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Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Cocteau Chapel: Notre Dame de Jerusalem

Notre Dame de Jerusalem is the final chapel decorated by Jean Cocteau. The contemplative experience which this chapel provides is of an all-surrounding multi-media immersion in the mysterious world of Cocteau.
Cocteau was, as James S. Williams writes, "a totally new breed of modern artist ... because his art is intrinsically biographical":
"Cocteau's artistic strength was precisely to chronicle his own existential crisis by becoming his own subject of experimentation and recording the vicissitudes of his being with implacable honesty and courage. His restless self-construction through the Other revealed itself to be an existential 'work in progress', that is, a continuous putting into question of the Self."

Gino Severini wrote that Cocteau was chief among the “somewhat atheist poets” that Jacques Maritain transformed into Christian artists but notes too that this period “was all too brief.” Neal Oxenhandler has written that what these artists found in Maritain was both "a spiritual leader" and "an esthetician" who "accorded a large place to the mystery of art with its double nature, its concreteness and its spirituality."

Rowan Williams considers in Grace and Necessity that “Maritain’s relations with Cocteau … constituted an important if inconclusive episode in the lives of both.” Although Cocteau’s subsequent life seemed, from the perspective of Maritain, to be “going deeper “into the caves of death” and to be dealing with the “powers of darkness”, the influence that Maritain and Catholicism had had on Cocteau was not altogether lost. Something of this can be sensed in the church decorations that Cocteau undertook.

On my visit to Notre Dame de Jerusalem the afternoon sun beat down on the grave-grey gravel of the slow incline climbing the forested hills outside of Fréjus which leads to the chapel. The track wound up the hillside opening on views of the steeper slopes further on and deeper in before revealing the small shelf of plateauxed land on which octagonal footprint of Notre Dame de Jerusalem sits.

The area in which the chapel was built was bought in the early sixties by Jean Martinon, a banker from Nice and the project is unfinished in the sense both that Cocteau died in 1963 before its completion and the chapel is isolated without the artist’s colony it was originally intended to serve. Cocteau drew up the plans and designs for a Chapel assisted by architect Jean Triquenot and the project was finished by his close friend, the muralist Edouard Dermit, and ceramicist Roger Pelissier.

The octagonal floorplan of the chapel is laid out in two concentric rings creating an octagonal ambulatory outside and an similarly shaped inner chamber. Mosaics of the Exile, the rebuilding of the Temple and the Annunciation ring the ambulatory while three heavy iron stained glass double doors provide the entrance to the inner octagon. The Cross of Jerusalem may have been the basis for the octagonal floorplan and this emblem of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem (a Roman Catholic order of knighthood under the protection of the pope) appears elsewhere within the overall design. The floor tiles, which include the Cross of Jerusalem, are glazed tiles shaped in elongated hexagons radiating from a central point and shining like the ocean in different tones of blue. Knights of the Holy Sepulchre also feature in the stained glass and frescoes. 'Dieu le Veult', a motto of the First Crusade, can be found in the floor mosaic and also on the altar.
The frescoes portray Christ's Passion (The Last Supper, Crucifixion and Resurrection) in crayon on concrete. The style (as which all Cocteau’s murals) is line drawing with muted colour. Cocteau, although untrained as an artist, had an intuitive affinity for line and a talent for suggesting mass through line alone. Line is life and the ‘soul’s style,’ he wrote, arguing that the artist’s presence makes itself felt when a line lives at each point along its course. 
Cocteau - prefiguring artists like Andy Warhol and Tracy Emin for whom life and art are co-mingled - seeks to immerse us in Cocteau-world. His church murals - at Villefranche-Sur-Mer, Milly-la-Foret, Leicester Square, and here - aim to do so by surrounding us with his personal combination of traditional and esoteric religious imagery filling every inch of the chapel’s walls and ceiling and among which the artist and his friends regularly appear. Here, for example, we have a Last Supper featuring Cocteau, Coco Chanel, Max Jacob, Raymond Radiguet, Francine and Carole Weisweiller. As with Warhol and Emin, Cocteau’s use of his life, faith and image is inclusive and distancing, sincere and ironic, arrogant and humble; a means of immersing us in the paradoxes and mystery of life.
Art is artifice; a lie, as Picasso stated, that makes us realise truth. Cocteau personalised this perception in an epigram saying, ‘I am a lie that always speaks the truth.’ For that reason he preferred mythology to history: ‘History is made of truths that are, with time, turned to lies; while mythology is made of lies that with time, turn to truth.’  The Catholicism of his youth and his public return to the faith under the influence of Maritain are part of the mythology of Cocteau’s life and feature prominently in the church murals which he undertook in his later years. They are among the most idiosyncratic contributions to the renewal of religious art in twentieth century France.

Cocteau finished his first church murals in 1957 for the Chapelle Saint-Pierre in Villefranche-Sur-Mer. This was a deconsecrated chapel which fishermen used to store their nets. Cocteau began work on the murals when he was 68 although he had become enchanted with the rundown chapel while staying at the nearby Hotel Welcome in the 1920s. His designs there, as in all of his work for churches, reflect his singular vision; a merging of myth and catechism.

The façade and the exterior depict the life of Saint Peter - his walk on water, and his arrest by Roman soldiers - and a homage to Saint-Mary-of-the-Sea (who is serenaded by Django Reinhardt) and the women of Villefranche (who carry their baskets of fish and sea urchins under the watchful eyes of the angels). Above it all, angels swoop in a cascade of movement. The chapel was reopened and reconsecrated in 1957 with the admission fee paid to the fishermen. Today, only the families of the fishermen of Villefranche-sur-Mer can use it for weddings.

Cocteau continued with frescoes and decorations at the registry office in Menton and redecoration with the themes from Greek mythology of an ancient theatre at The Mediterranean Centre for French Studies in Cap d’Ail. He and Dermit painted Francine Weisweiller's Villa Santo Sospir, near Cap Ferrat, with largely mythological imagery. His other church decorations include: Interior frescos (depictions of plants and the resurrection of Christ) at Chapelle Saint-Blaise des Simples (1960) at Milly-la-Foret and for Our Lady’s chapel at Notre Dame de France, London (1959), and motifs on the stained glass windows at the Chapelle des Gournay in the Église Saint-Maximin at Metz (1962).

Cocteau received his honorary doctorate from Oxford University with the support of the French cultural advisor in London, René Varin. Cocteau asked him if there was anything he could do in return. Varin suggested that he decorate a chapel at Notre Dame de France. Cocteau came to London to paint these murals between November 3rd and 11th 1959 and to play the role of narrator in the London production of Oedipus Rex, a performance conducted by Stravinsky. The murals are dedicated to the Virgin Mary divided into 3 panels: the Annunciation, the Crucifixion and the Assumption. The murals are simplified drawings, lines with muted colours. Cocteau included a self-portrait within the Crucifixion scene on the left side of the altar.

Jean Cocteau died of a heart attack at his chateau in Milly-la-Foret, France, on 11 October 1963 at the age of 74. He is buried in the Chapelle Saint Blaise Des Simples with his epitaph reading: "Je reste avec vous" (I stay among you).


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