All thoughts of Christmas might seem to have been far away from a late summer day in the warm climate of Provence, but such was not the case this year for me.
We were on a trip to stay with friends and relations in Toulouse. During the days we were there we were taken to see many interesting places. Among them was a museum devoted to the life of the Benedictine artist Dom Robert at Le Musée Dom Robert, which forms a part of the historic site of the Abbaye school in the hill-top Cité de Sorèze (Tarn).
And it was there in that late summer warmth that I encountered this extraordinary image by the artist Dom Robert, and was deeply moved both by how it was done and the meaning that it seem to being conveying. It is called L’Adoration des Majes – ‘The Adoration of the Wise Men’ – and evokes completely the spirit and meaning of Christmas and the Epiphany.
But before is discussing this one illumination as it is called in detail, I first should say something about the artist’s life and work, as I fear he may not be as well known today here in Ireland as he was half a century or so ago.
Dom Robert was the name in religion of Guy de Chaunac-Lanzac, born on December 15, 1907 at Nieuil-l’Espoir (Vienne), who died on May 10, 1997 at Dourgne (Tarn). He was a Benedictine monk, tapestry designer, painter and ceramicist. He was not indeed your typical figure of a modern artist.
As a monk living in the Abbaye d’En Calcat in Dourgne, a village next to Sorèze, he is celebrated for having in the 1940s helped revive and give a new direction to the Aubusson Tapestry Manufacture, which, during its 17th- and 18th-Century heyday rivalled the royal tapestry manufacture at Gobelins.
Young Guy had been encouraged as an artist by his family long before he entered the Benedictines. There his life of work and devotion often had difficult turns”
Local legend claims that some North African Berbers, followers of Abd-Er-Rahman, defeated at the battle of Poitiers in 732, fled and found exile of a kind from Ebon, the Lord of Aubusson. They married local women and are the origin of the people now living in the village. To these former Muslims is credited the introduction of tapestry making in the Middle-Eastern style.
Young Guy had been encouraged as an artist by his family long before he entered the Benedictines. There his life of work and devotion often had difficult turns. It fell into three stages. The art he created was largely in aquarelle and oilpaint before the war. Called up in WWII, he served in the French army, but after the fall of France in 1940 he had to make his way back alone through a devastated country to his home at the Abbaye d’En Calcat.
On this difficult journey home, by a route which took him past the walls of Carcassonne which had inspired part of the background in the picture above, he had a mystical experience.
Passing a domaine wall he heard noises within and went through an open wicker door. He all of a sudden was exposed to a new world of nature, a private park filled with trees, flowers and plants, and of all things, pea fowls, both cocks and hens, with their weird penetrating cries.
It was a transforming moment. His art took another direction into the world of nature – indeed, human figures dropped out of his work almost completely. He now focused on nature, and through nature on creation, and though creation on the nature of God.
But it was not only his subject matter changed. He now became involved, as just mentioned, with other artists in the revival and renewal of the tapestry making at Aubusson (Creuse).
His designs drawn from nature were rendered as cartoons and transferred by the weavers, working in reverse, into hangings, some of immense size. This work was sold through regular art galleries to the benefit of the monastery. Our own Louis Le Brocquay was also inspired by Dom Robert, Lurcat and other artists associated with the atelier in the 1940s and 1950s.
Dom Robert worked on with intense creativity into his 90s, active to the end. Today examples can be found all around the world. But perhaps because of the deeply spiritual nature of his vision they are not so often brought to the public attention which is a very great pity.
He had been a friend of Jacques Maritain and his wife Raissa, the neo-Thomists. Like them Dom Robert drew inspiration from certain aspects of the Middle Ages, and the theological movements that culminated in the renewal of Vatican II.
The image at the top of these pages is described an ‘illumination’, a sort of brilliant water colour which he created at the Abbaye d’En Calcat in 1932. It manages to encode several periods of art and culture which were important to Dom Robert, but especially the style of painting in the late middle ages (such as those in have mentioned before which illustrated the Wonders of the World recounting the travel in Asia and the wonders seen by Marco Polo). But also, as in other of his images in the art of Persia.
In the background we can see the rolling fertile hills of the south of France. The city recalls something of Carcassonne. I first saw those walls when I was 14 and they imprinted themselves on my memory. How could such a place have survive it was the very nature of the medieval world?
Some today might talk here of different races, of different colours. But in fact for Dom Robert it seems to have been the cultures”
Of course I did not realise then what I am now so well acquitted with, that what the visitor see today at Carcassonne is largely the work of the restorer Viollet le Duc, a man it has to be said that brought that world alive for us all today, for everyone from Victor Hugo down to Cecil B. de Mille.
But that is merely the background. The picture is called L’Adoration des Majes, (‘The Adoration of the Magi’). Naturally it echoes countless other images over the centuries of a complicated tradition had developed in Christian traditions concerning the Wise Men from the East and their visit to the scene of the Nativity, is one that has appealed to both artists and to ordinary people, especially ordinary families, down the centuries.
Here we see a long train of horse men approaching a small hillock on which a small cow shed is occupied by a family whose child has just come into the world. At the feet of the Virgin kneels the oldest king, as by tradition, with the middle aged and young one standing to the sides.
From this eminence the eye follows the caravan back around the base of the hillock to the city.
There are some sixteen human figures in the picture, but look carefully and we find the these present several different cultures, across North Africa from Morocco, though the Middle East and then towards the rear, two men who are intended to be Persians.
Just peeking around the cliff on the left of the picture, is the head of an Indian elephant, the most popular image of the romance and mystery of Asia for the medieval European mind.
Some today might talk here of different races, of different colours. But in fact for Dom Robert it seems to have been the cultures, whose very different ideas about the beautiful and the decorative that caught his imagination. Race had nothing to do with it.
It was culture that created art, and it was art that characterised what was really human.
However, it is worth pointing out that the other cultures dominate what we see. There are only nominally three kings coming to pay homage, they represent the continents.
However, these other figures represent the culture, the people, the real individuals of the world coming to the manger to pay homage.
Perhaps I should say a little more about the way in which the artist has presented these various cultures. Persian art entranced Dom Robert from an early year. The three horse men on the left are straight out of Persian or Mughal miniatures and paintings, with their distinctive coats and headgear.
His devotion to nature and creation has, of course, many echoes with what Christian ecologists feel very deeply about today concerning the protection of the natural world”
It will be seen then that we have the different hats of the men from the Middle East and before them the headdress of the desert folk of Arabia and of North Africa, Asians, Berbers, Black Africans (who are not slaves, by the way, but princes and their servants in the service of the black King Balthazar): it is a whole mix of types, very much an image of the world as we know it today.
But as I say this painting belongs 1932. A few words about the nature of his later art and life will set it in a context.
For a decade Dom Robert lived at Prinknash Abbey in England and was a friend of Dom Bede Griffith, famous for his work cultivating interreligious friendships. This was an important period in his art. However, he was able, after a change of abbot at Abbaye d’En Calcat, to return to his real home in the warm south, and it was then that the major period of his life’s work began.
His devotion to nature and creation has, of course, many echoes with what Christian ecologists feel very deeply about today concerning the protection of the natural world.
Though this image is totally appropriate to this season of the year, an immersion in the ideas of art and Faith, the total cosmic vision of Dom Robert will prove deeply enlightening to many.
The images on these pages are published by Éditions de l’Abbaye d’En Calcat, 81110 Dourgne, France.