Out of medieval masonry, modern art

Artists sometimes stamp their vision on a place.

The only reason I have been to the French towns of Arles and Auvers is that Vincent van Gogh painted there, and when I was in college a bunch of us included these two Vincent-meccas in a trip to Italy and France.

Near Arles, I remember watching intently for fields of impassioned barley and wheat, for sunflowers, for poppies. But most vivid to the memory were rows of clear, astonishingly blue morning glories, and I do not think they could have been grown there in Van Gogh's time. Or he surely would have painted them.

In any case, Van Gogh's art burst away from the local into the universal. My first bowled-over encounter with his art had been at school some years earlier in Norfolk, England. That time I didn't have to go to Arles to "see" him.

He was everywhere. I found just as many reminders of his vision in the distinctly un-Mediterranean landscape of East Anglia as I did later, in southern France. I tried to paint Norfolk as if it were Arles.

Nevertheless, someday I'd like to visit Cezanne's mountain, St. Victoire, in Aix-en-Provence. And I've found Rouen Cathedral and the garden at Giverny worth a visit for Monet's sake; the River Stour in England for Constable's; Rubens's garden in Antwerp, Belgium, for Rubens's.

And then there was that day in Paris. As we walked toward the Seine from the Boulevard St. Germain, we came upon, in a closed-in back street, St. Severin. We weren't actually looking for this medieval church. But realizing what it was, I had to go in.

Because inside, at the far end, was what our Michelin guide (awarding it two stars) informed us was "The church's wonder" - its "double ambulatory, circling the chancel."

An ambulatory in a church or cathedral was originally part of its processional function for pilgrims who had come to worship or see a shrine. They would file up the nave, or central aisle, then circle behind the altar via the ambulatory, possibly past some saint's relics, until they were heading toward the main entrance once more.

What Michelin fails to mention, though, is the connection between St. Severin's ambulatory and one of the powerfully inventive painters of the early 20th century, Robert Delaunay.

Looking at the series of expressive paintings and drawings Delaunay did of this intricately curving, tunneling space of columns, ribbed arches, and "Flamboyant" stained-glass windows, I'm sure he would have found Michelin's further remarks sympathetic. "As you walk," the guidebook adds, "the fall of the rib tracery onto the column stems recalls strolling through a grove of palm trees. On the central pillar the ribs continue in further ornament as spirals down the shaft."

Since the time of Delaunay's St. Severin series (1909-10), the stained glass that impressed him has been replaced. (The old black-and-white photo above shows approximately what the ambulatory looked like then.) But the forestlike feel of the ambulatory is just like his paintings.

In the two-dimensional world of a painting, Delaunay persuasively makes our vision of the architecture bend and turn, lean and interpenetrate so that it almost seems possible we might walk into and through the picture space.

The artist also introduces a vivid sense of color and light into this complex interior, taking his reinvention of its architecture into a painterly context that his later works would develop with even more individuality.

He was, in the end, to take color and light to the point of self-sufficient abstraction, where subject-matter was no longer needed as a support for expression. But here, in the St. Severin series, his paintings and their subject are inextricably connected.

Delaunay later criticized his St. Severin paintings. He said they hadn't fulfilled his aims. (They are transitional, in some ways, but what stage in any artist's work doesn't look both back and forward?) He liked the series enough to exhibit it, however, and the works in it are certainly valuable in their own right.

Tree trunks and bridges were among the subjects favored by Cezanne and the early Cubists - to whom Delaunay here owes a clear debt - and this gothic church interior partakes of both by implication. The columns are like tree trunks, the vaults like bridges.

Yet the character of these features is quite specific to this particular church. St. Severin's 15th-century masonry - still standing today - prompted a 20th-century modernity. The ambulatory of St. Severin inspired Delaunay's paintings. You can't have one without the other.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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