I walked through the entrance to a rather unassuming chapel and a riot of vibrant colour confronted me. The walls and ceiling are covered with frescoes that look more like Russian Orthodox icons than Roman Catholic images. This is la Chapelle Notre Dame de Treize Pierres in Villefranche de Rouergue, and the paintings are a comparatively unknown gem.
I visited the chapel during last weekend’s Journées du Patrimoine (heritage open days) when a host of historic sites opened their doors, many of them for free. The Brits may do pomp and circumstance well, but the French have a particular attachment to their rich built heritage.
A modern office block conceals the chapel on one side. It sits above a tranquil, green valley on the other side, through which flows a stream that joins the Aveyron in Villefranche. After this summer’s drought, the stream is a mere trickle. With rain or melted snow, it can become a raging torrent that floods its valley. A legend is associated with the chapel’s construction.
The foundation of the chapel
The legend says that in 1509, a carter named Collonges tried to cross the ford with his cart but got stuck in the mud. He couldn’t find anyone to help him pull it out. Hearing the angelus chime in nearby Villefranche, he prayed to the Virgin Mary for help. Her face and those of the 12 Apostles then appeared on the stones of the ford, which miraculously stood above the floodwaters, enabling him to cross. Hence les Treize Pierres. In 1510, the consuls of Villefranche ordered the construction of the chapel in the Virgin’s honour.
The chapel was extended in 1628 when Saint Roc (or Roch), who had already been dead for 300 years, saved Villefranche from an outbreak of plague. He has his own side chapel, commemorating his life.
The paintings are the work of Nikolaï Greschny (1912-1985), Estonian by birth. His father was a deacon, and he was brought up in the Russian Orthodox tradition. His family fled to Germany from the Communist regime, and then Greschny escaped from the Nazis. After a journey around much of Eastern Europe, he ended up in France.
Greschny studied Theology, first in Toulouse and then in Albi. He eventually settled in a farmhouse in the Tarn, which he found during a cycling tour and then restored. He lived in France for more than 40 years until his death in 1985.
Greschny painted over 100 works, mainly church frescoes in Southwest France.
The frescoes in la Chapelle de Treize Pierres
The brothers of the religious order whose hermitage adjoins the church commissioned him in 1951 to paint the frescoes. At first, they were unsure if his style would be appropriate to the chapel. Greschny began with the apse behind the altar, which he completed in 11 days. The brothers were so delighted with the result that they gave him carte blanche to paint the rest of the chapel.
One of the brothers spent an hour explaining the religious significance of the frescoes. He said that he had known Greschny, although he didn’t tell us a great deal about him, preferring to focus on the iconography.
The paintings are reminiscent of Russian Orthodox icons, which is hardly surprising given Greschny’s upbringing. He depicts the Virgin Mary in a Byzantine style, quite different from her usual iconographic treatment. In the choir, they represent the legends of the chapel’s founding and of Saint Roc. The inscriptions are in Occitan, which Greschny had learned.
The rest of the chapel illustrates well-known Biblical themes. The Last Judgement is portrayed around the door, so that people leaving the chapel will reflect on how to avoid ending up on the wrong side. On the left, the sinless souls receive access to Heaven. On the right, the sinners fall down into Hell. Some of the faces on the left represent real people who had a connection with the chapel.
Greschny included some personal touches. To the right of the door, he depicts himself falling into Hell with demons tormenting him. Greschny actually means sinful in Estonian, and the painter identified himself as a sinner because of some terrible crime that an ancestor committed. However, he still hopes for redemption. In a scene above, the Virgin Mary intercedes for him.
You can find out more about Greschny on this website (in French). It includes a list of his works (under Oeuvres), so if you are interested and in the region, you can visit them. La Chapelle des Treize Pierres is open only a couple of days a week in the summer months. Out of season, contact the Villefranche Tourist Office.
Stay tuned for some of the other hidden gems I saw over the weekend, including the tiny hamlet of La Salvetat des Carts and the delightful ancient village of La Bastide l’Evêque tucked away in the rolling Aveyron hills. My bucket list has become a little shorter after last weekend!
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