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Sunday, 22 February 2015

Sabbatical Art Pilgrimage: Saint-Paul à Grange-Canal, Geneva

The manifesto for the renaissance in modern sacred art was written in stone, glass and paint at Saint-Paul à Grange-Canal in the upmarket municipality of Cologny with its stunning views of Geneva. The town is well known for its having been visited by Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, John Polidori and other friends in the summer of 1816. During this trip the basis of the classic tales of Frankenstein and The Vampyre were written.

Saint-Paul à Grange-Canal deserves to have similar renown. The obituary to its architect, Alphonse Guyonnet, published in the Bulletin technique de la Suisse romande, notes that through its beauty, this church caused a sensation in Geneva, French-speaking Switzerland and abroad, as its design and creation made clear the religious possibilities of modern art and its compatibility, both denied previously, with the demands of tradition, liturgy and doctrine.

Located at the southern end of Cologny and to be found at the dead end of the Avenue St. Paul, the church has to be deliberately sought out in order to appreciate its significance and beauty. Its creation began in 1911 when, as a result of growth in the Roman Catholic population, the Catholic Church authorities in Geneva appointed Father Francis Jacquet to create and organize a parish in Grange-Canal.

Fr. Jacquet was a young priest who was both an able artist and theologian. He determined from the outset that his new church would be a place of artistic beauty. He began by appointing the young Guyonnet as architect. Over the course of his significant career Guyonnet built and restored churches in Corsier, Carouge and Tavannes, working with artists from the Society of St Luke and St Maurice which he joined in 1926 but with whom he first worked here at Saint-Paul à Grange-Canal. 

The church is Romanesque in design with Guyonnet having been inspired by the simplicity and authenticity of the early church. Therefore he created a building with great simplicity of lines and volumes in which he sought to create unity and harmony by linking internal and external designs and by creating decoration in the same spirit as the design. In doing so, he was following and implementing the vision of Fr. Jacquet.

Jacquet gathered around him a group of young artists from the region (including Georges de Traz, Marcel Poncet and Alexandre Cingria) who, under the direction of Guyonnet and the internationally known French artist Maurice Denis, decorated the church based on the iconographic programme devised by Fr. Jacquet. The decorative work was completed in 1926, seven years after the death of Jacquet in January 1919, and was carried out using a wide range of different techniques. Fr. Jacquet’s brother Anthony took on the management of the work following his death but the significance of the renewal of sacred art which Fr. Jacquet initiated at Saint-Paul à Grange-Canal is demonstrated by the fact that in 1919 both Denis and Cingria set up groups which went on to produce significant work for many churches in subsequent years. With Georges Desvallières, Denis founded the Ateliers d’Art Sacré in Paris while François Baud, Cingria, Marcel Feuillat, Poncet and de Traz established the Group of St Luke and St Maurice in Switzerland.

The church, design and iconography are all dominated by a huge canvas depicting the life and deeds of Saint Paul, the church's patron, which fills the apse and was painted by Denis in 1916. This painting is in the ‘muted palette of pastel blues, pinks, grays and mauves’ which he favoured following a visit to Rome in 1898. This visit stirred his interest in classicism, and ‘initiated a shift away from the more spectacular, subjective Symbolism of Gauguin and Van Gogh towards what he saw as the reassertion of the classical values of Paul Cézanne.’ In subsequent articles Denis ‘disseminated the view that classicism was the essence of the French cultural tradition’ ( Denis also prepared cartoons for stained glass windows at the top of the nave which are dedicated to saints of the region, as well as stained glass windows in the aisles made in memory of Fr. Jacquet. Denis also prepared the cartoon for the baptistry mosaic of Christ’s baptism which was executed by Charles Wasem. This mosaic brings together Christ’s baptism with New Testament scenes of baptism, plus prefigurations of baptism from the Old Testament.

The remaining windows at Saint-Paul à Grange-Canal were designed by Charles Brunner, Alexandre Cingria and Marcel Poncet. Cingria’s window in the lower left side of the church representing the Curé of Ars is one of the most important he created. Like a graphic novel, this window has four scenes: the priest "persecuted by devils", the appearance of John the Baptist to the priest, asking him to be particularly honoured in Ars, the encounter with an unknown rider who "gave a grant to ... pay the expenses of the Chapel of St. John the Baptist" and finally a crowd of pilgrims thronging to Ars to hear the word of this humble priest. As Lada Umstätter notes, these scenes are particularly rich in contemporary details. Cingria also designed four windows for the narthex, including Jacob, Job and Joseph. Poncet has four windows in the main body of the church, as well as three other windows behind the organ depicting Old Testament characters. Poncet also designed the boxes for the nave ceiling, which were executed by the decorators Wercur and Hohler of Geneva.

Georges de Traz created a unique and inventive fresco-style composition featuring false vaults and based on the Acts of the Apostles in the ceilings of the aisles. In addition to images of the four Evangelists, these scenes include: Pentecost; St. Peter healing at the temple gate; the stoning of St. Stephen; St. Peter confusing Simon Magus; St. Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch; St. Peter's vision at Joppa; St. Paul at the Areopagus; and the arrival of St. Paul in Rome. The scenes are connected by plant foliage and flowers between which eight medallions alternate with monochrome hexagons. The medallions depict the four prophets preceding Christ - Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel - plus St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, St. Jerome and St. Gregory. The ten hexagons show scenes from the Old Testament which prefigure the New Testament.

The sculptor Casimir Reymond ‘was commissioned to make the statue of the Virgin and four bas-reliefs.’ These are embedded in the pilasters and depict the parish priest of Ars, St. Philomena, St. Anne and St. Anthony. Reymond studied painting at the School of Fine Arts in Geneva before turning to sculpture. His commissions include work for Lausanne Cathedral, the Federal Supreme Court and the Denantou Park.

The sculptor and engraver François Bocquet completed the Stations of the Cross. This same artist also prepared the plaster model for the tympanum of the entrance porch, which was carved by the stonemason Caccia of Lausanne. Christ sits on his heavenly throne, surrounded by the four Evangelists, raising his hand as a sign of welcome and blessing.

The welcome shown to artists and their work here gave significant impetus to the broader renaissance of sacred art in the twentieth century which I have explored through my sabbatical art pilgrimage.


Krzysztof Penderecki - Symphony No. 7.

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