Monday, 26 June 2017

Medieval mysteries

One of the strange beasts to be found high above your heads in the cloisters of the Fréjus Cathedral.
One of the wondrous things that has inspired me in France is living with its history. There is no escaping. Les Arcs-sur-Argens was originally a medieval settlement. Provence was invaded by the Romans, the Catalans, the Piedmontese - all of whom have left their mark.
I was fascinated by Stonehenge, the white horse on Salisbury plain, the castles and ancient Roman ruins when I lived in UK in the 1970s and 80s, but probably because I was younger then, they didn’t create the ‘frisson’ they do today.

This is a fresco from a chateau in Puy-de-Dome.
Perhaps it is since my return to Australia, as I studied tapestry weaving and the beautiful medieval tapestries that graced so many castles and chateaux in Europe, that my interest has grown.

Les Arcs stages one of Provence’s leading medieval festivals – taking place next month – called ‘Castrum d’Arcus’, where the entire village ‘becomes’ medieval with stalls, dances, jugglers, strolling minstrels, re-enactments, a grand spectacle and street parades – not to mention medieval food and drink!
But just a short trip from Les Arcs-sur-Argens is the ancient Roman town of Fréjus. Originally located on the sea front, the mouth of the adjacent River Argens has silted up over the centuries so that the centre of Fréjus is now three kilometres inland!
The ceiling of the cloisters showing the tiny paintings.
In the centre of the town is the Cathédrale de Fréjus - and its magnificent cloisters, the wooden ceilings of which have been delicately painted by medieval artists. It is one of the most fascinating cloisters I have ever seen. Hidden in niches between the wooden beams that support the floor above, are hundreds of tiny paintings. 

The figures and mythical beasts were painted  directly onto the raw wood with earth pigments,  by unknown medieval artists. Although many are faded - and some were destroyed during revolutions and wars - around 300 have been preserved out of an original 1200. Many were saved because of their position, away from the bleaching effects of strong sunlight.
Known as ‘bestiaries mythiques’ or mythical beasts, these figures are intriguing. They originate (I think) with the fantastical beasts described in the Book of Revelations as well as myths and legends of weird sea creatures and stories of exotic animals from other lands.
Some are half-human, half-animal, they show the daily life of the times as well as the strange world of gothic imagination. They include a range of themes from wars, religion, music, animals, daily life and work. I find them mesmerising and surprisingly modern. In fact I visit the cloisters every time I am in France, just to refresh my memory and perhaps get another perspective on them.
'La reine'- one of my tiny tapestries in medieval style.
During your visit, you can gather more information on how these tiny works of art were put together with a film documentary that shows modern artisans replicating the ancient works, plus displays showing the earth colours used and how they would be mixed, the brushes used and how the wood was prepared.
There are many other churches throughout France with similar depictions in tapestries and frescoes - not to mention the gargoyles guarding the rooftops!
I knew that one day I would have to weave them, if only to ‘feel’ how they could be recreated in woven tapestry. So I have taken some of the basic designs and modernised them and am showing them - together with artwork from 25 other women artists of Ballarat - in an exhibition called ‘Sheilas Reclaimed’ which opens this Friday evening (June 30) at the Fairbanks Eye Gallery.


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