Maurice Novarina: Notre Dame du Léman in Vongy, France
Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with You
by Jonathan Evens
Maurice Novarina was born in 1907 in a family of builders in Thonon-les-Bains, a small city located at the French side of Lake Geneva in Haute-Savoie. His career as an architect began in 1933 with the construction of the church of Vongy, a village of farmers and fishermen near Thonon-les-Bains. Notre Dame du Léman (Our Lady of Lake Geneva) was completed in 1935. It was one of the first ‘modern’ churches of France and was greeted with much controversy.
For Novarina church building became a fruitful area of business. Over his career he built more than 20 churches, which led him to work with Père Marie-Alain Couturier, the most well known figure of the renewal of religious art after World War II in France, as well as many contemporary artists such as Fernand Léger, Georges Rouault, Jean Bazaine and Alfred Manessier. His masterpiece is thought to be the church of Notre-Dame de Toutes Grâces in Plateau d’Assy which was decorated by Léger, Lurçat, Bazaine, Rouault, Richier, Bonnard, Matisse, Chagall and Lipchitz.
Novarina’s concern to reflect aspects of the local area in the design and decoration of the Notre Dame du Léman is one of the most interesting and original aspects of his early regional style. The church dominates the skyline of Vongy because of its 40 meter high bell tower, which can be seen from the shores of Lake Geneva. The roof of Hungarian oak is shaped like the hull of a boat. The facade of the church is composed of a large triangular concrete trellis containing stained glass. There are twelve columns flanking the central front porch with a main double wooden door shaped to resemble half of a boat.
The interior is dominated by its sanctuary mosaic made by the Mauméjean workshop. Mauméjean was a family of master glassblowers and mosaic artists whose work spanned three generations. The mosaic depicts the Virgin Mary holding the infant Christ in her arms while standing on a local type of sailboat with scissor sails crossing Lake Geneva accompanied by a flock of white gulls in a bright blue sky. The mosaic also portrays ten local Saints including St Francis de Sales, who is kneeling by Lake Geneva facing the Virgin and child in order to present the church to them; he literally holds the building in his hands. The words ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you’ surround the scene.
The Stations of the Cross on the nave walls are also mosaic and include the name and emblem of cities located on the shores of Lake Geneva, in both France and Switzerland. The floor of the aisle and sanctuary is decorated with mosaics with descriptions of Mary inspired by the Marian Litany: Ivory Tower, Tower of David, Seat of Wisdom, Gate of Heaven, Golden House, Reflection of the Sun, Spiritual Vase, Ark of the Covenant, Mystical Rose, Mother of God, Mother of Good Counsel.
The Mauméjean workshop also contributed six large stained glass windows in the nave. Interestingly these depict Our Lady blessing the work of men and women undertaking their everyday work and therefore show various trades in the locality.
Several other artists and craftspeople were engaged in the making of the tabernacle, the marble altar, the bronze door to the chancel (with Boaz and Ruth depicted on the left, and the fruits of the Promised Land on the right) and several sculptures. A sculpture of St Joseph was crafted by the Swiss artist Marcel Feuillat, who was one of the founder members in 1919 of the Group of St Luke and St Maurice which set out to defend and further the revival of religious art. Novarina would work closely with this group on the decoration of his next church, Notre Dame des Alpes at Le Fayet near the Mont Blanc in France. During these early decades of the 20th century many artists thus cooperated to renew the architecture and art of the Catholic Church.
Maurice Novarina: Notre Dame du Léman, Vongy, France, 1935. See http://egliseinfo.catholique.fr/lieu/74/vongy/notre-dame-du-leman.
Jonathan Evens is an Anglican priest who is secretary to commission4mission, which aims to encourage the commissioning and placing of contemporary art in churches as a means of fundraising for charities and as a mission opportunity for the churches involved. For more information see www.commission4mission.org. Jonathan’s journalism and creative writing has appeared in a range of periodicals. His co-authored book The Secret Chord is an impassioned study of the role of music in cultural life, written through the prism of Christian belief (www.thesecretchord.co.uk). Jonathan Evens has just been on a sabbatical during which he visited significant sites connected to the renewal of religious art in Europe during the 20th century. In a series of Church of the Month articles on the ArtWay website he reflects on the visits he made in terms of the significance of these sites both for art history and good practice for commissioning, as well as capturing his personal and spiritual responses to the artworks at the sites.
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