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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Avignon (First post)

Orange SPV M3100As promised, I'm going to write about our holiday in Avignon over Easter, where the weather was as glorious as it apparently was in Britain. I've just bought a great new gadget - a Pocket PC which, as well as being a phone, allowed me to keep my blog going in OneNote Mobile which I could then synchronize back to our main PC once we got home from France. I didn't write anything for the first couple of days we were there, but on Easter Sunday I started to keep a fairly comprehensive journal of where we went and what we did.

Sunday 8th April

Villeneuve lez Avignon from the TowerEaster Sunday. Up early for breakfast in the hotel. Then off across the road bridge to Villeneuve lez Avignon. We visited the Philippe le Bel Tower, built by the King of France to stake his claim to the bridge (and disputed by the Count of Provence). As a result the original plan for the tower, which included a link to the French end of the bridge, was never completed. The exterior walls of the tower display some signs of the stonework which would have formed part of the full construction. The interior of the tower contains some well-preserved Gothic vaulting, with ribs descending onto consoles on which are carved leaves, animals and, in two cases, images of the king. The ground floor was taken up with an exhibition of art by Luis Alvarez (separately blogged here).

We walked on into Villeneuve and enjoyed coffee and hot chocolate in the main square.

Tomb of Innocent VIThen off to the old Chartreuse abbey, now partially derelict but still used as a retreat, this time for writers. Pope Innocent VI is buried here, and there is a fine chapel with remnants of frescoes by the 14th century Sienese artist Matteo Giovanetti, who also worked in the Palace of the Popes in nearby Avignon. Illustrating scenes from the life of John the Baptist, Giovanetti makes innovative use of the space made by a blind window recess, making a perspectival interior for the beheading of John and the presentation to Salome. Afterwards we walked back to the main square for a light lunch with the obligatory half litre of wine before walking back up the hill to the Saint André Fort.

Fresco by Matteo Giovanetti

The fort is large and straggling, unremarkable other then for the exceptional views it affords of the Rhône valley and Avignon. The fort encloses an abbey which we didn't have time to visit but which apparently has some splendid gardens.

Back down to the village for some ice cream and raspberries before a quick trip to the museum to see the two masterpieces of Villeneuve: a beautiful sculpture of the Virgin and Child (1320-30) by an unknown artist, previously installed in the church, and Enguerrand Quarton's glorious Coronation of the Virgin (1453-4), removed from the Chartreuse abbey. The sculpture is carved in ivory, with painted decoration, and displays a sinuous elegance, the Virgin leaning back to contemplate her child, who is playing engagingly with a braid of her gown, the latter almost entirely white, but picked out in gold brocade. The gown is either lined in blue, or reveals some sort of blue undergarment at her waist and around her legs.

Quarton is not an artist I had encountered before, but his Coronation stunned me. The Virgin sits serenely beneath the Trinity, her golden and red robe spreading out into a blue train edged with white. The realism of the folds and creases in the train are extraordinary for the period. Besides the archangels Gabriel and Michael, the principal figures are surrounded by two orders of angels, executed respectively in red and blue. One is struck by the regularity with which the wings of the red angels are folded neatly behind them, and the way in which Quarton has made all of the faces different in feature and expression.

The iconography at the bottom is arresting and spectacular. The Coronation floats above stylized representations of the cities of Rome and Jerusalem, but the real interest lies in the Dantaesque scenes of Purgatory and Hell in the lowest part of the panel. Angels can be seen helping the souls of the saved to rise up, and portions of the clouds are breaking off to form themselves into touching representations of the souls being born heavenwards by the angels. I found myself reminded of Cardinal Newman's Dream of Gerontius. It is also interesting that Quarton must have been aware that the only people to see these details would be the officiating priests. One of the ranked figures on the right of the panel is Catherine of Siena, who had visited Avignon less than a hundred years earlier as part of her efforts to heal the Great Schism.

École MontolivetWe finished our day in Villeneuve with a quick stop in the rather unimpressive church, then walked back to Avignon via the Tower where I wanted to buy a poster of Alvarez's Maternité. Incidentally, Villeneuve seems to have a huge art deco high school, the École Montolivet; goodness only knows where it gets its students!

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