Two Bonnassieux works for the church of Saint-Medard in Tremblay-en-France

The church of Saint Médard in Tremblay-en-France is getting a face lift. It has just undergone a complete restoration of its architecture as well as some of its furnishings, a project under the scientific supervision of Serge Pitiot, head curator of Monuments Historiques. Among the furnishings were two terracotta reliefs from the XIXthC., classified as Monuments Historiques since February 20, 1915. The artist was unknown due to the fact that, having been sealed in the walls of the chapels located north and south, the reliefs had been covered over by a 1 to 2 mm layer of crystallized calcium sulfate salts due to capillarization. The signature had totally disappeared.

Although Stanislas Lami had included them in his Dictionnaire des sculpteurs de l’Ecole française au XIXème siècle, their relationship with the Tremblay sculptures had not yet been established. Thanks to the work of Julie André-Madjlessi the chemical layer covering them has been for the most part removed and the signature has been revealed. What was believed to be a modest group of XIXthC. reliefs has in fact turned out to be the work of a major religious sculptor, Jean-Marie-Bienaimé Bonnassieux (1810-1892).

An artist from a modest family background, he was born in Panissière in the Loire region and was first noticed by the parish priest because he liked to carve small wooden statues of saints. After being apprenticed in 1828 in Lyon to Legendre-Héral, who specialized in religious works, his employer signed him up at the art school there. Showing a talent for sculpture, he was encouraged by Legendre to try out for the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris which he entered in October of 1834, joining the workshop of Dumont (1761-1844). After studying for less than two years, he won the prestigious Prix de Rome (September 1836) with a bas-relief entitled “La Mort de Socrate”. Having brilliantly completed his art studies, his professional career was essentially taken up by religious sculpture. His best known work is undoubtedly the colossal bronze statue of the Virgin (16 m high), Notre-Dame-de-France (1860), which stands atop the Corneille rock, in Le-Puy-en-Velay (Haute-Loire).

The reliefs at Tremblay-en-France are dated from 1882, six years before the artist passed away. They represent two scenes from Christ’s childhood, The Adoration of the Shepherds and The Flight into Egypt with different compositions. Although they share the same height (75 cm.), their length varies due to the variation in the walls (145 cm. for the first one, 110 cm. for the second), which would tend to prove that they were made specifically for this spot. The book by Bonnassieux’s son-in-law, Léo Armagnac, tells us that the reliefs were commissioned by Monsieur Turenne, a person of independent means, and member of the local town council of Tremblay.

1. Jean-Marie-Bienaimé Bonnassieux (1810-1892)
The Adoration of the Shepherds
Terracotta - 75 x 145 cm
Tremblay-en-France, church Saint-Médard
Photo : G. Lavigne

In The Adoration of the Shepherds, Bonnassieux chooses a traditional composition centered on the figure of Jesus as a baby lying in the manger, surrounded by his parents who look over him tenderly. Behind Joseph, one sees the shepherds paying tribute to the child and, behind Mary, five angels in flight. Completing the scene, the presence of the donkey and the ox corresponds to a classic interpretation of the biblical scene. There is almost no decorative element except for the objects in the stable. The rays of light flowing from Jesus occupy the entire space in the painting. Here Bonnassieux is emphasizing the divine nature of the child and his role as spiritual guide of the Christian world. Although this composition inevitably draws the eye to the center of the scene, the resulting effect is a very static one.

2. Jean-Marie-Bienaimé Bonnassieux (1810-1892)
The Flight into Egypt
Terracotta - 75 x 110 cm
Tremblay-en-France, church Saint-Médard
Photo : G. Lavigne

For The Flight into Egypt, Bonnassieux created a more dynamic relief by placing Mary and Jesus on the donkey to the left and, ahead of them and to the right, Joseph guiding his precious family with a watchful eye. To evoke the movement of the travellers, the sculptor shows their clothes flowing behind them. The palm trees, also bent to the left, are meant to represent the region where they are fleeing. Since Bonaparte’s Egyptian campaign in 1798, local landscapes of the country were often reproduced in paintings and other works and were thus sufficiently familiar to be used by artists, instead of placing the scene in an European landscape as had been the case before. The final version differs from the preliminary study belonging to a private collection (ill.3). In his initial attempt, Bonnassieux had planned a more anecdotal scene showing Joseph fighting with a stubborn donkey that refuses to move but which undoubtedly conveys a less religious feeling.

Besides cleaning the surface of the reliefs, the renovation project has also strengthened them. At the time of their installation, they were probably broken and the resulting cracks were revealed during the restoration. The reliefs have been placed in a removable metallic frame, the missing pieces have been replaced and they have been reinstalled. This time, a space has been left between the works and the wall to avoid any further deterioration. The works were revealed in their new condition, as acknowledged sculptures, to the town of Tremblay-en-France on Saturday, May l2th. We hope they welcome as many visitors as the statue of Notre-Dame-de-France !

Géraldine Lavigne (posted May 14, 2007)

Bibliography :

Armagnac (Léo), Bonnassieux statuaire, membre de l’institut 1816-1892, sa vie son œuvre, Paris, Alphonse Picard et fils éditeurs, 1897. Frémiet (Emmanuel), Notice sur Jean-Bienaimé Bonnassieux, Paris, Firmin-Didot, 1893. Journal des Beaux-Arts, « Deux nouveaux bas-reliefs de Bonnassieux », 1882. Lami (Stanislas), Dictionnaire des sculpteurs de l’Ecole française au XIXème siècle, Paris, Champion, 1914, tome I, pp 132-142. Tulard (Jean), Dictionnaire du Second Empire, Antoinette Le Normand-Romain, « Bonnassieux Jean-Marie-Bienaimé », Paris, Librairie Arthème Fayard, 1995, pp188-189.


Géraldine Lavigne, lundi 14 mai 2007

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