On our way through France this summer we have seen lovely things!
We stopped for a night in Troyes, which has a medieval centre filled with colourful half-timbered houses, many standing at curious angles, and a fine selection of churches. The houses are tall and narrow, with steep pitched roofs and overhanging gables. They give the impression that inside there won’t be a single straight wall or level floor and one expects curious cubby-holes and vertiginous staircases.
Right in the centre of the town we found the church of Saint-Jean-au-Marche, an exquisite gothic building, slightly crooked – as it was built on a cramped site in several different stages. With beautiful vaulting and some very fine stained glass, this church is a gem.
This was also the church where Henry Vth of England married Catherine of France – the follow-up to his triumph at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. (Remember the love scene at the end of Shakespeare’s Henry Vth, where the martial king woos the flirtatious French princess)?
There were some lovely sculptures here, especially this beautiful image of The Visitation – when the Virgin Mary meets her cousin Elizabeth. This group was made around 1525 by the Flemish sculptor, Nicolas Halins.
Our next stop was in Chaource, not far from Troyes. As well as being a major centre for cheese-making, this quiet little town is home to a veritable sculpture museum in the parish church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste.
The largest group of sculptures here is the famous Lamentation scene, housed in a small crypt a few steps below the level of the church nave. In a confined space you are suddenly amidst the scene of the deposition of the body of Christ, as seven over-life-size figures reverently lower him into his sepulchre.
Alongside Joseph of Aramathea are the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene and St John the Evangelist, with Mary Salome, Mary Cleophas and Nicodemus. Behind you, as you stand watching the tableau, three other life-size figures of soldiers, watch from around the doorway, putting you – as the newest spectator – right into the centre of the action. On the wall to one side the donors of the work are shown, much smaller figures, kneeling in prayer and watching the scene unfold before them.
The figures are extremely realistic, with much of their original pigment still visible, and very powerful. They were made between 1515 and 1520 by Jacques Bachot, now known as the Master of Chaource.
This fabulous group would have been quite enough to make a visit to the church worthwhile, but this is only the beginning, as the rest of the church is also stuffed full of beautiful figures, altarpieces and frescoes.
How all of these sculptures managed to survive is a mystery to me – so many where lost in waves of iconoclasm or broken apart during the French Revolution. But here they stay, a glorious museum of sixteenth century figures and carvings in this quiet corner of Champagne-Ardennes.