Thursday, July 26, 2007

A painted church for summer

After our walk on the beach at Jospinet we stopped off at the little church at Morieux - opposite which is a bar with an outside terrace where in the season you can also eat moules frites, with cream added to the poaching liquor and really good frites made from real potoatoes with the skin left on, though this time it was late and we didn't stop to eat.

I wondered whether to post about this church in another post, alongside my other favourite little painted church which is inland at Langast, because they seem to me to be to be filled with summer and winter respectively. Instead I shall post about the Langast one another time, in it's own season, and show you Morieux now.

The church and its frescos date from the 12th century up to the 17th. I don't know exactly which are the oldest of the paintings, though in some the draperies and features depicted are more elaborate and realistic, and the linework is finer, clearly later work. These photographed less well than the bolder, simpler pictures with their blocks of colour. They were almost all whitewashed over from about 18th century, which of course preserved them, and restored during the last century.

It looks at its best in the light from these main, west-facing doors, which opens out towards the sea and the green fields between, on a summer afternoon. Today they are closed, perhaps because the frescos are fragile and sensitive to light ( flash photography is forbidden ) and we enter by a smaller side door.

It is a smiling, sunny place, the earth pigments on the walls retain strong russet and gold hues, and between the storytelling pictures and in the window recesses are dolly mixture florals, lazy daisies and polka dots,

and bold geometrics that look like Turkish kelims.

The barrel vaulted ceiling is limed wood, elegant and graphic,

and the thick, roughly sculpted walls and the ochres and limewash and the light falling on it give a much more southerly, Mediterranean feeling to the place.

The paintings themselves, while illustrating the standard mediaeval Christian staples of death in general and martyrdom in particular, also elicit smiles, and feature many smiling faces.
See how the virgin saint ( who? I don't know, Saint Foy perhaps, this could have been on a remote capillary of the Camino... I'll find out sometime), seraphically undergoes her very gruesome end,

while these characters (below) have perhaps better reason to be jolly. This fresco shows the celebrated resurrection from the dead by St Nicholas of the poor little Pickled, or Salty, Boys. This episode in the saint's life is one reason why he became the patron saint of children ( the other being that he saved three young girls without dowries from being sold into prostitution by their father... a far cry from the sanitised version of dear old Santa Claus as we now know him, and indeed of childhood generally,) and forms part of Benjamin Britten's 'St Nicholas' (the link is to Amazon where you can listen to a bit of it):
'See! Three boys spring back to life
Who, slaughtered by the butcher's knife
lay salted down!
And, entering hand in hand they stand and sing
"Alleluia" to their king!'
My sister was especially pleased with this one, as she has a friend who is fond of that particular work by Britten, and it has become a refrain between them on Christmas cards to ask 'Got any pickled boys in this year?'

The dead seen below rising from their graves on the Day of Judgement are as merry as jack-in-the-boxes or singing telegrams, as indeed perhaps they should be.

This angel's long bumble-bee striped nightgown ( again, the exact story being illustrated eludes me)

and the cartoonish toes of this Grim Reaper - or Ankou, as he is known hereabouts -

cannot fail to raise a smile. But perhaps the prize for the most rumbustiously gleeful depiction of something frightful must go to that of the Mouth of Hell, yawning wide to yield up the previously damned souls in the triumph of The Harrowing, the Devil small, puny and weaponless in the wings.

It is perhaps glib and facetious to laugh at these works, when one cannot really comprehend, at this distance, the workings of the minds that executed or beheld them. But it does not seem fanciful to perceive in them a strong current of robust joy, an energy and vitality and humour which is not lost in translation from then to now. They seem to me 'a beakerful of the warm south' in these wet, windy northwesterly fringes, and a glowing treasure still to be relished.


Unknown said...

I am glad to be the first visitor this time to hail these photographs and to thank you for the conducted tour. Such a treasury of frescos and delightful floral decoration makes me wonder why Morieux isn't more famous? Though I expect that people who live there would not wish it otherwise. What colours!

Pam said...

Lovely lovely pictures - almost like being on holiday oneself. Isn't the variousness of the world wonderful?

Anonymous said...

Beautiful - I love the warm colours, especially that red which is a favourite of mine. I like the freshness of this kind of decoration compared to the overdone Baroque and Rococo. Thanks for sharing! Would be wonderful to visit it some day.

Fire Bird said...

Aren't these great? The colour has worn well. The window reminds me of painted papier mache.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Beautiful images, showing amazing juxtapositions of the sublime and the ridiculous. And museum-quality commentary. Thank you.

Lee said...

Quite lovely. I always get a sense of wonder about these places that were quite old even before Europeans came to Australia.

Avus said...

Lucy, these are wonderful and your commentary so complements them. What a beautiful little church this must be.
Thank you for sharing them.

Lucy said...

Thank you all for sharing the wonder!
The papier mache comparison put a finger on something I was trying to place, which was that there was something a bit Mexican about it. Knowing nothing of Mexican church interiors, I didn't think this could be quite right, but it was Mexican papier mache work I think I was thinking about!

Jan said...

Lucy, this is a wonderful post.
I visited a painted church in Cyprus 2 yrs ago; small and dark and absolote enchantment.
THankyou for this.

Bro. Bartleby said...

This gives me an idea!

Lucy said...

Jan,they are wondrous things; I remember an amazing one in the Mani peninsula in the Pelponnese, a tiny chapel with a box of old bones in the corner and an actual date of a thousand years before, and Byzantine eyes of the saints boring into you... there are some a bit further off in this region I've yet to explore.
Brother B. - oh no, please, no pickled boys for me this Christmas!
Seriously, I'm honoured,I'll be over toot sweet!

apprentice said...

Gorgeous shots, they have a tapestry quality to them don't they? The quality of the light is lovely too.

And the moules had my mouth watering. There's an old lady in Bormes on the south coast who has a big pot on the street and glugs in wine and fish stock and they taste amazing.

robinstarfish said...

Thanks for a wonderful introduction to Morieux, standing in the midst of these works and bringing them to life as you do.

meggie said...

Wonderful tour, & lovely photos.
When I saw the first one, I thought it a papier mache model, with the rough texture & the colours.

Catalyst said...

Wonderful pictures, Lucy. I remember going into a church in Morelia, Mexico, once and it was so highly decorated with gold and pink and white everywhere that SWMBO and I decided it was a prostitute's vision of heaven!

I may have visited more churches than any other atheist you know! It's always amazing to see how much money has been spent on adornment and not on the worshippers.

Anonymous said...

a true marvel!
Thank you for sharing this...i would love to visit it in person one day.

herhimnbryn said...


Lucy said...

Thanks again.
A - yes, quite chintzy! Moules are excellent things to eat, and very sustainable and ecological apparently, which is nice to know; I love the sound of the old lady cooking them onthe street!
Starfish - lovely to see you here! Glad you liked it. Do you think he's going to pickle poor Brother Juniper?
Meggie, thanks, it's quite quiltlike too!
Cat - I like the sound of that Mexican church! Neither atheist nor religionist, I find old and earthy churches and chapels more acceptable than baroque grandiosity; I figure the artists were probably of the people, and the art served as entertainment and pleasure for people who didn't have much else. But who knows? And that mystery is part of the appeal.
Z and H - thanks my dears!

Sheila said...

Oh, I so want to come to France, and this just deepens the longing! (I've only been in the airport and a tiny hotel room near the airport.)

I've seen a lot of churches in Europe (a quarter mile from our house in Croatia there is a chapel that doubled as an escape hatch....a tunnel connected it to the castle in the town...fascinating), but nothing like this. Thanks for sharing it.

MAHIMA said...

i always find olf art very evocative. maybe the simple forms that tell a story. maybe the bold colours and patterns.
lovely photographs and tour of the church!

leslee said...

Funny, I was thinking about the Mexican churches I visited (many a couple of years ago during their Easter holidays), but more so in contrast. These are joyful and, aside from the beheading, rather bloodless compared to the Mexican churches - lots of Aztec influences, I think - lots of hearts pierced with swords, hearts bleeding with thorns... And then there are the macabre cadavers and some hilarious stories of their unexpected demises.

Anyway, this church looks lovely with its medieval paintings and the polka dot and flower painted decorations.

Lucy said...

Thank you, and welcome Mahima.
Many interesting accounts here of other churches visited.
Leslee, another angle on Mexican churches - the Aztec influence for sure, but mingled with the overwrought manipulation of the Counter-reformation, heady and sounding somewhat repugnant!

Unknown said...

Just visited, what an amazing church, loved your blog Lucy it helped fill out some of the bits I couldn't translate on the tour

Lucy said...

Ian, hello and welcome. It gives me great satisfaction when people leave appreciative comments on such old posts. It is a lovely church, and well cherished. I don't feel I did it justice in terms of the research here, I was a bit vague on the facts - pretty sure that was St Catherine being beheaded now, certainly not St Foy...

I trust you've enjoyed your trip to these parts; if you've time and opportunity, now or later, check out St Gal in Langast - the post about that one is at

and rather better researched and more detailed. I even had someone teaching a course on early Mediaeval art in a university in Istanbul say they'd used that one!