The town of Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines is located in the flatlands of the Pyrénées-Orientales about ten miles from the Mediterranean. It is home to the Abbaye Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines and its church, the Église Saint Michel. The abbey was founded in the 8th century by un homme pieux named Sentimir and dedicated to Saint Genis, a martyr of Arles who died in 303. We know that Sentimir planted vines and olive trees and built many buildings. The abbey was ransacked by Vikings in 981 and then rebuilt. The Église Saint Michel we see today dates from 981 and was enlarged and vaulted in 1153.
The Église Saint Michel has a simple cruciform structure of a nave with narrow transepts and a rounded apse. There is an echeloned chapel in each arm of the transept. The revaulting of the church required significant alteration of the structure in order to support the weight of the stone. As a result, there are no side aisles, only blind arcade arches. The vault is interesting, slightly ogive but supported by round Romanesque arches.
The apse is covered with an oven vault and is dominated by a beautiful 17th century retable.
The abbey church of Saint Michel is distinguished by possessing both the oldest dated Romanesque sculpture as well as one of the last expressions of Romanesque art in the south of France. The oldest is the carved lintel that adorns the otherwise plain and undistinguished west portal. We have done a fairly extensive review of this lintel in an article earlier.
As can be seen from the detail shot of Christ in Mandorla supported by two angels, this is a superb example of early Romanesque sculptural art.
The last expression of Romanesque art in the Rousillon was the beautiful marble cloister that dates from the third quarter of the 13th century. The cloister is unique for the composition of its materials. It is built from the different colored marbles – 99% pure white from Céret, pink from Conflent, and black from Corbières. The history of this cloister is as sad as that of its fellows at Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert and Saint Michel-de-Cuxa which were dismantled and parts of them found at the Cloisters Museum in New York. When the abbey at Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines was secularized during the French Revolution, the cloister was sold to various individuals.
In 1924 a Parisian art dealer, antiquarian and forger named Paul Gouvert attempted to buy it. Gouvert was famous for exporting antiquities to foreign countries and helped to install the Saint Michel de Cuxa cloister at New York’s Cloister museum, to whom he also sold the chapter house of Notre Dame de Pontaut. Gouvert was not above doing business with those intent on pillaging the artistic treasure of his own country; he sold “the cloister of the Cistercian Abbey of Berdoues (Gers)” to Reichmarschall Hermann Goering and figures prominently on the “Art dealers involved in wartime trading in looted art in France” list. Gouvert’s invoice for December 1940 for the dozens of works he sold to Goering totals over four million franks.
At the time of Gouvert’s interest, three sisters had inherited the cloiser. Gouvert succeeded in acquiring the property of two of the sisters, leaving only a small portion in the southeast corner that the third sister refused to sell.
Deciding that it would be more profitable to sell two smaller cloisters instead of the single large one, Gouvert commissioned craftsmen to carve copies of twenty-three capitals in pink Conflent marble in the manner of Saint Génis sculpture. Three quarters of the original capitals and columns went to a banker named Nicolas Chrissoveloni at his Chateau du Mesnuls in Yvelines where it ornamented his sumptuous gardens.
Of the remaining elements, two arches and three columns were donated to the Louvre, while the original central fixtures and copies of the columns and capitals were sold to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Scholars think that only two of the capitals in Philadelphia are originals.
In the late 1970’s, the town of Saint-Genis-des-Fontaines began a campaign to recover all the disparate elements and, after prolonged negotiations, succeeded in recovering the portions from the new Greek owner of the Chateau de Mesnuls and the Louvre. These were returned to their original location and joined to the fragment in the southeast corner. Thanks to the meticulous records and numbering system kept by Gouvert’s craftsmen, the cloister was reconstructed in its entirety, with casts from the Philadelphia capitals to fill in the blanks. This is the cloister that we see today, which has survived by a miracle.
As for the portion of the cloister that remained in place, it had a history of its own. As recently as 1968, that small corner was incorporated into the home of a M. Joud and decorated his salon, kitchen, dining room and hallway!
In preparing this article, I spent a great deal of time researching Paul Gouvert. In particular the dozens of pages of invoices and details of the work that he sold to Goering for millions of francs over many years disturbed me greatly. I have heard all of the arguments why the sale of the artifacts to various museums benefited both the artworks and the museums, but the fact that the transactions were often conducted by people like Gouvert undermines the validity of that argument. The photocopies of his invoices list his address in Paris as 18-22 Rue Fourcroy in the 17th Arrondissement. Today that address is occupied by L’Atelier du Sourcil, a boutique devoted exclusively to the beauty of the eyebrow. I wonder if they realized just who their predecessor was, would they collectively would raise those beautified eyebrows?
But at the time we visited Saint Genis, we had no idea of these deeper undercurrents. PJ and I had a wonderful day, including enjoying a pichet of the local rosé at the café while we waited for the village to finish a parade down the streets of the town. The occasion? The Fête de la Saint Michel, patron saint of the church.
Location: 42.543063° 2.921820°
Note: the photo of the cloister incorporated into the house of M. Joud comes from “Le cloître de Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines (Pyrénées-Orientales). Historiographie” by Géraldine Mallet in Archéologie du Midi médiéval, 1987, Volume 5, Issue 5