Church of the Immaculate Conception by Dom Paul Bellot, front elevation Photo: Sir-Jaques
As a result of an increase in the Catholic population in the region of Audincourt, north-east France, caused by a renewed wave of industrialisation at the beginning of the 20th century, building a new place of worship for the growing community became a necessity.
During the interwar period, French Catholicism witnessed an upsurge of dynamism, with an increase in church building and renovation. The cradle of the Liturgical Movement in the 1910’s, France now lead the way for a rebirth of religious art, a quest for a new form of expressing the liturgical message using a contemporary aesthetic language. Across the country, sacred art workshops gathered artists and architects, clerics and lay people who believed modern art should be at the heart religious service.
The Church of the Immaculate Conception is the fruit of the architectural and spiritual searches specific to those times, taking its origin from the encounter between a forward thinking monk architect and engaged artists who were aware of the changing ideology. Dom Paul Bellot, who also designed the beautiful Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight of which I have written here, undertook his architectural training in Paris before joining the Benedictine monastery of Solesmes, but he went on to design numerous churches across the continent. His style is characterised by balanced proportions of stark architectural elements which carve out space and convey a sense of spirituality filtered through a contemporary understanding of volume and mass.
The construction of The Immaculate Conception began in 1928, on the site of a former outgrown church, and was completed only four years later. The front elevation is simple in style, dominated by a rose window with geometric patterns, positioned symmetrically above a tripartite entrance defined by arches of a distinct Art-Nouveau geometry. The main material is reconstituted stone of a light cream and pink colour, cut in square tiles which run along the facade of the 50m tall bell tower and of the smaller round tower flanking the main elevation.
Nave looking towards sanctuary and main altar, with the high altar in the background
Upon entering the nave, the visitor is impressed by the generous height of the space marked by the bold, geometric articulation of the reinforced concrete parabolic arches which form three bays and lead to a light filled transept. It is the same Art-Nouveau style that defines the character of the atmosphere inside while the coffered structure adds an element of mystery. The nave is a synergy between simplicity of volume and complexity of ornament. The sobriety of the exposed concrete is modulated by light and the intricacy of the trellis panels which seem to defy the weight of the roof above. The greyness of the ceiling is contrasted with the warmth of the coloured bricks forming the lower part of the walls and with the polychrome mosaic floor.The open transept marks a gentle transition between nave and sanctuary which is separated by three steps from the rest of the church. Positioned in the centre of this space and elevated on a plinth is the altar which represents the focus of the interior. This is a new addition to the church, a response to ideas of communion and participation sparked by the Liturgical Movement and given momentum by the Second Vatican Council. It is interesting to note that the original high altar in the polygonal apse, elevated on seven steps and connected with the tabernacle, was designed away from the rear wall, possibly to allow Mass to be said facing the people. Above the high altar, a statue of the Virgin with the Child trampling a serpent, the patroness of the church, watches over the sanctuary and the congregation. The stained glass windows, also dedicated to the Virgin, add soothing touches of colour in this otherwise somber interior.
Mosaic floor and stained glass window
Sign of a revival of the French sacred art, the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Audincourt delights both the eye and the spirit. This fine example of Dom Paul Bellot’s work
has something of the intensity of Plečnik and the remarkable organic conception of the sculptural qualities of brick, which defined the approach of the Amsterdam school and Expressionism, glued together with a passion for a modern Gothic idiom that stemmed directly from the tradition of Viollet-le-Duc” (Edwin Heathcote).