The parish church of sleepy Lachapelle, dreaming deep in rural southwest France, offers a hidden but seismic surprise to the casual and unsuspecting visitor.
In all its humility, the apparently unremarkable, ancient, and respectable church from the outside is a flamboyant show-off on the inside: an ecclesiastical Liberace in full regalia with knobs and twirls.
The shock is an almost physical sensation. The interior is neither dusty, fusty, musty, nor dark. There are no shadowy corners nor rotting timbers. Nothing looks threadbare or moth-eaten.
Instead, there are blousy colours everywhere. It’s like coming upon a fairground carrousel with all its bells and whistles but in the approximated form of a standard parish church. A working place of worship, yes, but entirely covered with moulded, polished, varnished, and multicoloured wood looking like solid gold, copper and silver fittings in a brash palace of polish and mirrors.
The entire décor of the lavish interior, made of carved, curved, and gilded wood, is a rococo pastiche of the baroque style of furnishing, popular in European palaces of the time, such as Versailles, the Piazza Novana, and even and St Peter’s in Rome.
There are several period furniture objects and a heavy main double wooden door that swings open easily on the slightest touch – a miraculous piece of skilled carpentry. The extraordinary trompe l’oeil wallpaper ceiling was restored recently to its original bewitching three-dimensional deception. Using a coffered pattern, it’s a perfect reproduction of a typical deceptive baroque ceiling decor from the 18th century.
The unique aspect is that the three rows of stands at the back of the church reproduce not the saintly choir stalls or pews of a catholic parish church dedicated to God, but the naughty semi-hidden alcoves of a scandalous Venetian music theatre. There are three stands, concave and convex with heavenly narrow staircases winding through to each. Above each arch, masks, shells, or plants decorate the whole scene. These places were for male worshippers, while females had the ground floor pews. There is no record of any protest at this distinction.
The church was first built in the 11th century by the Knights Templar before being acquired by the Lord Viscounts of Lomagne and Auvillar. It became the village’s parish church in the 15th century but was destroyed during the Hundred Years’ War, then rebuilt shortly afterwards.
Two French abbots from Lachapelle – Jean-Baptiste and Jean Goulard, twins who were working in Rome, decided in 1761 to endow and beautify their native village church, where they held, respectively, the posts of vicar and curate. They wanted to create an exorbitant example of their Roman baroque and rococo architectural passion. In this they were assisted not just by their imagination but by the inheritance they had received from their grandparents’ investment in the production of an expensive blue pigment, used throughout the region’s church wall paintings.
Rococo art is designed to surprise and impress, in that order. The French monarch of the time, Louis XV, was then taking the lead in promoting and adapting the dazzling new baroque architecture then in high fashion, relying as it did on copious gold leaf, undulating shapes, portrayals of plants and minerals, elements of Greco-Roman architecture, such as columns with Corinthian capitals, ornate and coloured statues, trompe l’oeil features, and endless expensive twirls and ruffles, a lighter style that came to have its own name: rococo; more playful and whimsical, whereas baroque was heavier, provocative and extravagant.
The Goulard twins commissioned Maraignon dit Champaigne, a cabinet maker from nearby Lectoure, to realise their vision, and in just fifteen years (1761 to 1776) the church acquired its flamboyant decor that, as in Rome, has inspired and impressed visitors for more than two hundred years and counting…
Renovated many times by skilled painters, architects, and builders, this listed historic monument has ever since been maintained with love and devotion. The work depends on a dedicated body of residents, supporters, and friends to act as guides for visitors, French and foreigners alike.
Unlike many baroque decorations, this is not a patchwork designed by the work of several artists over decades; it was created by one team in one go within fifteen years during France’s troubled eighteenth century, making a unique decorative unity just before the French establishment crashed apart in the 1789 French revolution.
Everyone who now visits this bling-bling baroque beauty in Lachapelle for the first time has a first flash of excitement, splendour, and marvel, exactly as the Goulard twins must have wanted. I imagine the twins silently rejoicing with each visit, each intake of breath, and each gasp of appreciation.