Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Jewel off Leicester Square

Jean Cocteau (5 July 1889 – 11 October 1963)
The Angel of the Annunciation: Detail from The Annunciation 1959
The Church of Notre Dame de France, off Leicester Square, London

Off Leicester Square in London, next door to the Prince Charles Cinema and close to China Town is a little jewel of a Church. Unfortunately the throngs of tourists in the area are probably blissfully unaware of its existence. Which is a pity.

It is a beautiful church. More importantly, the services are a delight. Lively, friendly, welcoming and enthusiastic are adjectives which spring to mind.

Some of the masses are in French. Don`t let that put you off. Even someone like me with only schoolboy French can get by.

Even if you cannot make a service, the church is worth a visit. Many architects and sculptors as well as artists like Boris Anrep , Jean Cocteau, Robert de Chaunac and Charlotte Cochrane have contributed to the visual enhancement of the church.

Of the murals by Jean Cocteau, (the Annunciation and the Crucifixion, two scenes taken from the gospels and also the Assumption ) the Church`s website states:

"It was Monsieur René Varin, the French cultural advisor in London who conceived the idea of asking Cocteau to take part in the decoration work of the new church of Notre Dame de France which was then being rebuilt. Indeed the first church had been very badly bombed during World War II.

Cocteau spent slightly more than a week on this work between the 3rd and the 11th November 1959. His films were enjoying a huge success in London at that time and the artist had to be protected from the invasion of reporters by a high wooden scaffolding all around the chapel !

According to eye witness, he arrived each morning at about ten and always began by lighting a candle before the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes. It was quite surprising to hear him talk to his characters while he worked on the drawings, colours and nuances. He engaged in a real dialogue with the wall of the chapel. His joy was manifest when he was painting the virgin of the Annunciation. He told her for instance :

O you, most beautiful of women, loveliest of God’s creatures, you were the best loved. So I want you to be my best piece of work too… I am drawing you with light strokes… You are the yet unfinished work of Grace”…

Once he had finished his task, Jean Cocteau was sad to leave : “ I am sorry to go, as if the wall of the chapel had drawn me into another world…

He went on to comment :

“I shall never forget that wide open heart of Notre Dame de France, and the place you allowed me to take within it." "

The Church is at 5 Leicester Place • London WC2H 7BX; Phone: 0207 437 9363 • Fax: 0207 440 2645

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