the neo-Gothic windows - the figures of saints – the work for which being financed by the different Champagne houses.

Instead Agosti chose an innovative approach to the ancient Biblical symbol of the Tree of Life as his point of departure, acting as a catalyst to creativity and reflection of the organic, creative process.

Indeed, this symbolic, sacred tree is frequently alluded to in mythology, philosophy and religion, and serves to interconnect all life forms on the planet. Depending on the references, the Tree of Life may be viewed as distinct from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the garden of Eden, or complementary to it.

In the chapel of Saint Joseph, the play of light and colour is central as an “opéra de lumière” (Agosti) illuminates the chapel from early morning to night fall. From the Tree of Life, with its flow of leaves and branches descending from red to green, this kaleidoscope of colours and tones appears to pour onto the rest of the chapel, leading towards the choir at the far end. Each bay has its own colour theme, writings and symbolic geometric forms. Taken as a whole, the stained-glass of the chapel reads as the path of spiritual growth and erudition in life.

In the nave, the seven south-facing windows with their warm, sun-rich colours are offset by the seven north-facing panels opposite, with their cold, nocturnal, blue/green tones.The harmony of blue gives a cosmic view of life, from birth to death while the corresponding transversal windows recreate the birth and growth of Christ. A harmony of red tones is used for the apse of the chapel, and the four windows represent the four Evangelists with their bestiary and the four elements.

 New techniques were employed for the realization of these works, just as they had been in his restoration work at the churches of Bouzy and Ecueil, in 2006 and 2009 respectively. Instead of relying largely on lead, the Saint-Joseph stained-glass windows are composed of rectangular glass simply connected by a seam of lead..

 In the chapel, each piece of glass is but 3mm in width and is only coloured on the surface layer. To add colour or effect, this glass base is sanded away or eaten into by acid, allowing the two layers of colour to be seen as translucent. Further tones and details are included by additional enamels prepared in a kiln, allowing for a large palette of shades.

Well, the result of this work is beautiful and a great success, combining the old with the new to create a piece that really is a celebration of light, life and learning. When I visited the chapel, during a period of choir practice, the sun was pouring in, the music of the children’s singing was rising up to the gallery – perfect!

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