Fifty years ago, when my children were eight and ten, they, my mom and I drove from Oxford, England to Rome. We had a week to cover a thousand miles via Europe’s then old, double-lane, tree-lined highways. The trip was a gift to my children, whose best New York friends lived for a year in Italy, and to my mom, who had never taken a European car trip. None of my companions, however, were appreciative of the voyage or shared my enthusiasm for the picturesque French villages, the grand chateaux of the Loire, the Romanesque architecture or even the delicious food we ate in the Michelin-starred inns at which we dined and slept.
We stopped in Arles to search for Vincent van Gogh, who lived there from 1888-89. In 1964, his stay in this small Provençal town seemed forgotten. A mid-afternoon stop at a patisserie, where we gorged on pastry, was part of our routine. In our Arles pastry shop we met up with a German tourist with whom my mother had an almost incomprehensible conversation in French. (The ladies could have fluently communicated in German!) From their conversation I gathered that I had overlooked Arles’ Cloître de le Saint Trophime—the best medieval cloister in Provence—but visiting hours were over and we departed.
Half a century later my husband and I took a Viking River Cruise up the Rhône River. The boat docked in Arles. For me the Saint Trophime was the primary goal, though by now Van Gogh was much in evidence. To my horror I discovered that the cloister was undergoing restoration, however, we managed to gain access.
Legend has it that Trophimus became the first bishop of the Roman city of Arles in 250 CE. To house his sanctified remains, the church built a spectacular Romanesque cathedral and the adjoining aforementioned cloisters during the twelfth century. The charming, naïve capitals of the twinned columns of the cloisters retell the life of Jesus. I spotted him riding into Jerusalem mounted on a donkey. One of the restoration workers let me peek at the column decorated with a full-length statue of Saint Trophime. I am sad that the scaffolding, plastic sheets, and dust marred my long delayed visit, but consoled myself that the Metropolitan Museum’s medieval branch in New York features the Saint Guilhem-le-Désert cloisters, whose delicate twin columns are much the same as the Saint Trophime.
However, the façade of the smallish Saint Trophime church is pristine and, as the guide book states, “is one of the treasures of Provence’s Romanesque arts.” Christ in Majesty surrounded by the signs of the evangelists occupies the tympanum, flanked by saints including Saint Trophime. Elsewhere the devout and damned are respectively on their way to heaven and hell .
Like our current Pope Francis, a past archbishop of Arles felt that the fathers of the church lived too luxurious a life. He ordered them to build and sleep in a dormitory attached to their cloisters. Eventually they again built themselves private residences, turning their common sleeping quarters into a hospital. As the French would say: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. (The more it changes the more it remains the same.)
We too returned to earthly pleasures and went to the Café de La Nuit, where Van Gogh created the painting of the same name. That work, by way of a three-decade-long stay in Russia, now hangs in the Yale Art Gallery. With our aperitifs we toasted Van Gogh, Saint Trophime and our good fortune for being able to enjoy the past and present and to vicariously celebrate the characters that make our life so interesting.