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Modern Art in France's Old Churches

Some of the best 20th-century art in France can be found in its churches. And not only in Vence, at the chapel Matisse decorated for the Dominican nuns, or in Ronchamp, where Le Corbusier built the whimsical Notre-Dame-du-Haut in reinforced concrete. You also find it in cathedrals, abbeys, and parish churches that date from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. Fitted out with state-of-the-art stained glass, churches are once again becoming sacred galleries, where contemporary figurative and abstract painting—even sculptures—are on display.

The idea is not entirely new. As early as 1937, a dozen modern painters were invited to design the windows at Notre Dame de Toute Grâce d'Assy in Haute-Savoie. The project, a source of some controversy anyway (many of the artists were neither particularly pious nor particularly interested in depicting religious scenes), was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. After the war, however, the extensive damage to many French churches, coupled with the rise of a postwar abstraction, lent new momentum to the attempt to revive "l'art sacré." Its driving force,Father Couturier, put it this way in a letter to Le Corbusier: "To set off this renaissance, this resurrection, it is safer to turn to geniuses without faith than believers without talent."

The first completed non-figurative project was by Alfred Manessier, an up-and-coming painter of the School of Paris, who created seven windows for the 18th-century country church of Les Bréseux, beginning in 1948. Though a modest venture, it was followed by, among others, Jacques Villon's (1956-7) and then Marc Chagall's (1958-68) windows in Metz, which depict the Passion of Christ; Maria Helena Vieira da Silva's abstract glass panes in Reims (1967-76); and Joan Miró's Surrealist scenes in the medieval cathedral of Notre Dame at Senlis (1977). And since then, the effort to marry contemporary art with sacred spaces has continued, on scales both large and small. In the vast cathedral of Nevers, such distinguished and diverse contemporary painters as Gottfried Honegger, François Rouan, Claude Viallat, and Jean-Michel Alberola have each designed groups of windows, and more artists are still being commissioned.

Over the past 15 years, this dialogue between present-day aesthetics and religious faith has taken a slight turn: no longer merely paintings transferred to glass, specially commissioned windows are now produced through an intense collaboration between artists and a new generation of master glaziers. In a number of respects, what many still regard as a breakthrough in the manufacture of glass came in 1975, when a 36-year-old self-taught artist named Jean-Pierre Raynaud was invited to create 64 windows for the former abbey of Noirlac, which had been founded in the 12th century by monks of the rigorous Cistercian order. He assembled 160,000 panes of unornamented glass to achieve a stunning integration of the spare vocabulary of the past with the resolutely contemporary syntax of 1970's Minimalism. Neither figures nor colors were permitted in Cistercian churches, and the sole designs on the windows were formed by the leading. As for the artist, his major work until then was a house he had built for himself entirely out of white ceramic tiles. Raynaud's asymmetrical grid patterns create almost imperceptible gradations of transparency that not only illuminate the interior but, as the light changes, suggest the passage of time—from one hour, one season, one century, to the next. This same relationship to light and space has been variously pursued in Conques, Digne, Lognes, Villeneuve-lès-Maguelone, and Varennes-Jarcy. In Conques, painter Pierre Soulages devoted years of research to developing glass with the right translucency, producing a series of window screens for the venerable pilgrimage church of Ste.-Foy that resemble alabaster. The most striking aspect of Soulages's work is its understatement. Viewed from the outside, the glass strips take on the bluish cast of the natural light they reflect, complementing the surrounding sandstone and echoing the blue slate roof, while inside, the glass assumes the warmer tones of the unreflected light.

One of the more recent contemporary window projects was inaugurated at Villeneuve-lès-Maguelone in 2002. Artist Robert Morris drew his inspiration from the architecture of the fortress-like former cathedral of St.-Pierre de Maguelone and from its singular location—a tiny spit of an island in the marshes that line the Mediterranean coast near Montpellier. Here the undulating forms of the glass windows are meant to evoke waves, which seem to move with the ebbs and flows of light.

In Digne, New York-based sculptor David Rabinowitch designed the windows and the liturgical furniture as well—pews, lecterns, pulpits. Inside the starkly Romanesque Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg, shimmering crystal disks of mauve, blue, yellow, and green emerge as if from a primal void. The parishioners are as enthusiastic about the effect as the artist, whose visual language both captures the religious character of the space and suggests a more universal spirituality.

Though achieved by strikingly different means, the same quality is evident in St.-Martin, the late-19th-century parish church in Lognes, a village just outside Paris. French painter Christophe Cuzin, known for conceptual work that blurs the line between what lies inside and what lies outside the canvas, redefined the church's interior with swaths of color. "Everything in the building was false," he explains. "It was a tiny country church modeled on a cathedral. What's true is color, because it's only light. It's something mystical."

To achieve the effect he sought, Cuzin painted the walls blue, red, and green, and the windows, created in collaboration with the Ateliers Duchemin, one of France's most innovative glass-making studios, were similarly minimalist: barely tinted panes of industrial glass that illuminate the walls so that they seem to glow from within. For Carole Benzaken, too, the jewel tones of her tulip motif, an allusion to the Stem of Jesse, the tribe from which King David descended, saturate the plain stone walls of the Église St.-Sulpice, near Paris, in a play of color and shadow.

The fusion of these contemporary works with their historic settings is striking. Yet you never get the feeling that you are looking at "a Soulages" or "a Morris," much less walking through an exhibition. In fact, the best way to appreciate the windows is simply to sit down and watch the light change, perhaps the closest many of us will come to transcendence.

MIRIAM ROSEN is an art critic based in Paris.

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