Monday, July 8, 2013

Toujours Montmajour

Van Gogh visited the abandoned abbey of Montmajour several times when he lived in Arles.  For a dedicated hiker like himself, the long steady trudge up the side of a hill a few miles outside of town presented no great obstacle, even with an easel strapped to his back, and from inside the abbey the views of the surrounding countryside were spectacular, well worth to him whatever effort it took to get them.  Right now in Provence we are starting to feel the heat of
midsummer--something of course the area is known for, along with the intensely bright sunshine that beams at you from cloudless blue
skies--and the heat, like the long walks, never seemed to bother Van Gogh either, despite his fair Dutch skin.  Even during the dog days of August he claimed to be as happy working in the heat as a cicada singing in a tree.  (Something else the area is known for.)

So I feel it's appropriate that I visited Montmajour for the fourth time myself the other day, during the middle of a heat wave.  It's the kind of place that seems forever unchanging but at the same time wears a new face each time you visit.  Kind of like provence itself.  A bit of a side note here: I was just thinking to myself the other morning, and jotting down in my journal, that Provence seems
to have a very different idea of progress than other places I know.  It's not that nothing changes here--inevitably that happens--but at a significantly slower, steadier pace and in ways that are intentionally meant to integrate with life and the rhythms of life that have been long established.  New houses get built, but not so many as to wreak wholesale havoc on the landscape.  And the houses themselves are built to fit in with the overall look of the region.  It's what people want.  It's what house buyers want.  The idea is that the new houses look like they have been there for decades.  The roads are well-maintained, but they are almost uniformly narrow, and that's not going to change.  For instance, the road that takes you from  Raphele to Arles--D453--features beautiful rows of plane trees bordering both sides for a stretch that goes on for miles.  It would be impossible to expand that road without getting rid of the bordering plane trees.  So will they ever do that?  Of course not.  In America, especially recently, and especially in central Arkansas, where I happen to live, politicians and city planners seem to think that nothing says progress more than ripped up roads and more ripped up roads.  New housing developments and more new housing developments.  That, from the American view, is progress.  From the Provencal point of view that is regress.  Change that integrates with a centuries old way of life is beneficial and acceptable; change that threatens that way of life is unthinkable.  No wonder this place seems so significantly the same each time I visit--and no wonder its rustic beauty endures.

Back to Montmajour.  Due to the very slow pace of change, it's possible to get views from the abbey that are identical, or nearly so, to what Van Gogh saw when he tramped up there: wheat fields, pasturing lands for horses, a single farm house bordered by tall trees acting as a wind break, a tall rocky hill in the near distance, the ancient cityscape of Arles much farther away.  As I said, it's worth the visit just to see that view.  But the abbey itself always maintains a shadowy solemn stone grandeur, something that didn't particularly interest Van Gogh--who rarely sketched or painted the abbey itself--but never fails to affect me.  When you visit, you start in the crypt area of the abbey and slowly wind your way upward.  First to the tall, empty walls of the church--a sign informs you that despite its current bare appearance the church was extremely ornamented and decorated during its day--and then to open courtyard bordered by several small chambers.  Rooms for the monks long ago.  Finally outside to the upper rim of the abbey, where one finds those great views.  But it hardly stops there.  A defensive tower was installed at the abbey in the fourteenth century at the command of the abbot in reaction to troops from Les Baux who were attacking Arles.  Today one can climb a tall, tightly winding stone staircase to reach the  top of the tower and there be rewarded with even longer, more distant views.  One can see clear all the way to Tarascon.  Coming down from and out of the tower, your self-guided tour naturally leads to the back of the outer area where you see a series of rectangular, box-like holes cuts into the rocky terrain.  (Check the picture above.)  And by rocky I mean literally into a sheet of rock itself.  These holes are the remains of a very old burial ground.  Indeed, it was this burial ground which necessitated the abbey being built in the first place.  As you stand outside looking at these tiny graves carved into rock, the wind blows past your ears, the road outside is silent, and you can still feel the presence of ideas and people--and ideas of people--long past but still whispering.

It's a quiet experience, visiting the abbey.  It's certainly a tourist spot, but not exactly overrun--not during any of the four times I've come.  The abbey keeps itself current today by hosting a series of art exhibits all year long.  Fascinating to see these old stone rooms enlivened with contemporary art.  Some might see that as a violation, but I don't.  The art, while not expressly religious, seems appropriately selected for the space.  Given that the abbey is most famous now for the hold it once kept on a single lonely Dutch painter, who lived in Arles for merely a year, I love to see that Montmajour's administrators honor its connection to art in what I think is the best way possible--by featuring the output of current, working artists.   The stone structure of a dead abbey shines with the creations of living imaginations--and stirs the living imagination of any who walk through it.


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