J A N U A R Y 25,  2013

 фото церкви Temple of Art in Passy


Some believe that churches are built in “special holy” places, charged with some otherworldly energy. I think this is precisely so. Every person, be he/she a believer or not, must in all likelihood have a church in which he or she feels good, blissful, calm and inspired. There are several churches in Moscow in which I personally feel especially at ease. Situated in different parts of the city, these churches differ dramatically from one another in size and interior. Yet, they obviously have something in common that attracts precisely me and enables me to drop in just because it feels good there rather than to perform some religious rite or attend a service.

I practically never experienced anything of the sort when I visited Catholic cathedrals in Europe. They, too, made me feel good and calm. However, I noticed that there was something special about my attitude to these cathedrals. I was fascinated by some of them, but at the same time felt overwhelmed by their monumentality and the awareness of the enormity of human effort and time spent on erecting them. Others stunned by their beauty and décor, but all of them attracted me mostly from an artistic point of view. I was primarily interested now in architecture, now in the beauty of sculpture and organ pipes. In a word, my focus was above all on art put at the service of the church. So, when I first found myself in a cathedral brimming with top-class art that was produced by masters I knew only too well, I not so much enjoyed the masterpieces and art itself as relished the atmosphere created precisely by those works of art. It was, perhaps, indeed for the first time that I really felt in Europe that bliss one should feel in a temple. Of course, I couldn’t but admire stained glass by Rouault or Chagall, nor overlook one of the last works by Bonnard, but…

But let me begin from the very beginning. Speaking about “special” places for building temples, the church in the town of Passy was raised precisely in a place like that.



The Catholic church of Notre Dame de Toute-Grâce is on the Plateau d’Assy 1,000 m above the sea level with a majestic view of the snow-white Mont Blanc top. The church was built from 1937 to 1946 on the initiative of Jean Devémy (1896-1981), the Sancellemoz sanatorium chaplain, to the design and under the supervision of the Savoie architect Maurice Novarina, who was inspired by the style of the local Alpine chalet.

Before the Second World War the Plateau d’Assy was famous for its TB sanatoria. By the late 1930s there were over a score of clinics there, the largest of them with their own chapels and the rest visited by priests in case of need. Such a big number of patients living in seclusion, beyond doubt, required spiritual support, and the new church was to give it to patients and the local sanatoria staff.

Jean Devémy wanted his” church to have something special and be a genuine consolation to local residents. He decided that it should blend harmoniously with the surrounding landscape. Due to his complete unanimity with the architect Maurice Novarina the church was built of local materials – green sandstone mined in the neighborhood – and decorated inside with wood from the Ardennes forest. They had to go to Paris to get something special.

As it often happens, important events of our life come as a result of a chain of seemingly chance coincidences. Jean Devémy knew Father Marie Alain Couturier (1897-1954), a Dominican who for health reasons lived in Savoie for three years in the early 1930s. Before joining the Dominican Order in 1930, Father Marie Alain, Pierre Couturier before being tonsured, was an artist of the Montparnasse circle.

Wounded gravely at the frontline, the 20-year-old Pierre Couturier received hospital treatment and in 1917, on the advice of his family friend, the sculptor Bartholome, went to Paris. His passion for painting and religion brought him to the Studios of Sacred Art of Maurice Denis, who introduced him first to Pierre Bonnard and then to Henri Matisse. The latter, in his turn, introduced him to André Derain and Pablo Picasso.

Father Marie Alain Couturier is famous for having devoted his entire life to the development of modern religious art and for its being recognized officially by the Roman Catholic Church. He wrote several theoretical works on this subject and engaged in the production and restoration of monumental frescoes in European churches and cathedrals.

That was the man who took charge of the interior design of the new church. On the advice of Father Marie Alain, who believed sincerely that all true artists worked for the glory of God, Jean Devémy went to Paris to attend a contemporary art exhibition, where he was stunned by Georges Rouault’s stained glass The Passion of Christ. Back to Passy, he measured the window apertures in the already built church – their size fit the size of Rouault’s stained glass perfectly! “Here it is – the miracle of d’Assy!” he exclaimed. He had found the first “special thing.”   



What followed looked like a fantastic dream. In addition to Georges Rouault, Marc Chagall, Pierre Bonnard, Jacques Lipchitz, Maurice Brianchon, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Jean Lurçat and other artists contributed to decorating that church.


passy cathedral plan Temple of Art in Passy


Despite the bright individuality of every concrete masterpiece, the main thing is the warmth, light, harmony and startlingly pure aura of that church. Father Marie Alain truly created a monument to his theory of supreme spirituality of contemporary sacred art and externalized it. Incidentally, he personally made two stained glasses for the church of Passy. One of the last paintings by Pierre Bonnard, who did it a few months before his death and gifted it to the church in memory of his nephew, Dr. Jean Terrasse, one of the founders of the sanatoria on the Plateau d’Assy, is also kept there.



When he invited the grand masters of modern times, Jean Devémy trusted their talents and the purity of their aspirations and therefore made no distinctions between their different denominations and political views. He invited Fernand Léger, famous for his Communist ideas, to decorate the façade,  and thus there appeared a mosaic panel of 152 sq m. Marc Chagall’s ceramic panel, marble bas-reliefs and stained glass are in a side-chapel. The gallery accommodates a huge tapestry by Jean Lurçat illustrating the 12th chapter of the Apocalypse, and a bronze crucifix by the sculptor Germaine Richier.



The proof of the pudding is of course in the eating. The best you can do to appreciate the true worth of the church of Notre Dame de Toute-Grâce is to visit it. The mountain road leading to Passy and known as the Route of Sculptures may in itself become the theme of another story.