In Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne in the Corrèze department of France, one of the ‘Plus Beaux Villages de France’. The centre of the town is dominated by the Abbey Church of Saint-Pierre, which was completed in 1140.

Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne alongside the river Dordogne

Abbatiale Saint-Pierre de Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne

The portal on the south façade of the church has a magnificent tympanum which depicts the Parousia – the second coming of Christ on Earth. The tympanum is divided into three registers. The lower register contains depictions of exotic animals which symbolise the deadly sins of anger, pride and envy. The middle register depicts Hell, into which the characters on the upper register risk being thrown if they are not judged worthy of Paradise. The upper register is dominated by a two-metre carving of Christ, his arms spread in the form of a cross. He is flanked by the twelve Apostles, while angels above him carry the crown and nails. Meanwhile, other angels sound the trumpet to summon up the dead.

Tympanum, Abbatiale Saint-Pierre de Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne

There are further carvings either side of the entrance porch, with scenes from both the Old and New Testaments. On the left are episodes from the Life of Daniel, whilst on the right are Temptations of Christ.

Porch carvings, Abbatiale Saint-Pierre de Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne

Inside the church, its treasure is exhibited in the north transept. It consists of a statue of the Virgin and Child in wood covered with silver from the twelfth century, a reliquary lantern dating from the eleventh century, a thirteenth-century enamelled shrine depicting the journey of the Three Magi, and two silver reliquary arms from the thirteenthth century, those of Sainte-Félicité and Saint-Emilion.

Virgin and Child, Abbatiale Saint-Pierre, Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne

Enamelled shrine depicting the journey of the Three Magi (thirteenth century)

The abbey was the subject of attacks during both the Hundred Years War and the Wars of Religion, resulting in the monks eventually fleeing in 1574. In 1663 it was taken over by the French Benedictine community which restored it. However, it was definitively abandoned during the Revolution, when it became the parish church.

Beaulieu’s original parish church was built in the twelfth century, near the upper port where the river barges stopped. However, it was sold during the Revolution, when its function was transferred to the abbey church. It was purchased by the Brotherhood of Blue Penitents in 1820 and became the seat of the brotherhood until 1870.

Chapel of the Penitents, Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne

Pierre Soulages (1919 – 2022)

Whilst at the Fernand Leger exhibition at the Musée Soulages in Rodez, it was a perfect opportunity to see the works of the artist after whom the museum was named, Pierre Soulages, who was born in Rodez in 1919. The museum was opened in 2014, enabling the largest collection of his works in the world to be on permanent display. Soulages and Colette, his wife of eighty years, donated 900 works to the museum. However, just a few days after my visit, on 26 October, Soulages died in Nimes at the impressive age of 102.

Pierre Soulages, aged 100

There was an extreme contrast between the colourful works of Leger in one room and Soulages in the next. With Soulanges there were no bright, primary colours or cheerful subjects – instead, vast blocks of black and brown and minimalist works in Brous de noix. Temporary exhibitions at the museum are usually of artists with a connection with the works of Soulages, but on this occasion the paintings were so different that I wondered what possible connection there could be. Yet there were several – the two artists not only knew each other and admired each other’s work but they also worked together. For example, in 1952, at an event to commemorate the fifth centenary of Leonardo da Vinci at Chateau d’Amboise, Léger designed costumes and Soulages the sets for an evening performance.

Pierre Soulages ‘Brou de Noix, 65,7 x 50,1 cm’ (1947)

Whilst in many of Soulage’s paintings black dominated, he explained that “my instrument is not black but the light reflected from the black.” In other words, they were ‘beyond black’; in fact he called the technique ‘outrenoir’. He applied the paint in thick impasto layers and then worked on it with tools to achieve the complex textures he wanted. In earlier years he had also painted in walnut stain, applying bold brown strokes to the canvas to produce an effect which again provided a contrast to the bright colours of the neo-Fauvists of the period.

Pierre Soulages ‘Peinture 162 x 114 cm’ (1958)

In 1938 Soulages enrolled in the Ecole des beaux-arts in Paris, but did not stay as he disliked the traditional techniques taught there and he sought his own way, rejecting the trends in abstract painting of the time. This made him more noticeable and he was successful quite quickly. After military service in World War II, he exhibited at the Salon des Surindépendants in 1947, in Germany the following year and at the Venice Biennale in 1954. In 1954 he also exhibited in New York, gaining recognition in the United States during the time that Abstract Expressionism was being promoted. He would later be made an Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Pierre Soulages ‘Design for stained-glass windows’

The windows installed in Abbatiale Sainte-Foy de Conques

Between 1987 and 1994 he produced 104 stained-glass windows for the Abbey Church of Saint Foy in Conques, the preliminary designs for which are also on display in the Rodez museum. He was the first living artist to exhibit at the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. A retrospective of his work was also held at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2009 – 2010 and the Louvre held a major exhibition in 2019 – 20 to celebrate his one-hundredth birthday.

Hieroglyphics in Figeac

The Rosetta Stone, which contains three versions of a decree issued in Memphis, Egypt, in 196 BC, was discovered in 1799 being used as a building material in the construction of Fort Julien near the town of Rashid (or Rosetta) in the Nile Delta.

The first version was in Egyptian hieroglyphic, never before translated, and the last was in Ancient Greek. This enabled scholars to work on the interpretation of the hieroglyph symbols. Jean-François Champollion, who was born in Figeac, was the first to succeed and render hieroglyphics understandable.

Figeac now not only has a Champollion Museum but the town’s Place des écritures has a giant replica of the Rosetta Stone in his honour.

Rosetta Stone replica, Place des écritures, Figeac

Fernand Léger in Rodez

At the Musée Soulages in Rodez, in the Aveyron department of southern France, for the exhibition ‘Fernand Leger. La vie à bras-le-corps’. The exhibition, which was twice cancelled due to the Covid pandemic, presents eighty-six paintings, mainly from the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Fernand Léger museum in Biot. It focuses on three main themes in Léger’s work: the city, the world of work and the world of leisure.

Fernand Léger ‘Le Mécanicien’ (1918)

Fernand Léger ‘Le Remorqueur’ (1920)

Fernand Léger ‘Composition aux trois figures, fond bleu’ (1931)

Fernand Léger ‘Les Loisirs sur fond rouge’ (1949)

Fernand Léger ‘La Partie de Campagne (Deuxième état)’ (1954)

Fernand Léger ‘La Partie de Campagne (Deuxième état)’ (1954)

Fernand Léger ‘La Partie de Campagne’ (1954)

Fernand Léger ‘Le Campeur’ (1954)