Darkness and Light in Avignon
Though shaded by modernity, classical-Christian civilization in Provence still sheds its light.

Le Pont d’Avignon


Reluctantly, the family braved the driving April rains on the religious holiday to celebrate Sainte Bernadette Soubirous of Lourdes at the large stone crucifix at the center of town, with a vague promise that the next day would be clear for the annual procession for the saint, with its promised “tableaux vivants.” The next day came, still initially cold and wet, and the family reluctantly and with some embarrassment joined the local procession through the dreary town, most of its small houses normally shuttered for warmth and privacy even during the day. Yet as the weather cleared, a remarkable sight appeared to the pilgrims: Each of the normally shut-up little car garages or shuttered gardens adjacent to the drab houses opened up to reveal a lovingly prepared scene of Mary and Bernadette, modeled in utter, visionary stillness by young women standing or kneeling amid scenes of local flora, woodcraft, and papier-mâché.

We were reminded of the history of the “Santons” — small Christmas-crèche figures, lovingly fashioned out of wood and colored cloth or painted terra cotta, representing traditional Provençal types — gendarme, knife grinder, wine seller, shepherd, as well as the Holy Family — still objects of devotion, decoration, pride, craftsmanship, and commerce in Provence to this day. During the Jacobin persecution of the Church in the 1790s, when religious observance was prohibited, peasants and craftsmen continued to produce the Santons (especially the holy figurines) to aid the devout in secretly observing Christmas and maintaining a focus of piety in their homes.

The pious “living scenes” in the temporarily open garages and gardens revealed, like the Santons, “une France profonde,” washed over by all the phosphorescent acids of modernity and largely polluted and corrupted like the rest of the profane West, but still retaining a hold on the affections and habits of many people. The dark and dreary village shone forth an unearthly, heavenly, human light — a hopeful, pious light — in an ironic, darkened age, itself the ingenious product of “globalization” and “enlightenment” at the lowest conceivable cultural level.

Vincent van Gogh spent most of his last months a few miles farther south, in the beautiful olive groves and vineyards south of St.-Rémy-de-Provence, only paces from Glanum, the oldest Roman ruins in the south of France. The mental institution where he was confined just prior to his suicide in 1890 is the former Priory of St.-Paul-de-Mausole, with its Romanesque cloister; his former cell is now hung with reproductions of his paintings. He had come to the south of France in search of light and respite from the hideous, irreligious, dehumanizing darkness of the coalfields of Picardy and Belgium, and from the growing urbanization and industrialization of Europe that were simultaneously tormenting his eloquent English contemporary John Ruskin farther north. The same fatal year, 1890, the critic Aurier gave the first positive, prominent appreciation of van Gogh’s painting in the Mercure de France. Van Gogh’s heartrending, now-classic letters were written mostly to his nobly supportive brother Theo, who died six months after him and is buried next to him in Auvers. A disappointed, heartbroken Protestant evangelist in the coalfields of the north, van Gogh succeeded posthumously in bringing to many others the beautiful light of Provence in paint while not finding succor in it himself. There is a poignant contrast to the unwearying sanity, industry, and productivity of his nearby Provençal contemporary Cézanne in Aix-en-Provence. “The truth is that all this country round Aix,” Archibald Lyall writes, “whitish chalky soil and light-green dusty trees, relieved here and there by a red-tiled roof or a bluish-white cliff, is so saturated with Cézanne that it is almost impossible to see it except through the painter’s eyes.”

The ambiguous genius Aldous Huxley suffered a year of blindness as a youth and subsequently had vision problems throughout his life. Before seeking the sun of southern California, he sought light by living in both Tuscany and Provence (at Sanary, on the coast near Toulon) in the 1920s. At the end of the 1920s he also turned from cynicism to religious idealism, from absurdist darkness to hopeful light. Though he remained an ambiguous “dark angel,” hovering between good and evil, light and darkness, for the rest of his life, he had permanently valuable insights about the source of light: “A totally unmystical world,” he wrote in that tragically dark year 1941, “would be a world totally blind and insane.” As Socrates saw and said, God is light.

In every age, that lucid French savant Pascal wrote, there is enough light to see the light, and enough darkness to remain in obscurity. But in the glorious summer sunshine, the towns and landscapes of old Provence — olive, vine, almond, lavender, and limestone —  evoke a sense of profound harmony, a solace for the restless human spirit, so often vexed by savage winds and cold darkness, outside or within. And sometimes the human figure — painting, Santon, or “tableau vivant,” wife, child, or friend — shows forth the light we need, which “never was on sea or land.”

M. D. Aeschliman is professor of Anglophone culture at the University of Italian Switzerland. His most recent book is a new critical edition of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (Ignatius Press).