The Glassworks at Biot

Le Verrerie de Biot

Biot is a town in the foothills of the Maritime Alps, the oldest part on the pinnacle of a hill called a village perché, characteristic of the political turbulence of the Middle Ages. Above the parking place at the glass gallery and factory there are houses affixed to the cliffs.

There are a few unimposing buildings to be seen.  One currently houses an exhibition of international artists from Europe and the US.  The other houses a boutique with the standard glass objects – little cute cats, angels, and the rest.  And this adjoins a gallery where there is an exhibition by a local glass maker by name Naravo.  This links with the factory and all its equipment – ovens, fashioning irons and so on.  We saw two men – of a Sunday afternoon – team-working at a glass object – a deep blue vase emerging in a steel grip from a white-yellow furnace, being laid on a bench and having its edges scraped with a weird-looking instrument.

But the glass…  it was the international exhibition that was the revelation.  I’ve never particularly cared for glass as a medium in art.  Mosaics, maybe, but today I saw objets de art that were memorable.  It’s difficult to describe any one object.  They often have an inward quality, that is, you can look into them in a way that you can’t do with other media.  It’s almost as if you’re paging deeper and deeper into the object, as you go beyond the jagged and smooth edges.  The coldness of glass… it is the blues and greys of the works that transport one from ordinariness to levels almost other-worldly, sleek, sharp dreams.  There can be hard angularity and there can be lines sinuous and watery; there can be fragments of a human profile and there can be wafting abstraction; there can be the absolute of symmetry and there can be falling forms in crystalline chaos.  One work that will remain with me was a rock with opaque glass melted over it, the one forming the other forming the one…

No pictures were allowed in the gallery itself, but I was happy to take shots of Naravo’s work in the other building, some of which were also memorable.

But it will be those works from the Czech Republic, from Romania, Germany, France, Slovakia and the US that have given me something new and startling, amplified by the museum’s reflecting display cabinets and subtle lighting that seemed to echo and echo each of the works.

Will van der Walt ©

Dimanche 3 Juin 2012

Image Sources: Photos by Will 


Abbaye de Lerins: the Island

I left the silence of the monastery and made my way along the well-kept paths of the forest.  Apart from the huddle of monastery buildings there are almost no other buildings there.  Almost, but not quite.  There is another much smaller cluster of buildings called the Monastery of St Cyprien, entirely closed off to the public.  On my walk I looked for signs leading there and saw none.  It made me think.


The monastic way of life, a writer once said, can’t be more removed from the modern temperament, the sensual-sceptical. If the Cistercians of the Abbaye maintained silence as well as having an on-going contact with the public, mostly pilgrims and retreat-seekers, what did the monks at St Cyprien do?  Was our Abbaye the public face, while that secret building, hardly visible from the forest pathway – with a rather attractive tower, I managed to make out –  the holy of holies of the monastic establishment?  Meditation, study, ritual and the tending of the vines – is that it?  For my cumulative way of seeing things it feels distinctly odd.  Is a place like St Cyprien, so cryptically hidden amongst the density and silence of Aleppo pines and thick bush, amongst the last signs of fervent belief in a post-Christian world?

On this island at either end and overlooking the small pebble beaches, there are two squat oven-like constructions made of brick that were used to launch cannonballs at approaching enemy ships.  These, the plaque tells us, were commissioned in 1795 by a young Corsican general, Napoleon by name.  The range of the cannonballs was just under 1000 metres.  And about 700 paces away from these machines of war there was a light-filled cathedral bringing joy and hope to the world.  The extremes of our hearts lie close.

Fortified Monastery

Which brings me to the fortified monastery.  As you leave the main monastery buildings, taking the first steps along the beach, you are struck by a tall fort-like edifice on a short promontory. My immediate impression of the place, about four storeys high, was that it had been built in the last 150 to 200 years. It even looked new. The almost windowless walls are without other feature. The door, about four metres above the ground, acquired stone steps only in the last century or two, as its height was a safety feature for those inside.

I went up the steps into the edifice and entering the gloom I saw the pillars of a small interior cloister.  Above on the second floor was another set of pillars.  The inner walls were very different from the outer shell of the building.  They were primitive, irregular stone piles.  A roughly-written eye-level sign read Cloistre XIII siècle.  Other chambers, with rounded gothic ceilings of stone, looked as if they might have been dormitories or meeting places.  It is said that this fort is one of the oldest, if not the oldest part of Abbaye de Lerins.  And fort is the word. For stretches of time the monks, on the first and second floors, shared their existence with soldiers living on the top storeys.  And the fort was well placed for defenders as invading ships could not get closer to the beach than 300 metres because of the shallows. From the slit windows the invaders would be easy targets.

Interior, Fortified Monastery

It would seem that the intact outer shell of La Monasterie Fortifié jealously guards the gloom of its ruinous interior.

Those extremes of the heart…

Will van der Walt ©

Mardi 29 Mai 2012

Sources of images: Photos by Will 

Abbaye de Lerins – France

Abbaye de Lerins

Around 410 – 412 A.D. Honorat Caprais and a company of devotees, moving through a post-Roman Mediterranean world, visited the smaller of the two islands off the coast of what was to become modern-day Cannes.  In late-May, 2012 A.D., Claudie and I motored through the post-film festival streets of the city and were dropped at the harbor by Evelyne, Claudie’s friend. Honorat, who was to become a saint, laid the foundation for what is today the Monastery of Lerins.  Our visit would be more humble.

As with most places, people and events in Provence, the history of this island – 500 metres broad and 1500 metres long – is a tangled complexity: the rule of Benedictine monks in the 7th century; the invasion of Saracens in the late-millennium; the recapturing of the site by Christians from the mainland; the establishing of a fortified monastery in the 13th century; occupation by Spanish troops in the 17th century; the possession of the site by the state after the French Revolution in 1791 and finally becoming a Cistercian monastery in 1865, to mention some events.

At the Cannes harbour I saw a monk weaving his way through the people on the quay.  He was wearing a white cassock and a black scapula (a kind of drape over the horizontals) – a tradition from St Bernard of Clairvaux who decreed white cassocks instead of black for the newly burgeoning order of Cistercians.  That was ten centuries ago. In the Cannes harbour shark-like ocean cruisers seem to be lying in wait, eyeing the world through sleek eyes.

The two islands of Iles de Lerins are the larger St Marguerite and the smaller St Honorat.  Both islands have rich vegetation, dominated by deep green Aleppo pines that remind me of the Western Cape umbrella trees on the slopes of Devil’s Peak.  Between these two outcrops, a distance of perhaps 400 metres, the sea is dense with boats – yachts, motorboats and even a sail ship.  The journey in bright unexpected sunshine (after predictions of dour weather) took 25 minutes.  We trundled up from the landing, rolling our suitcases, discovering soon that the place is badly sign-posted – a good sign: it hasn’t succumbed to commercial thinking.

Along the path we passed some inauspicious ruins, a few knee-high stone walls, crumbling, overgrown with creeper and grass.  The plaque informed us that this was Chapelle St Michel that had been erected on Roman ruins.  How available the past is here!  In South Africa, we can only take cogniscance that we have the oldest human history on earth; we can’t touch it.

The gateway with headless figure

We came to a fork in the forest path. I thought, if we take the one less travelled we probably won’t get anywhere.  But a striking remnant of a centuries-old gateway, tall and ornately baroque, gave us our cue.  As I looked up at it I noticed that the figure at the apex had no head.


Moments later we emerged from the trees and saw a vineyard.  I’d read about the Cistercians being independent communities with their forms of entrepreneurship and that this monastery was known for excellent wines.  A little sign on a gate Acces Reserve aux Moines  with a caricature of a hooded monk told us that we did not have the freedom of the vineyard.  Above the line of fresh green vine leaves was the august tower of the monastery and I knew I was in Europe.

In the next twenty minutes we reported at the reception of the monastery and were shown our accommodation.  If you can imagine upmarket spartan then that is what our room was like – the best of the bare necessities.

We were soon instructed that this was a place of silence and that there would be no loud conversations – not even in the rooms.  Meals would be had with other visitors, also in silence.

We strolled around the place ushered by a little grey-thatch man with a beak Mediterranean nose and restless eyes, probably a lay brother, a post also established from the earliest days.  The architecture distantly evokes the world of Ravenna with its conical towers and tiled rooves. The pathway to the main entrance is overarched with palms.

The cathedral itself is impressive – romanesque and unadorned, light-filled vaults.  I recalled that St Bernard, in his fervor, had disapproved of statuary and other art in places of worship, a little like certain Protestants some centuries later who scrubbed off the art from cathedral walls.  The crucifix above the starkly simple altar was draped with white cloths on each side of the upright and bathed in a smallish glow from a spotlight.

What is remarkable about this 15th century crucifix, not that well proportioned, is that the Christ-figure is smiling, aptly called Le Christ souriant. It has been said that the smile prefigures the resurrection. To my knowledge this is unique in the history of the cruciform.

We took our evening meal in silence with over 50 other visitors, pilgrims and rest-seekers an experience that left Claudie and me ambivalent:  if you cannot talk to your fellows at table, you even tend to avoid eye-contact.  In the thickness of this non-communication, Claudie and I did our share of drinking only to each other with our eyes.

Sunday morning we sat in the Pentacostal mass at the base of the columns that fountain their arches pervaded by the a capella liturgy of the monks.

Will van der Walt ©

Mardi 29 Mai 2012

Sources of images: Photos by Will & Christ Souriant by

%d bloggers like this: