'Is the marine churchyard still far, daddy?'
'No sweetie, it's about half a mile away, that's all.'
My daughter Julie, just like the other 7-year-old children, can't help it: she has to ask the question. But for a change, I managed to arouse her curiosity by promising her a marine churchyard ('Marine? Like the little mermaid?'): she was probably imagining a church and a graveyard shaped like a boat, at sea in full sail...
We had left Dieppe, parked in Varengeville-sur-mer, and were then walking along this little Route de l'Église, which goes through the park The Bois des Moutiers (where we will have to go one day as we have heard a lot about it...). In front of me, my wife Clara, and Julie who was running from one hedgerow to another to pick up flowers. This road has a soothing effect: a path towards tranquillity, a 1.4-km-long (0.8 mile) walk towards quietude.
And then, we could see the church, surrounded by a small wall.
A few more steps and the whole scene revealed itself: a view over the graveyard, the church, the meadows and the cliffed coast, the famous Côte d’Albâtre (Alabaster Coast).
Even Julie, who usually is a real dynamo, calmed down and, for a moment, looked at this view with gentle eyes...
This is what Claude Monet was looking for when he set up his easel here, it's obvious: the symphony of light and colours! What he was looking for was the right note, the perfect combination between the place, the colour and the light.
And I think the right light of the marine churchyard in Varengeville-sur-mer, is the one we had today. The light of a sunny January Sunday. A low sun, a bright coldness. The harsh winter sun.
As for the colours, you just have to let the composition carry you away: the pale blue sky blurring into the horizon, the blue-green colour of the Channel, balanced with the intense green of the meadows, a deep and wet green. And the cliff, a true palette: the white and foamy chalk, striped with thin layers of flint, as if they were nervous pencil strokes... And this brown colour from the earth, spread by the streams that flow down the cliff, as if someone wanted to avoid the dazzling white colour, too easy and too plain of the English cliffs.
Clara, who read my mind:
'Yes, that's right; it is the home of Impressionism here!' She told me while walking towards the churchyard.
My daughter, absorbed in her own thoughts:
'Tell me daddy, is the church going to glide into the water? Eh?'
I, when my daughter asks me a question, always know what to answer:
- Uh... maybe... I don't know, go and ask your mother...
A church that glides into water?? Where on earth did she get that idea from?
I had not noticed but it is true that the ground is sloping! The church and graveyard are standing on an incline plane, as if magnetised to the cliff, to the sea...
Too late: Julie had dashed off and was already tugging the sleeve of her mother at the entrance of the churchyard.
It was Clara who provided the guided tour and showed us, here, the tomb of the writer, Georges de Porto-Riche, who was a friend of Marcel Proust, there the tomb of the composer Albert Roussel (which is worth a look with its bas-reliefs evoking India), further away Jean-Francis Auburtin's tomb, a Symbolist painter, and of course the tomb of the Cubist painter Georges Braque displaying a bird with outstretched wings in mosaic.
This churchyard is a salon where rest famous and unknown Frenchmen, from Paris or from Varengeville-sur-mer, gathered together in simplicity: no monumental, pretentious or rococo tomb in this small seaside Père-Lachaise Cemetery.
'At least, here, the tombs of great men don't flatten those of ordinary people', Clara whispered.
'One has to know how to stretch out, without spreading around, sort of.
'Don't be daft', she answered with a half-smile.
We didn't enter the church through the 16th century porch but through a side door. We opened the door: a shaft of light. We closed the door: darkness. It is definitely this interplay of light, darkness and colours that dominates everything.
On the left, spotlights light up a painting made by Michel Ciry, a red-haired Christ with a translucent skin on an enigmatic dark blue background.
We moved away from the door and turned back: a dazzling flash came from Georges Braque and Raoul Ubac's stained-glass windows! I had never seen such impressive stained-glass windows. Bright blues, bright reds, bright yellows. Absolute colours created with light.
While I was caught up by these colours and lights that made my head spin, Julie, standing in front of a column with bas-reliefs, interrupted me:
'Why is the man throwing up?'
What? Who is throwing up? In a church? She must be wrong...
'What are you talking about, Julie?'
'There, the man, he is throwing up...'
'No, come on... Oh, yes. You're right, he is throwing up. Uh, well, he must have eaten too many sweets...'
My wife takes over immediately:
'It's because the graveyard and the church have to do with the sea. Remember, we told you it was a marine churchyard. So, it is probably a fisherman who has eaten too many scallops, or perhaps he was seasick.'
'Like Daddy when we took the boat?'
'Yes, exactly, like Daddy when we took the boat in Fécamp.'
I, trying to look casual and to put on a brave face in front of my daughter, gave a nod to my wife - thank you Clara - who was smiling mockingly.
'Come on Julie, let's get out again, I am going to show you: the entire church is about the sea, you will see, the walls are made with pebbles.
A few more steps in the church. On the wall, there is a tombstone, which probably indicates the location of a tomb in the church. It is not, as we would expect, the tomb of a local prince or lord, but a local ploughman and his wife who died in 1634. Simplicity again. On the left of the altar, a small corridor, and, hidden on purpose I guess, like a secret work of art: a magnificent, yet sober, stained-glass window by Jean Renut, a contemporary artist from Dieppe. A stained-glass window as simple as can be: a white opaque background, slightly luminous like a foggy day, and a spot, a dark burnt patch that evokes the image of Christ on the cross. The art of stained-glass reduced to its most extreme form: a black and white photographic film, an interaction between light and darkness…
Hardly had I been out of the church that Julie rushed towards me shouting:
'Can we go and see the sea? There is a path over there!'
Indeed, there is a "valleuse" (dry-hanging valley) that leads to the sea, on the left past the churchyard.
Information panels told us about Claude Monet's works in Varengeville-sur-mer; he painted several canvases here, including La Cabane des douaniers (The Custom Officer's Cabin).
This cabin no longer exists today, but a timber frame shaped like a house with no walls or roof, like an orange cottage on the cliff, reminds us of this resplendent work of art.
'Julie, Clara! If you climbed into the cabin, we could make a nice picture, like Monet's painting!'
While they clambered up the little construction, I took out the camera and cast a last glance at this sloping church and graveyard... She is right my daughter, this marine church will eventually fall. It is gradually returning to the sea, gliding slowly towards the waves... The sea always wins, eroding the cliff wave after wave, season after season. And one day, this churchyard will be even more marine than any other marine churchyard in the world. For good.
Hand in hand, Clara and Julie stood with their back to the sea. In my camera's viewfinder, as in Monet's painting, there are some white sails on the blue horizon in the distance.
'OK? Are you ready? So look Impressionist then!'
'What? What did you say?'
'No, nothing, keep smiling...'