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NICE IN NICE: Friday 10 May 2013: THE SECRET BELIEVER’S HALL

The Creation

The Creation

We are on our way to the Musée Marc Chagall! The power in our apartment has been fixed with Joel’s help – I only needed to push a button after all. Both dinner last night, and breakfast this morning, have been cooked and consumed and we are on our way. The Musée Marc Chagall (or the National Museum or the Chagall Biblical Message, as it is sometimes also know) is a national museum dedicated to the work of the artist Marc Chagall – essentially his works inspired by religion – located here in Nice about 25 minutes walk from our apartment. Chagall is an intriguing character, and one of our favourite artists, associated with several major styles and mediums. Born into a Jewish family in Russia in 1887, he became a naturalized French citizen in 1937. He died in 1985 at nearby Saint Paul de Vence (where he had lived and worked for many years) and is buried in the Roman Catholic cemetery at Saint Paul de Vence under a gravestone reputedly made in the shape of a cross. One of the main reasons why we came to Nice for Julia’s birthday this year was to visit this museum because we have heard so many good things about it.

Julia has her map – we left Jane our SatNav at home – and she thinks she knows where we are going?  It is just down the road, past the station, under the motorway, round the corner, and up the hill! Julia also wants to visit the Information Bureau by the station to get information about trains and buses. She has train trips planned for us, to both Menton (where the famous Baptist preacher C H Spurgeon used to retreat for several weeks each year), and also to Cannes (where the famous Film Festival is about to begin). She also has plans to visit other museums and art galleries that require bus trips to get to. We find the Information Bureau and join the queue to see one of the assistants. Just as one becomes free, a rather stocky German woman pushes past us and heads for the counter? Julia remonstrates with her and tells her to wait her turn in the queue like the rest of us. ‘I’m in a hurry!’ the German woman responds tartly, and just carries on. I look to see if she had left a beach towel on the counter earlier in the day to reserve her place?

After Julia has finally got all the information we need, we continue our walk to the Musée Marc Chagall. The route is more complicated than we first thought. Whichever way Julia turns the map – and she tries various ways – we still don’t know which way to go?! We stop a couple who are passing by at the time, who we think are French, and ask the way. It turns out that they are Romanian and only speak Romanian and German, whilst we only speak English and a bit of French?! Despite the fact that none of us can speak the same language we get on famously. We gather that they are visitors to France but that they actually live here – we get the impression that they are immigrants from Romania – and that they live near the Musée Marc Chagall. They walk along with us and literally show us the way – such kind thoughtful people!

The Musée Marc Chagall is quite amazing! Built in 1972 (during Chagall’s lifetime), it is built partly in glass and hidden among the trees on a hilltop. The setting was designed especially to house Chagall’s ‘Biblical Message’ – a series of seventeen paintings illustrating scenes from the Biblical books of Genesis, Exodus, and the Song of Songs (the latter dedicated to his wife). The ‘Biblical Message’ canvases are shown to their best advantage as a result of the recessed walls and the large windows opening on to the bright Mediterranean light. Chagall himself provided detailed instructions about the creation of the surrounding garden, and decided the place of each of his works in the museum. The chronological order of the works is not followed, but the twelve paintings in the large gallery evoke the Creation of Man, the Garden of Eden, the Story of Noah, Abraham, Jacob and Moses. The paintings themselves are quite wonderful. As our guidebook says, ‘Among Chagall’s world of rich translucent colours lays a magic spell of poetic enchantment which yet does not detract from the seriousness of the subject matter’. In addition, Chagall also created the mosaic which overlooks the pond and the blue stained glasses that decorate the concert hall – where we watch a wonderful film about his life! Chagall also wanted an annual exhibition to be held on a topic related to the spiritual and religious history of the world but there is no information available to confirm whether or not this actually takes place.

We spend ages looking at these wonderful paintings, trying to take in the various hidden meanings. We are aided in our task by an excellent recorded commentary that we listen to via headphones. Chagall was originally a Hasidic Jew, and the Musée Marc Chagall was built with Jewish money, so the commentary on his paintings emphasises his Jewishness and his support for Jewish causes down through the years. It also attempts to explain away the various Christian symbols – Christ on the Cross, the Virgin Mary and Child – that repeatedly appear in these paintings. Thus Christ on the Cross symbolises the suffering of the Jews down through the ages, and the Virgin Mary and Child symbolises motherhood and fertility (and even on one occasion how badly Christians have treated the Jews). We, however, continually find other meanings in Chagall’s ‘Biblical Message’ that cannot be explained away so easily – the obvious link between the sacrifice of Isaac and the Cross of Christ, or the Exodus story and the spiritual freedom and deliverance that comes through the Cross, for example? We cannot help but wonder if, in fact, Chagall – despite his reticence to speak about his religious beliefs, other than that he believed – had in fact come to believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah. Was he in fact some kind of early ‘Messianic Jew’? After all a good number of his paintings and stained glass windows were designed to be housed in Christian Churches!

We return home to our apartment thoroughly inspired after a truly wonderful day, and a most enlightening experience. In fact, I am so inspired that later on in the evening, after dinner, I thoroughly thrash Julia at Scrabble – two ‘seven letter words’ in one game would you believe! And thrashing Julia at Scrabble doesn’t happen very often let me tell you!

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