A Catalan Master for the Ages (Dennis Aubrey)


PJ and I love the Pyrénées mountains, and especially the eastern portion straddling France and Catalonia. While staying the town of Prades, we had an interesting experience. Despite having been there before, we found ourselves in a new place – Occitanie, or in Catalan Occitània. This is one of the new administrative regions in France since September 28, 2016 with a name derived from areas that showed a historic use of the Occitan language. We didn’t think too much about this until we went to a Catalan dance festival in town. During the introductions, the compère made a disparaging comment – “This is Catalonia,” he said, and followed that statement with a disdainful gesture behind him, “Occitània is somewhere back there!” all to great applause from the audience.

On this trip we visited the marvelous Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute in Les Cluse, a small early Catalan church perched on the Col du Perthus, the last Pyrénéean pass between France and Spain. In the distance, one can see Vauban’s Fort de Bellegarde that once guarded the frontier. The church, located in La Cluse-Haute, was probably constructed in the 10th century and remodeled in the 11th, 12th and 14th centuries. The exterior of the church is simple and unadorned, with a 14th century bell-tower. An interesting vestige of the porch still exists in the form of the stone arch standing separated from the church itself. The portal itself is of white Céret marble.

Western façade and clocher, Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute, Les Cluses (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

The small interior consists of a central nave and two side aisles. The relatively massive piers support the round arches from which springs the barrel vault across the nave. The side aisles have half-barrel vaults supporting the nave arches and relieving the lateral pressure of the barrel vault. There are no transepts or a crossing tower.

Nave, Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute, Les Cluses (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

The tiny oven-vaulted apse is flanked by two small echeloned chapels, communicated to by means of the narrow passages on the side of the apse. One can see in the photograph how the scale of the apse is so small and delicate compared to the sturdy piers and arches around it.

Apse from north side aisle, Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute, Les Cluses (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

But small though it may be, the glory of the church is in that smal apse. There are some fragments of frescoes dating from the twelfth century which are in the same hand as those of famous frescoes of nearby San Martin de Fenollar.

Apse with frescoes, Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute, Les Cluses (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

In the center of the apse we see a Christ in Majesty accompanied by the symbols of the alpha and the omega. The works of the Maitre de Fenollar must have been astonishing at the time of their creation, but they have continued to fascinate and have actually change the courses of modern art. In June 1906 Picasso stayed ten weeks in the small town of Gósol and had his first intensive exposure to Catalan art. In 1911 Picasso and Braque spent time in Fenollar and Les Cluses studying the works, transfixed by the expressive power and dynamic use of color. Later many other artists made their pilgrimage to this area – Miro, Gris, Derain, and Dufy – and all walked away genuflecting at the altar of the distant Catalan genius.

Christ Panocrator, Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute, Les Cluses (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Just to the right of the Christ is a wonderful figure of an angel. I think that the way the wings and the cloak follow the curve of the vault is simply brilliant in inspiration and execution. I have the same dumbfounded reaction to this as I did when I saw the “Temptation” capital at Plaimpied.

Angel, Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute, Les Cluses (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

If there is any doubt that the work of the Catalan artists had an effect on Pablo Picasso, we only have to look at his work from the periods of his stay in the area and how it differed from the Blue and Pink periods that preceded it. In Les Demoiselles d’Avignon see the same naive, schematic construction of the faces that we see in Les Cluses and Saint Martin de Fenollar, and even some of the same technical details, like the use of white accents around the eyes and other features. And it may just be my imagination, but the standing figure on the far right seems to be a mirror of the angel at Les Cluses.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Pablo Picasso (1907)

But we don’t need Picasso, Miro, Braque or Dufy to appreciate the Maitre de Fenollar. His work stands among the finest of medieval painting, hidden in the smallest church in the most remote of villages in the Pyrénées.

Location: 42.482277° 2.843190°

14 responses to “A Catalan Master for the Ages (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. hi Dennis and PJ,
    As an amateur medievalist, interested in architecture, I find your via Lucia posts to be both fascinating and interesting. I must congratulate you on your photography and the lucid accompanying text.
    I have a particular interest in the work of medieval stonemasons and have collected Mason’s marks for many years. In retirement I am now working on my collection, to try to analyse the forms of these marks.
    I wonder if you have managed to photograph any Mason’s marks as you have been carrying out your valuable work?
    With all good wishes,
    John Cooper-Hammond

    • John, we may have a few of these, but not many. We have heard from others who collect these marks though. We do try to photograph the various “signatures” in the churches, like “Giselbertus hoc facit” in Autun or “Gofridus me fecit” in Chauvigny. We have perhaps half a dozen of those.

      Thank you for your kind words about our work.

    • Thank you, Leon. We will be doing this as long as we are able. With 5000 Romanesque churches and another 1500 in Spain, we have lots of work to do! Appreciate your kind words.

  2. Picasso painted Les Demoiselles in Barcelona in 1907. He was in Ceret in
    1911. I visited the area around les Cluses some time ago. Just now I found a cryptic
    note jotted next to les Cluses: 3 alabaster windows to east. Those must be the
    three white windows in the apse you picture. I visited Les Demoiselles a week
    ago Monday at the NY MOMA. Draws the crowds! I struggle to see the connection
    between the angel and a figure on the right although I see the whites of the eyes on the african mask figure lower right. Would have to check the date of the
    museum in Barcelona with all the wonderful frescoes from Catalan churches.
    I think it was built around the time of the expo of ?????
    Thank you for stirring my memories of Catalan France where the street signs are in two languages!

  3. Post Script to the above: Romansque Picasso was an exhibit at the Barcelona
    museum. It closed in February. Just googled this. Picasso visited the museum shortly after it opened in 1934. Article say he had always been interested in
    Romanesque art.

  4. The unfrescoed part of the apse here resembles the apse in Saint Martin de Fenollar where a farmer had knocked a hole in the wall to make a door, leaving only the top and sides of the frescoes untouched. The hole was then filled during restoration of the chapel. I’m wondering if the same thing happened here in Les Cluses. The small window is the same shape and size in both chapels. Compare your photo with the Wikimedia photo on my post about Saint Martin de Fenollar.

    • Trish, my feeling is that this is coincidence, because I could find no record that this church was decommissioned, or that there were any late reconstructions (post 17th century). I will do a bit more research, though.

      • How do frescoes wear off walls so unevenly? Is it from human hands touching them as far as they can reach? Do you know?

      • Moisture is the real killer. The substrate wears off and falls in chunks. Sometimes it is a mold condition. One of the worst that we have found is humans effacing or covering up.

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