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°

Exhibiting those that precede (Dennis Aubrey)


Those who are familiar with our work know our deep regard and affection for Angelico Surchamp, the Benedictine monk/photographer/artist. His hundred-plus books and thousands of photographs have informed the whole world of the greatness of Romanesque art and architecture. We have already mentioned him in three posts, acknowledging his influence, meeting him for the first time, and honoring him for receiving the Légion d’Honneur from the French people.

Dennis and Angelico Surchamp at Le Villars (Saône-et-Loire), 20 September 2011. Photo by PJ McKey

We have just discovered that in the town of Evry (Essone) there is an exhibition of Surchamp’s paintings entitled, Itinéraire d’un passeur de Beauté, which translates as The Journey of a Smuggler of Beauty. The Cathédrale de la Résurrection d’Évry hosts the exhibition sponsored by the Agence Nationale pour les Arts Sacrés.

I think that the title referring to the “smuggler” of beauty is so apt, because Surchamp’s texts, which were about religious structures, discovered and communicated an aesthetic from another time and brought it to our contemporary eyes.

Congratulations to the Dom, from his admirers in the United States.