After a day out cycling and hiking in the Sainte Baume near Aubagne with my bike buddies we arrived after darkness at the small priory St Jean du Garguier. Evening mass was about to begin, so we quickly locked our bicycles together and entered the priory to admire the famous ex votos hanging on the walls of the chapel.
The chapel of the priory must have been restored recently. It has a private carpark and nicely done paths. When we had passed there earlier in the day, I had actually thought it was a restaurant or luxury hotel! The chapel is a simple, pleasant building which on this winter evening was warm and welcoming. A group of singers and musicians were warming up for mass with the psalm Magnificat, Magnificat, pour le Seigneur, Magnificat, Magnificat, Dieu, mon Sauveur, and the repetitive words kept ringing in my ears like a mantra.
Whilst listening to the music I admired the wonderful ex votos dating back as far as the 15th century. Paintings, perhaps rather naive in their tecnique, on a square piece of timber were covering two walls of the chapel. The motives were everyday scenes in Provence at the time when the ex votos were offered: an accident with a horse-driven carriage, some donkeys that had fallen, a baby in his cot, an old woman in her bed, a burning farm, a tree trunk across the path, a ship in distress. In the ex votos from the 18th century the bedcovers and the women's dresses were all in the textile called indienne which I described in my article India in Marseille.
I have seen ex votos in La Bonne Mère (Notre Dame de la Garde) where there are hundreds and hundreds of marble plates both indoor and outdoor. There are also model ships hanging from the ceiling in the church, which I have often admired. I have always connected these ex votos to the catholic church, but thinking about it tonight I realise that in most Danish churches you will find a wooden ship hanging from the ceiling, and those ships were offered to the church after Denmark became protestant in 1536.
So what is an ex voto? Apparently a person going through a difficulty will promise to make an offering to God if he gets though the danger in one piece. This explains why the paintings in St Jean du Garguier show situations of danger or difficulty: an accident, an illness, a fire, etc. In Denmark the ex votos could be a monetary contribution, an alter, a model ship, a chandelier but also a simple cloth or a walking stick. However, I have never seen paintings or marble plates; perhaps it is too catholic for the Nordic protestants?
We stayed for the beginning of mass during which I continued to admire the ex votos in the chapel. The black priest was talking about ebola, Iraq and Syria and about only knowing happiness if you have God inside you, which I thought was rather proponderous. Is happiness only for those who believe in God? Of course not. I had experienced happiness whilst trying to overcome my physical limits during the bicycle trip.
There was a lot of singing, and we were all partaking, which is the wonderful part of psalms; you don't actually have to know them but you can still sing along. There was one psalm in particular that made me sing: Il faut préparer le chemin (The road has to be prepared). The English translation of the first verses would be something like this:
The Lord comes
We have to flatten the hills
We have to prepare the road
The Lord comes
We have to flatten the hills
and fill up the ravines
I am not religious at all, but after having struggled to cycle up to the refuge where we had had our picnic after which we visited the virgin in the cave which required climbing a tree trunk and then having climbed up to the point from where we had a great view through the fog to Les Dents de Roque Forcade (937 m), a phallic like rock formation, and then having returned to the refuge, climbing, sliding, jumping, and finally having cycled down the hill hitting on the brakes most of time, occasionally having to make an emergency stop, feeling as if I had been holding one of those drills that they use in the street to break asphalt into pieces, I could see the benefit of flattening the hills and filling up the ravines! Perhaps I should have given an ex voto to the church after having survived my day out with my new bike buddies?
Some of the more recent (19th century) ex votos in St Jean du Garguier. By the time I was going to take photos of the older ex votos somebody drew to my attention that photos were not allowed.