Baroque Splendour: La Chapelle des Pénitents Noirs

Chapelle des Pénitents Noirs

Chapelle des Pénitents Noirs

This rather odd-looking building is la chapelle des Pénitents Noirs at Villefranche-de-Rouergue, where the Choeur de Parisot gave its first concert of the season last Sunday afternoon. The simplicity of the exterior doesn’t prepare you for the exuberant burst of Baroque that hits you when you go inside.

Everything is painted or gilded – walls, ceiling, reredos (altarpiece). The edifice is topped by an intriguing double belfry and a shaky-looking bell tower. The chapel is quite small and intimate, so the effect is breath-taking. I’m not sure the acoustics favour a choir the size of ours. We went to a concert there some years ago given by a smaller women’s choir, who sang Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. The size and acoustics seemed to lend themselves well to that performance.

Gilded reredos - choir members milling about in the way of my shot

Gilded reredos – choir members milling about in the way of my shot

The confrérie (brotherhood) of the Pénitents Noirs de la Croix was founded in 1609 by the Bishop of Rodez. It was not a wealthy foundation and had no land on which to build a chapel, so the penitents used the chapelle de Saint-Jacques to start with. Things changed in 1642 when a member donated a large sum of money and they bought the land where the current chapel is located. The first stone was laid the same year but lack of money prevented the chapel’s completion until 1671.

Ceiling of chapelle des Pénitents Noirs showing the cult of the Cross

Ceiling of chapelle des Pénitents Noirs showing the cult of the Cross

The ceiling was painted in 1701 and work on the gilded reredos started in 1709, depicting the Passion and scenes from the life of Christ. The penitents added the current façade in the mid-18th century.

Chapel facade

Chapel facade

Later in the 18th century they commissioned a series of six paintings from an artist working in Toulouse. They are copies of religious works in the style of Murillo, Van Dyck and Rubens.

Painting in the style of an Old Master

Painting in the style of an Old Master

The confrérie fell on hard times after the Revolution and their chapel was sold as a national possession in 1792. Former members bought it back in 1805. The confrérie was finally dissolved in 1905 after the legislative separation of church and state in France.

Recent restoration work has given the chapel a new lease of life. I have to mention the sumptuous loo in the corridor at the side. In addition to the usual apparatus, it also sports a chair – considerately provided in case one has an audience, I suppose.

Chapelle des Pénitents Noirs

Chapelle des Pénitents Noirs

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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