Bon voyage! It’s a good phrase isn’t it? But if you were to take a journey in rural France in the Middle Ages, you’d definitely want something more than good wishes for a long journey along roads where the rules of law, kitchen hygiene and good sanitation were often conspicuously absent. That’s presumably why so many really old roads in France have chapels along the wayside.
Certainly our local market town of Lorgues is ringed with small chapels on all the main roads out. The town was on a secondary (or maybe tertiary) route to the famous pilgrim destination of St James of Compostela (Santiago de Compostela) in NW Spain and several lesser routes as well. Actually some of these chapel actually bestrode the roads making it almost obligatory for travelers to stop for a quick prayer for safety.
The most celebrated of these is the small chapel of Ben Va, or to give it’s full title, the Chapel of Notre-Dame de Benva, to the west of Lorgues . ‘Benva’ is a contraction of the Provençale “Ben vaï”, or Bon voyage.
Up to the 1920s the carts and cars still ran under the huge porch of the chapel but inevitably this couldn’t continue, so now the road goes round the chapel which means that most people drive past. Which is a pity because around 1510 Ben Va was visited by an unknown Italian artist who painted extraordinary frescos on the inside walls of the chapel and inside the porch which somehow survived the Reformation, the Revolution and the odd rebellion. We had the opportunity to visit it last month as part of an open day and the frescoes are fascinating not just as works of art but as windows into the mediaeval world.
The outside frescos are faint, but still impressive. Inside, the right-hand side originally depicted hell, but has been almost totally obliterated (from the small part that remains, one can imagine that it wasn’t a very pleasant sight!). The left-hand side shows heaven, with God on his throne surrounded by the souls of the righteous, and below women depicting virtues. Over the entrance door is purgatory.
In terms of church art, they are not the highest quality: by all accounts, the frescos in Italian churches of this era are even finer. But we found it fascinating to find these on our doorstep. In them we see an entire medieval theology, and though the faces and costumes may be stylised one feels they are real people, who could have been identifiable to their contemporaries. Decoding the pictures – and they do need decoding – is challenging. So for instance, the woman with the long loose hair is Mary Magdalene. Some of the saints are instantly recognisable: St Sebastian looking like a pin cushion, St Michael trampling on the dragon, but others aren’t, at least to us.
We found ourselves wondering why these walls were painted. Was it, in this age before widespread literacy, to teach the fear of hell and the hope of heaven? Was it to encourage the traveller to make a donation? Or was it quite simply to encourage the weary pilgrim to keep going?
It’s interesting to think that in those days people would have stopped and looked at these frescoes and thought about where they were headed in this life and the next. We, in contrast, just drive by.