Charterhouse Chronicle Anthony Symondson
6 A t Lourdes there is such a plethora of vulgarity. such a haemorrhage of bad taste, that the notion of some intervention of the Prince of Depravity inevitably springs to mind ...
One cannot help wondering what style it derives from, for it comprises a smattering of everything. There is Byzantine and Romanesque, the style of the hippodrome and that of the casino; but mainly, when one looks closely, there is the style of the machine depot, the roundhouse engine-shed ... As to art which is, after sanctity, the only clean thing on earth, you shall not merely be deprived of it, but, as I describe things, you will be relentlessly insulted by the persistent blasphemy of Ugliness."
Is this Brian Sewell stopping at Lourdes on the way to Compostella? It might well be, except that he was politer in his recent television series in which Lourdes was featured. For the novelist, aesthete and convert, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Lourdes was the epitome of ugliness, combining the worst associations of mass culture and commercialism. Sewell compared it to a Catholic Disneyland. Artistically Huysmans loathed it, but he realised that the pilgrims scarcely noticed what he considered the most appalling taste. Yet both were moved by the goodness of Lourdes. Sewell by the natural, unaffected piety and faith of two nice women from Hartlepool. Huysmans by the extraordinary mixture of horror and grace he saw there.
In Les Foules de Lourdes, published in 1906, Huysmans compared one of the hospitals to "a bodily hell and a paradise. Nowhere have I seen such appalling illnesses, so much charity and so much grace. From the point of view of human mercy, Lourdes is a wonder; there, more than anywhere else, you see the Gospels put into practice".
So what do we make of the architecture of Lourdes nearly a hundred years after Huysmans's visit? Ruth Harris in her brilliant book, Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age, put it in a nutshell: "By the end of the 1880s the sanctuary had created a whole new world at Lourdes, a world of the established Church that typified the aesthetic and spiritual style of an era. The mix was eclectic, the result heavy, imposing, almost industrial in aspect, despite the attempt to adhere to forms of architecture that conjured up the artistic harmonies of earlier Christian centuries." Lourdes embodies the architecture of clericalism.
The upper Basilica of the Immaculate Conception was described by EugeneEmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, the French theorist, restorer and architect, shortly before his death as a "pearl of Gothic style as created at the beginning of the XIIIth century".
It was designed by one of his pupils, Hyppolyte Duran, a recent convert, in 1862, and consecrated in 1876. Duran was no Viollet, but his taste exemplified the 19th century Church's preoccupation with the Middle Ages and was intended to express Mary's magnificence through
"Before our eyes," rapturously recorded a guidebook of 1950, "the nave unfolds in harmonious proportions, the clearness of its lines, and the joyous and soft light, reminding us of the Sainte Chapelle and of the impression we gathered there. The vault soars majestically and hardily, spreading its arches and springers like the tall trees in our woods." The basilica is full of elaborate sacerdotal art. The Canadian oak pulpit by the Abbe Pougnet, the windows of the Immaculate Conception by the Abbe Lambert, the heavily carved altar of white Carrara marble, Cabuchet's marble figure of the Virgin, with a veil "transformed into an apparently authentic gauze", the silver-gilt sanctuary lamps, the great Cavaille-Coll organ, reflect the taste of Mgr Bertrand-Severe Laurence, Bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes.
And the same applies to the Basilica of the Rosary, designed by Hardy and consecrated by Cardinal Langenieux in 1901. It was this that Huysmans was thinking of when he compared it to a Romanesque engine-shed. One of Sewell's pilgrims said that Lourdes brought the rosary to life. I suspect she meant the Grotto in the evening rather than the domed basilica in the shape of a Greek cross with 15 mosaic-lined chapels consecrated to the joyful, sorrowful and glorious mysteries. Some 10,640 cubic metres of the mountain were blown up to build it. The high altar and organ were given in reparation for Zola's critical novel, Lourdes. The result is overwhelming in colour, weight and overwrought workmanship and the portal provides a familiar background to thousands of group photographs.
The domain is full of official 19th and early 20th century church art. From the Breton calvary at the start of the Esplanade to the colossal statues by forgotten sculptors that wind up the gradient of the Place du Rosaire it is inescapable. "Marble and granite from the Pyranees, bronze and gold sparkling from monumental edifices that are simultaneously illuminated by stained-glass windows and mosaics, everything, together with the crowds flocking to this parterre of Our Lady, sings to the glory of Christ Redeemer, His Church and His Saints."
From the architecture of the First Vatican Council we come to the architecture of the Second, anticipated and actual. What of Pier Luigi Nervi's underground Basilica of St Pius X? Nervi was the most brilliant reinforced concrete designer of his age. The clarity of planning, the inventive and resourceful technical brilliance, the aesthetic sensitivity of the architecture combined with civil engineering, is in deliberate contrast to the elaboration of its surroundings. He was a brave choice. It has a numinous quality that is absent from the brutal industrial interior of the Church of St Bernadette on the opposite bank of the River Gave. Every age thinks it can do better than its immediate predecessor; every age makes the same mistakes. That church is, by any standard, even uglier than the Basilica of the Rosary over the bridge.
"Throughout the history of. Lourdes," concludes Ruth Harris, "there has always remained one fixed point: the essential image of a young, poverty-stricken and sickly girl kneeling in ecstasy in a muddy grotto." It is the spiritual values St Bernadette inspires that persuaded Huysmans, Sewell and me of the real miracle of Lourdes.