Wednesday, October 30, 2019

St Nicaise - Art Deco in Reims

L'Ange - René Lalique
There is one church in Reims that seems to have been sadly overlooked by the Ministry of Culture and Communication, the city council and the tourist office alike. Certainly, if you go out of your way to find the relevent information, you will find it, yet it would be fair to say that this incredible edifice does not appear to receive the broad recognition and appreciation that it merits. There have, of course, been newspaper articles and features, along with items on internet, but the church seems to be remarkably little known and even less visited by les rémois and does not appear to feature on any tourist ‘must-see’ list.

St Nicaise du Chemin-Vert
As such acknowledgement is generally accompanied and expressed by substantial financial support, l’Eglise St-Nicaise has been short-changed on every level. Just try and find its exact location in Reims without Google maps – there are no road signs! Since the heating costs are too high, as are security risks to church property, St Nicaise can no longer remain fully open to the general public between mid-October till mid-April, although visits can be arranged with Les Amis de Saint-Nicaise. 

The ongoing maintenance of any edifice is always onerous, especially that of structural detail and roofing which are generally fully exposed to the elements, often combined with high winds. Over the years, this church has suffered more than its fair share from the consequences of water damage and battering gusts, often due to the wear-and-tear of its architecture. It would indeed have lost its priceless Lalique glass windows were it not for the utter love and devotion of a certain Françoise, the old lady who kindly gave me a full tour during my spontaneous visit on the very last day of the season.

My discovery of St Nicaise came about by a chance viewing of a photo of the Art Deco artifacts of its interior, when I wondered why the presence of such unique artwork was not more widely publicised. This church is surely of interest to many, on several levels; religious, social, cultural and historic and aesthetic.

René Lalique
St Nicaise is almost one hundred years, erected in the early 1920s, when Reims, ville martyr of the Great War, was being rebuilt, piece by piece, following the destruction of the city during the three years of hostilities. The cathedral of Reims was the very symbol of France’s suffering in this ‘war to end all wars’, having been deliberately bombed and burnt from the very outset of the war, in September 1914.

La Sainte Famille - Roger de Villiers.
Set in one of the post-war social-housing quartiers of Reims La Cite-jardin du Chemin Vert – St Nicaise honours the patron saint of Reims and gave back to the city a church in the saint’s name. The original Eglise Abbatiale de Saint-Nicaise de Reims, contemporary of the cathedral itself, was built in the 13th century but sold off during the French Revolution and finally destroyed in 1793.

The Apse - Gustave Jaulmes.
St Nicaise is also linked to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims, and its site chosen specifically so that the great Gothic edifice is visible from its square. So important was this fact that a clause prevented any subsequent constructions from obscuring this view…

Yet, St Nicaise is a symbol of more than religious belief and civic pride. Seen in its full social and historic context, the church is emblematic of the faith in humanity, and the will to reflect and celebrate this through the beauty of architecture. What a shame this aspect is not emphasized more and that as a result, St Nicaise is not given the respect it deserves.

Although the church marked the completion of the ambitious housing scheme of Chemin-Vert, commenced less than a year after the Armistice, the whole social scheme was planned some years prior to the outbreak of war. For the great man who drove this vast project and others in the city of Reims, St Nicaise represented "le couronnement spirituel d'une grande réalisation sociale." (Paul Voisin).

Georges Charbonneaux (1865-1933) was an industrialist whose family had made its fortune in the production of vinegar and through the success of the Verrerie Charbonneaux, which supplied the champagne trade with its growing demand for glass bottles in the early 1870s. However, he is probably more notable for his philantrophy, although I have the feeling that the man, just as the church he created, has been somewhat consigned to oblivion.

Charbonneaux was dismayed, as many others in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, to witness the ravages of the dehumanizing forces of widespread industrialisation. Led by his firm belief in Catholic Socialism, he sought to counter the over-crowding of the city, and the poverty, poor mental and physical health, minimal education and prospects, and moral paucity that such living conditions generally implied.

Life expectancy was falling, with the youngest and oldest members of the population being the most vulnerable. Nationally, concerns over ‘la dénalité’ - France's slow population growth – had started in the 1870s with the Franco-Prussian War. It was felt that France was a country in decline, whereas others, notably Germany and Britain, were thriving and had birthrates that reflected this state of affairs. At one point, towards the end of the 19th century, the number of deaths overtook those of births. This led to the formation of a national alliance to encourage an increase in birth rates, with prizes awarded to largest families. Author Émile Zola went on to focus his attention on the very issue in the 1899 novel, Fécondité.

The city of Reims had been linked to the wool trade since the Middle Ages, and the industrialization of the treatment of wool in the 19th century meant an ever- growing need for workers. The continual influx of labourers ready for employment at whatever human cost, led to the increasingly unsalubrious, cramped living conditions that had already been deplored by one of the directors of the highly-succesful wool-combing business in Reims, the English expatriot, Jonathan Holden.

By the early 20th century, it was by no means unusual to find huge families housed in merely one or two rooms. Eager to find a solution, the mayor of Reims, Jean-Baptiste Langlet, along with Charbonneaux and other industrialists from Reims decided to visit the social housing schemes in place in England, in 1911. Indeed the garden city of Letchworth in Hertfordshire, created in 1901, was a source of inspiration and a point of reference for the men of Reims. In 1898, the English social refomer, Ebenezer Howard, published his ideas for urban planning and community management in the book, To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, which was later republished as Garden Cities of To-morrow.

Howard's construction of a new model of town was based on the premise of the social benefits to be drawn from combining the advantages of city and countryside while minimising disadvantages. He applied the notion of zoning – land-use planning – that ensured that industrial and residential areas were kept separate and stipulated that trees, greenery and open spaces were obligatory in this vision. Although many of these ideas were met with derision in the press, many members of the public, notably from the Arts and Crafts movement supported them as did many of the Quakers.

It should be remembered that the historic Bourneville village - site of the original 'Factory in a Garden' was conceived in 1879, when Quakers Richard and George Cadbury decided to move their expanding chocolate-making business to the outskirts of Birmingham city to 'alleviate the evils of modern, more cramped living conditions' their workforce had been exposed to. Bournville was also visited by the French men, who were actively seeking social reform for their city of Reims. In 1912, the company of Habitation Bonne Marché - Le Foyer Rémois was founded by Georges Charbonneaux and a group of industrialists and financiers, for the acquisition, construction and improvement of housing for working families. At the end of the First War War, the company was boosted by the urgent need for new homes for workers who would enable the French economy to recover.

The Apse above the altar - Gustave Jaumes
A law enacted in 1919 obliged the larger towns of France to draw up a urban planning scheme and by using compensation for war damage alongside state subventions, Georges Charbonneaux was able to direct the project for the Cité-jardin du Chemin-Vert. The plan designed by George B Ford, the American urbanist in charge of the Red Cross reconstruction of European war was initially set to be used, but a modified version that was closer to the English garden city was finally applied.

Baptistry ceiling
Over 600  houses were built, all benefitting from social and cultural facilities that were unheard of at that time, and certainly with regard to families of such modest means. Centres for the community and devoted to childcare and health, alongside shops and schools all encouraged a healthier, happier, more productive existence for workers and their large families (minimum 4 children).

Baptistry - Paul Denis
The architect responsible for the design of the houses, Jean-Marcel Auburtin, used 14 different models, loosely based on the architecture of Alsace, in order to create adequate originalIty that nevertheless respected a common theme and adhered to the key triology – air, luminosity and sunlight. Each house had running water, sufficient sanitation, even if there were no bathrooms or indoor toilets as such in the early years. Heating was provided by coal, whilst electric lighting was installed in the following years. Girls and boys were given separate bedrooms and everyone was able to profit from wide, airy tree-lined streets with open spaces, and the greenery afforded by lawns and gardens. Although parked vehicles and parking facilities now occupy much of this open space, the same qualities are apparent today, and before I understood the English link, I always wondered why these districts in the city reminded me so much of home.

The Baptistry - Maurice Denis
As a deeply religious man, Georges Charbonneaux wished to give Chemin-Vert a parish church, to provide for spiritual needs, just as the material ones had been met by Le Foyer Rémois. As a non-confessional body, the company would not fund the construction of a church and in accordance with the separation of the Church and State in 1905, the cité-jardin was required to have a certain neutrality.

Although an appeal was made to the nobility of Reims for financial backing, Charbonneaux had to provide most of the funds necessary for the church to be completed in the heart of the community. It was Auburtin, architect of the whole project of Chemin-Vert who designed St Nicaise, enabling Charbonneaux to witness the creation and decoration of his church according to his vision. He dreamt of a simple church, of romano-byzantine style, set around a Greek cross. 

Nevertheless, St Nicaise would be very much a church of the 1920s - influenced by the latest Art Deco themes and aesthetics, employing revolutionary techniques in construction at a period when new materials such as reinforced concrete and moulded glass were being explored and exploited to great effect. The church was constructed in 1923, inaugurated the following year and finally listed as a Historical Monument in 2002, whilst Chemin-Vert itself is recognised at part of the Patrimoine Mondial of UNESCO. 

St Nicaise consists of a transept crossing, crowned by an octagonal lantern and bell-tower (complete with French cockerel weathervane!), two lateral chapels and a baptistry. The rich interior decoration of the church was largely carried out by regional artists and reflects Charbonneaux’s profound interest in the arts and his wish to show and encourage devotion to the Catholic faith. The resulting interior is characteristic of the work of the revival of Sacred Art, and bears the influence of the new stylistic movements in the post-war years. Especially apparent is the Art Deco style, which such left a significant mark on the rémois architecture during the extensive reconstruction of the city in the 1920s. 

The paintings reflect the influence of Symbolism. Charbonneaux’s artistic leanings had been developed by his active involvement in the cultural life of the city, and friendship with artists such as Paul Jamot and former students of les Beaux-Arts de Reims. Maurice Denis, the co-founder of the Ateliers d’Art Sacreé,inspired by Symbolist art and involved in the Nabi movement, undertook the decoration of the two chapels with marouflage paintings of The Annunciation and the Holy Family in the mid 1920s. The Sainte Famille bears references to the families of both the donator, Charbonneaux, and the artist, Denis, with portraits of offspring and spouses. Denis also carried out the painting of the baptistry shortly after the death of Charbonneaux, in1933. It was the artist Gustave Jaulmes who painted the Christ above the main altar, along with the majority of the wall paintings.

The Annunciation - Maurice Denis
The vast moulded glass-panel windows representing angels are by another artist of the Champagne region, René Lalique (1860-1945), who also designed the numerous lamps and the beautiful Eucharistic dove suspended by the altar. Many of the largest window panels were almost lost during a storm and have since been restored and replaced. The lantern-tower windows were the work of Jacques Simon, one of the master glass artists from a long line of maîtres-verrier in Reims, who also helped safeguard, restore and replace the centuries-old stained-glass windows in the cathedral in the First World War.
The Holy Family - Maurice Denis
Inside the church, the rich, vibrant colours and glow of gold, were all brought out to the full by the play of light and these in turn emphasised the surfaces and volumes of the building. The effect was magical. I will now have to wait until next year to be able to look over each detail. I just hope more people will become aware of this incredible edifice that was the result of one man’s need to find expression to what he held closest to his heart.

Eucharist Dove - Lalique

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