There are a surprising number of chapels spread throughout Vence, both in the village proper and on the outskirts of town. Some have been long abandoned and no longer serve as chapels (I know of two that are now garages!) Today I’d like to look at la Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs (The Chapel of the White Penitents), perhaps the most well known chapel in town. It’s located close to the center of town on a well traveled street (Avenue Henri Isnard) that was once an ancient Roman road to Castellane. It’s the largest and most centrally located chapel in Vence which is part of the reason it gets more attention than most of the other chapels. Another reason is the remarkable tiled dome and bell tower. The chapel sits next to the Place Frédéric Mistral, a tiny little square, just down the street from the old lavoir (the washhouse) where the village women washed clothes for decades. The chapel is not currently open to the public on a regular basis, but occasional art shows give us a chance to see inside from time to time.
[more info after the photo gallery]
Les Chapelles des Pénitents Blancs
Throughout France you’ll find dozens and dozens of chapels known as a “Chapelle des Pénitents Blanc.” They are located mostly in the south and by far the most are in our department, the Alpes-Maritimes where there are at least 26. Some of the most well known are in Antibes, Carros, Èze, Lucéram, Peille, Peillon, Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Saorge, Sospel, Menton and Utelle.
To get to the chapel begin at Le Grand Jardin in the center of town, walk over to the big Le Frêne (the famous old ash tree) and turn down Avenue Henri Isnard. You’ll find the chapel about 200 meters down on the left. The original building dates from the 13th century and was placed under the protection of Sainte Agathe. When it was first constructed it included only an apse and a small rectangular nave. In the 16th century it fell under the jurisdiction of the White Penitents and was enlarged.
The White Penitents
The story of the “white penitents” dates back to at least the 12th century. In Provence, as well as throughout the south of Europe and indeed all of France, these non-profit associations have a long history. Roman Catholic congregations formed by dedicated individuals first began practicing penance in central and northern Italy for mutual spiritual and material support. They adopted specific statutes prescribing various penitential works such as fasting and discipline measures and eschewing blasphemy, gambling, womanizing and drinking. In 1227 Pope Gregory IX recognized and approved canonical status for these groups which he called “Brothers and Sisters of Penance.” They spread to France near the end of the 15th century and by the 16th century you could find them in most French cities. A century later they had even spread to the rural areas where women joined the groups as well as men. They were usually under the supervision of the bishop of the diocese where they were located.
The number of these groups increased to the point that there were well over a hundred and it became necessary to classify them according the color of the clothing worn for processions and devotional exercises. In most cases this consisted of a heavy robe with a pointed hood which concealed the face (eerily similar to what the Klu Klux Klan would adopt many centuries later in the US). The wearer could not be easily recognized since there were just two small openings in the hood for the eyes.
The White Penitents were the most important of these groups and they were often the first of these “brotherhoods” in a particular village or area. Their members were obligated to care for the sick, bury the dead, provide medical services for those unable to afford it and give dowries to poor girls. Other groups included the Black Penitents, the Blue Penitents, the Grey Penitents, the Red Penitents, the Violet Penitents and the Green Penitents.
In 1560 the Vence chapel took on the name of La Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs. Like several other chapels in Vence (particularly Sainte Colombe and Sainte Elisabeth, both on the very outskirts of town) the chapel features a covered entrance. This was meant to serve as a shelter for travelers who might stop for a rest or a night’s sleep while passing through town.
In 1614 the Bishop of Vence, Monseigneur Pierre du Vair, granted the brotherhood new statutes. He enlarged the building, adding a sacristy, an openwork dome with four windows and a pinnacle. Today the chapel measures about 18 meters long and 5 meters wide on the inside. It was classified as a Historic Monument in 1944.
The Dome and Bell Tower
One of the most impressive, distinguishing features of the chapel is the remarkable dome and bell tower, each of which is decorated with a multi-colored tiled roof made of polychrome glazed tiles. The dome features an octagonal shaped support with windows and a second, smaller “mushroom” like dome on top. The bell tower contains four large vertical windows in a full round arch, covered by another mushroom shaped roof. The dome and bell tower can be seen easily from many points in Vence creating a well known landmark. These types of domes are not particularly common in the area and hence they really stand out and make quite an impression. Inside the chapel the floor is also composed of flat glazed colored tiles.
Inside the Chapel
Inside the chapel you will find that three sides of the interior are covered with pine panels and seats, classic furniture for the brotherhoods of the penitents. A marble altar that dates back to 1887 is installed at the end of the chamber. Several paintings are housed inside including one showing Jesus’ descent from the cross most likely painted near the end of the 1600s. There is a series of eight saints and some other “folk art” paintings. Unfortunately, all of the paintings are in very poor condition and in need of restoration. On the wall, facing the choir, there are traces of some old frescoes.
Place Frédéric Mistral
Next to the chapel is the Place Frédéric Mistral, named after the famous Occitan author and lexicographer of the Occitan language, which was inaugurated in 1930. Occitan is a Romance language once spoken in Southern France, Monaco, Italy’s Occitan Valleys and Spain’s Val d’Aran; collectively, these regions are sometimes referred to as Occitania. Mistral received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1904 “in recognition of the fresh originality and true inspiration of his poetic production, which faithfully reflects the natural scenery and native spirit of his people, and, in addition, his significant work as a Provençal philologist.” He was the author of Lou Tresor dóu Félbrige, which remains to this day the most comprehensive and reliable dictionary of the Occitan language. The square features an old stone bench that is attached to the chapel which was formerly located in the garden of the ancient Great Seminary. Several large pieces of stone mark the western edge of the place, one of which features a carved date. A fountain with water from the famous Vence spring, Le Foux, is tucked into the edge of the other side of the square. A large inscription on the wall of the chapel features several verses of “Mireille’s Song X” by Mistral. Two olive trees and a palm tree provide cover and shade for the little place.
The chapel was expropriated from the church in 1905. It was renovated and restored in 1994 and is now used regularly for temporary art displays and exhibitions in conjunction with the Musée de Vence and the Fondation Emile Hugues. Recent exhibitions have included “Extime,” a display of artwork by patients from a psychotherapy center, “35 Artistes S’Engagent,” supporting the association of NOMAD with work from internationally renowned artists and “Deux Darwin à Vence” featuring the work of Gwen Raverat.
If you spend any time in Vence be sure not to pass up the chapel. I think you’ll find it very interesting. Even better, if there is an ongoing art exhibition you might be able to go inside and have a look around. It’s easy to find and well worth a stop on your visit to Vence.