Un certain regard
As soon as she introduced herself I knew I would be in safe hands. Transfixed, I sat beside her in a pew in the church of Saint Martin & Saint Augustin in Nice, drinking in her words, enjoying how they opened my eyes. I’d happened to wander into the church when a guide was on hand to explain its history and ensure that visitors missed none of its secrets. This church, I already knew, would reveal itself slowly – if at all. And that despite being flamboyantly baroque in the Niçois manner, complete with lavish trompe l’oeil that almost does, and obscure alcoves and chapels with only the glow of gilding glimmering faintly through the darkness. There’s a sense of riches obscured, awaiting discovery.
The plainly clad elderly lady volunteer, white-haired and pale-skinned with huge, expressive mist-grey eyes, couldn’t have been more of a contrast to our ornately mysterious surroundings. She spoke fluently and engagingly. “I’m not an historian,” she insisted. But much like the best re-enactors, her enthusiasm was matched by rigorous research. She knew her material and how to convey it, her passion almost palpable. Over on my right lay embedded in the floor of the south aisle a tombstone dating from the days when this was an abbey church. There had been several different incarnations – and even locations – since the original Augustinian foundation of the mid-13th century. The present building dates largely from the 16th century, when newfound prosperity from the salt trade resulted in a burgeoning of baroque edifices throughout the town (Nice was then the industrial site on the salt route between Savoy and Piedmont).
But the church also fulfilled a social and charitable function. Like many of the churches of the period, it was also the chapel and meeting place for a group of lay confréries found throughout southern France, the pénitents for whom membership depended on the population of their community. While most members were married, unmarried brothers were expected to remain celibate. These groups date from the 13th century, but it is possible that their origins may go back as far as the 6th century – and they still exist today. They are not concerned solely with devotion: their predominant activities are in social welfare, with each group specialising in a particular field and identifiable by the colour of their distinctive hooded robe – the ‘cappa’ in Nissart. The pénitents noirs, patrons of the church of Saint Martin & Saint Augustin, took care of the dying and the dead. The
pénitents blancs cared for the sick; the rouges for orphans; the bleus for travellers, prisoners and slaves (the Mediterranean slave trade flourished – if that is the right word – well into the 18th century).
In the 16th century, some of the Augustinians of Nice became so dissatisfied that they invited a young German reformer – a monk – to preach to them. He did so, celebrating Mass on this site on 20 June 1534. His name was Martin Luther.
The church’s murky atmosphere (the clerestory windows are the sole lights, and are among the smallest I’ve seen) does after all conceal a pair of radiant treasures for which you might need a guide. Mine, as expected, didn’t disappoint. She began to speak of Ludovic – Louis – Bréa, local painter and first among a family of artists. He lived between 1450 and 1523, and his work may be found all over the region. Many of his paintings depict a certain face: ovoid, with fine features and beautiful, strikingly bright and alert eyes which offer the viewer a candid, friendly gaze. Fancifully, I imagine that this might be a self-portrait. But the possibility is insignificant when set against the glories of his work which, however conventional the composition, however perfectionist the technique, express a light, a vision and a life all their own.
The church contains one painting that is an authenticated Ludovic Bréa and another – of Saint Anthony – that is thought very likely to be his work. The former is a pietà, the two living members of the tragic trio shown with eyes downcast. I felt a mite cheated, unable to see their eyes and follow their gaze. But “look,” breathed my guide. “Just look – can you see?
Ludovic Bréa has left us a message of hope.” And, yes, in the Magdalen’s elegant, long-fingered hands is the alabaster pot of perfumed unguent for Christ’s corpse. The pot she is carrying when she visits his tomb and finds Him risen (according to all four gospels she is the first witness of the resurrection). So there it is: the agony and grief bear a message of the redemption and renewal to follow.
And the other painting, Saint Anthony? Well, it depicts a single figure wearing the robe of a Franciscan friar. He is a slim man with a delicate-featured, oval face and bright, bright eyes which look straight at the spectator. His vivid gaze conveys keen interest, curiosity even: concentrated perception. It is vital, mesmerising, and as it draws you towards him it’s impossible to avoid thinking that this may be the regard of the artist himself directed at us. For the spectator that gaze is enlivening and energising. Whether it is him or not (and who can say?), it is another reminder of Ludovic Bréa’s luminous vision of the power of life and the primacy of hope. The paintings fulfil all the lambent promise of this gloomy church, and glow in the mind’s eye long after you’ve returned, blinking, to the glare of daylight.
Pix courtesy of Commons Wiki/la Ville de Nice; click to enlarge
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