Other Modern: Basilica of Sainte-Thérèse de Lisieux, Normandy, France

The basilica of  Sainte-Thérèse de Lisieux is located in Normandy, France, and it provides a very good case study in 'Other Modern' art and architecture. For those who have not been formally introduced to this concept of 'other modern' (or what it sometimes called "l'altra modernita") it originally came with reference to the manifestation of classical or traditional architectural styles within the 20th century; styles that were at one and the same time modern but also classical in their foundations. This classification can also be applied to the other visual arts, including painting, sculpture, stained glass, metalwork and the like. The most obvious heir apparent to this designation are the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements of the late 19th through early 20th centuries (with Art Nouveau spanning a period of approximately 1890-1910 and Art Deco the 1920's and 30's). As just one example, we have shown our readers the famous art nouveau vestments of Stift Klosterneuberg, and only just recently I came across this example of what I would consider an Art Deco inspired vestment design:

Turning back to the basilica in question, it provides a very good example of this genre of art and architecture in action.  The basilica, which was constructed between 1929 and 1954 under the guidance of a grandfather-father-son team of the Cordonnier's, falls into a very typical Latin cross shape with a classical semicircular apse and round dome; all very classical and traditional. Where the other modern aspect jumps out are with regard to the mosaics by Pierre Gaudin (1908-1973) which adorn the building. These were inspired by the Romano-Byzantine style but done is a distinctly contemporary idiom as you will see.

The most concentrated programme of these mosaics begins with the triumphal arch which depicts God the Father.  Various Old Testament themes and righteous are placed on this portion as was traditionally the case in classic iconographic programmes, the Old Covenant leading us toward the New.  Scenes include the Sacrifice of Abraham, Tobias guided by the Archangel Raphael, Elijah comforted in the desert and Daniel in the lion's den. As you look at these details, do take a close look at the style of the representation.

The apse itself includes a mosaic of Christ depicted as the Good Shepherd; to the left, the Virgin Mary, and to the right, St. Therese.

The dome of the basilica features a portrayal of St. Therese being crowned by Christ and the Virgin Mary. Beneath this we find eight angels, and below that a series of depictions which are intended to represent the Beatitudes as depicted by particular saints who symbolized them (for example, St. Francis of Assisi is used to symbolize "Blessed are the poor in spirit").

On the four great pillars which support this dome we find images of the twelve apostles and four evangelists -- another very classic symbolic reference and placement.

At the top of these pillars, joining the great dome, we find four angels with their wings outspread. The method of their depiction is distinctly classical in form while contemporary in their particular expression. 

"Distinctly classical in form while contemporary in their particular expression" -- this really is the best way to sum up Other Modern in a nutshell, which is why this basilica makes such a great case study in my estimation. There is nothing "un-traditional" about it and yet it is quite clearly also modern at the same time. At one and the same time it bears all the hallmarks of a classical ordering and iconographic programme, done, however, in a manner which is "modern" in its styling. 

Very often the problem with modernity is not so much the fact of its modernity, but rather that it is a kind of modernity which is founded upon a principled rejection of the past. This kind of modernity is distinctly different from l'altra modernita whose foundations are firmly rooted in the tradition itself. 

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