The Art of Benoit Dutour at La Madeleine
Paris is home to the most beautiful churches in the world. Notre Dame, Sacré Coeur, and Sainte Chappelle all call this city their home. And among these, one of the most spectacular is La Madeleine. Visiting this church is always a treat, and it is made all the most special when they play host to contemporary art exhibits.
Recently, they presented to the public Benoit Dutour’s Tears of Joy — a spellbinding installation featuring 103 “tears” suspended over 30 meters from the vaulted ceiling.
This is part of the church’s ongoing effort to reimagine the nativity in the Catholic tradition in collaboration with leading contemporary artists. By updating the imagery, visitors are able to reconnect to the story. It also provides a great way to bring today’s artists in direct dialogue with the astounding works of art on display in La Madeleine.
The Dutour exhibit proved the perfect excuse to return to this gorgeous church and revel in all the sacred art to be found here! We even got to meet up and speak with the artist about his creation.
Benoit Dutour’s Tears of Joy
Dutour’s installation began with a simple question, “What does wealth mean today?”
During the nativity, the baby Jesus was joined by three wise men in a scene immortalized time and again in art. The Adoration of the Magi, as it is called, features three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
These three items help us to understand what people considered valuable at the time. But today, these gifts might be less evocative. Gold has remained valuable, but we don’t live in a global economy or culture where frankincense and myrrh speak to us.
That made Dutour wonder what speaks to us most deeply about wealth fit for the Son of God? To answer this, the artist breaks up his offerings into three categories, just as the Magi did. But instead of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, he gives us fragility, richness, and beauty.
For the Fragility series, Dutour captures the most delicate visions of nature in tear drop shaped forms. Flower petals and butterflies are caught in the clear material.
For Richness, he examines our material culture — food, watches, Coca Cola cans, and other symbols of wealth.
For Beauty, aesthetics are held in the palm of these artworks. Peacock feathers, antique keys, and more.
By capturing these items and reframing them as gifts that the Magi might present the Christ child if the nativity scene were today, Dutour makes us much more aware of the value in the world around us.
The tears are almost like rain falling from on high — also reminding us that there is abundance of all kinds in the world. These gifts the Magi might give Christ are also parts of our day-to-day life, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be thankful for them.
If you would like to purchase one of these tears, you can order them through the artist’s website.
While I was visiting the church, we met up with Dutour. The artist proved to be a wonderful guide to his own work, giving us great insights into his creative process. It is always wonderful to hear directly from the creator.
Who Is Benoit Dutour?
Dutour is a multidisciplinary artist who brings together many passions, from painting to video, from photography to neon, and beyond.
The wide range of approaches always serve his daring concepts. His work is focused on communicating with the audience, and he engages any technique or material that might serve him in this mission.
You can read about Dutour and see more of his work on his website.
About Madeleine Church
This Roman Catholic church is an exquisite architectural achievement, but its history often threatened to lead it to all kinds of possibilities — it was briefly a storage facility and later planned to be converted to a train station. The absurd story of its construction helps us appreciate just how lucky we are that it was ever built in the first place.
La Madeleine was originally conceived of by the government of King Louis XV (1710 to 1774) as a Neoclassical ode to ancient Greece. It was meant to serve as a church for its burgeoning neighborhood only recently annexed to the city of Paris when construction began in 1763. The area’s old Church of the Madeleine (named for being dedicated to Mary Magdalene) was small, and so it seemed they needed something grander to fit in all the faithful.
The original architect was Pierre Contant d’Ivry (1698 to 1777), whose major accomplishment before this project was the Palais Royal — which I also give tours of!
Though the style of the time was dominated by the Rococo that Louis XV and his mistress the Marquise de Pompadour loved so much, Contant d’Ivry helped define the goût grec (French for “Greek taste”), the earliest phase in France’s turn toward Neoclassicism. This new style was much more pared down than the exaggerated finery of Rococo, preferring to take its cues from the classical world.
By borrowing from the widely admired work of ancient Greece and Rome, architects had a basis to launch their counter-strike against the prevailing tastes of the day. Though in retrospect, it is still a very gaudy style compared to the works that would come later. This early goût grec came before much of the greatest ancient architectural achievements had been uncovered, and so it can feel a bit fantastical at times.
Much like the central building of Les Invalides, the original church design was domed. But this never came together. Funding and royal interest waned over the years, leading to dismally slow construction. Then in 1777 — a full 14 years after the project began, Contant d’Ivry died.
His student Guillaume Martin Couture took up the project. His first step? Throwing away his master’s plans and destroying what had been built so far. With this clean slate, he decided to build a much more literally Greek-inspired temple.
But this, too, was slow going. 15 years later, this second plan was yet to be completed. Further construction at this point stopped as the French Revolution swept through Paris.
The new government was unsure what to do with the large, though incomplete, church. That debate continued until Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor, and chose to make it a temple in honor of his army.
What happened next is to be expected, given the long history of the building so far. In 1814, King Louis XVIII brought the Bourbons back onto the throne with Napoleon’s ouster. And again, a change was needed. This time, they would complete it as a church. (Though there was a temporary proposal to turn it into the first railroad station in Paris!)
Believe it or not, it was finally completed and inaugurated in the summer of 1842. That means it took an astounding 79 years to build.
The Art of La Madeleine
The building has many features that make it especially impressive to see in person — including transcendent works of art.
Up above the columns is the pediment, the triangular design that serves as the gable of a columned temple. The artist Philippe Joseph Henri Lemaire gives us a scene from the Last Judgment, with Mary Magdalen appropriately featured. She prays with those who are not being brought into heaven.
The bronze doors at the southern entrance are particularly grand. These imposing structures display images illustrating the Ten Commandments. Created by Henri de Triqueti, the commission helped establish his career, and it is easy to see how these doors launched him into superstardom.
The colonnade features niches filled with various religious figures, but when we walk through Triqueti’s doors, we are in for the true spectacle. A half dome is illustrated with a tremendous painting by Jules-Claude Ziegler (student of none other than Jean- Auguste-Dominique Ingres).
This sprawling masterpiece features the major events of Christianity in general and French Catholicism in particular. Below is a mosaic featuring the story of Mary Magdalene. And below this is the jaw-dropping sculpture Mary Magdalene Exalted by Angels by the great Carlo Marochetti.
The scale and effect of these massive works all combined is breathtaking, but what is perhaps just as astounding is the way that every single feature in the church seems to hold its weight among such honorable artworks.
The grand organ — where the likes of Camille Saint-Saëns once reigned as church organist — is itself a remarkable work of art. Its scale and engineering are fascinating to watch and stirring to listen to.
[Note: If you are interested in a private tour of Paris best Churches including La Madeleine — contact me - we can also arrange a private driver. This allows us to not worry about transportation and avoid getting fatigued navigating our way to these beautiful places in our city Paris.]
The Importance of Saint Magdalene
The story of Mary Magdalene helps us to appreciate how central this figure was to the early church.
In the gospels, she is a prominent follower of Jesus. Her name is mentioned more than most of the Apostles. It is very likely that she also financially supported Jesus.
But it is her place in the most pivotal roles of the New Testament that make her especially revered. She witnessed the crucifixion along with the Virgin Mary, and she was the first to see the empty tomb. And it was Mary Magdalene who first saw the resurrection of Christ.
That close connection to the heart of the Christian faith makes her status in the church difficult to overstate.
In 591, Mary Magdalene began to be confused with Mary of Bethany, a prostitute who anointed the feet of Jesus. It began with an Easter sermon by Pope Gregory I where he combined their stories. Since then, many people have turned the story of Mary Magdalene into a story of repentance.
This has meant that most people don’t really understand the actual Biblical story of Magdalene, which is unfortunate given her role in the earliest moments of the church.
Visiting La Magdeleine and other churches in Paris
If you are interested in Sacred Arts and happens to be on vacation in Paris, start with me in La Magdeleine on a private guided tour. The sights here are unbelievable, and the contemporary art installations make for a fascinating peek into today’s scene. The paintings and sculpture will blow you away, and the architecture makes for a powerful stage that is a major work in its own right.
We can even make it part of a city-wide adventure where we take in all of the magnificent churches here. Paris has no shortage of legendary religious buildings.
On the themed tour you can see:
● Sainte Chapelle and its unbelievable glass cage
● Sacré Coeur Basilica and Montmartre quick sightseeing
● The Abbey of Saint-Germain des Prés
● Saint Sulpice, Da Vinci and Delacroix
● Notre-Dame when it re-opens in 2023
● And much more secrets!
The time slots for the special tours with qualified tour guides are limited and better booked in advance to plan the tour in the best conditions - Contact me today and let’s begin planning your tour of Parisian sacred art and architecture!