The wedding party was taking forever leaving the church. Bride and groom posed on the steps in a shower of rice hurled by soldiers in képis and women in smart hats. We slipped in by a side door, to look at the really theatrical spectacle - a baroque retable (or reredos) looming golden above the main altar. From the centre of this 30ft high screen a bearded wooden pope soars out in startling 3-D. It is St. Peter, surrounded by bas-reliefs of his life, statues of the evangelists jostling with Bibles, the Madonna rising above him and right at the top God the Father extending a hand. You've got to be impressed.
Seven hundred-odd similar massive structures to this one in Prades furnish churches throughout the Roussillon, Cerdagne and Conflent regions. Curly, twirly, ornate and exuberant they are in contrast to their austere housings: most churches are plain structures, with little stone carving, restrained vaulting and layout.
In Britain the Reformation meant a stop to anything fancy in church art, but the opposite was happening in Catholic countries where visual arts were encouraged by the Pope. His edict coincided with the 17th century flourishing of the baroque style, resulting in these fantastically imagined and created retables.
Originally a sort of bed-head behind the altar, the retable quickly outgrew the communion table in grandeur and dominance. It was dedicated to either a saint, perhaps the church patron, or a manifestation of the Virgin - of the Rosary, of Peace, etc. - or to Christ, as in the Last Breath retable in Vinça.
Even to a Catholic used to crucifixes and crowns of thorns, this Calvary is startlingly gruesome. Christ is rendered open-mouthed, revealing tongue and teeth, in agonised contrast to the smiling, cutesy cherub catching his blood in a golden goblet. The cherub recalls another secular tradition, even more evident on the nearby retable of the Transfiguration, where drunken fauns peep out from bunches of grapes in an unholy melee of gilt, scrollwork and saints.
The quality of retable carving varies. Two brothers named Sunyer were responsible for some of the more masterly, including that of St. Peter in Prades and one dedicated to St Vincent at Eus, a superb pink and blue birthday cake confection. The decorative surrounds - the columns, flowers and swathes of vegetation - seem of superior craftsmanship to the representation of human and divine form. Faces are poorly realised in a mediaeval rather than post-renaissance style. And, like stage sets, some of the work is not all it seems. At Ille sur Tet, an exhibition of carvings from retables reveals, by using mirrors, that the unseen back of a glorious angle is merely a raw lump of wood.
Religion as illusion perhaps.
The imaginative aspect of these creations is as compelling as their craftsmanship. The Virgin is a popular subject, who appears in a host of manifestations. The Mater Dolorosa, or Virgin of the Seven Sorrows. is particularly favoured in the Pyrénées Orientales. Here, the Virgin is shown with heart revealed and pierced by 7 swords, sometimes of real metal, and sometimes, as at Villefranche de Conflent, the statue is dressed in real clothing.
A more bizarre tradition, is the Cross of Outrages, a free-standing artefact, carried though villages on Good Friday. From the lifesized structure project tools of the crucifixion, pliers, nails, scourge, lance with vinegar soaked sponge and a sabre sporting the ear severed from one of Christ's guards. More restrained and moving is the regional grouping known as a Mise en tombeau, consisting of five figures standing around a recumbent Christ, about to commit the body to the grave. The statues boast no exposed hearts just expressions of sorrow and calm. They are so contemporary in style I had the example at Moissac down as a modern reproduction until I read the guide book.
Moissac was a stop off on our journey back from the Roussillon to St. Malo and home. Our last night was spent at Dinan where in the basilica of St Saveur the emphasis away from ornate retable and towards stone carving is striking. That over-blown enthusiasm for gold and posture-striking statues had evaporated in the colder air of Brittany.
CCA competition winner, 1998
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