On Saturday we visited Saint Remy de Provence, the site of Saint Paul de Mausole Hospital where Vincent Van Gogh was committed for 13 months in the year before he died. During his time there the artist painted some of his most well-known and best works. The Provence Alps that surround the site provided a place to walk and reflect as well as a backdrop for his paintings.
The former monastery is now run by a non-profit group as a functioning mental health treatment facility. Other than management and treatments provided the setting has changed little in the last 150 years. The French Revolution and two world wars failed to destroy this healing site that has had a Christian Church since the 9th Century Romans built it and pre-Christian Roman and earlier healing sites by a nearby spring. Albert Schweitzer was imprisoned here during World War I. It was after he was released that he went to Africa to begin his mission. The peace and tranquility ooze from the ground and make you relax. It will take us some time to completely process our experience here.
In the words of Doctor Jean-Marc Bouton, the Director, “Every day since 1988, since I started working as a resident psychiatrist in the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole Home in Saint-Remy-de-Provence, I have walked round the fountain basin where the fish and squirrels chatter then crossed the French-styled park where Vincent Van Gogh used to assemble his easel, in all weathers, during the four seasons, he spent in Saint-Remy. Every Spring I come to a standstill under the Judas trees in bloom and am moved by the pink color of the flowers which is both unimposing and luminous. I marvel at the white butterflies as they flutter their wings and execute a ballet on the peculiar deep purple velvet scarves of the irises like ballerinas up on points. My feet sink into the carpet of fresh moss and cracking pine needles and I sit down on a limestone rock which was taken from the Alpilles’ Roman quarries and which still remembers Vincent’s breathing. I silently contemplate the surroundings that he observed so delicately. I take a deep breath of this subtle, distinctive fragrance of damp undergrowth and of the strong scent of lilacs which has not altered over the century. I carefully listen to the symphony of the seasons, from the time when the carpet of autumn leaves muffles the murmurings of the wind to the time of the summer choirs of cicadas who dance and sing whilst they hide in the ivy covering the umbrella pines. I then try to understand how the laity and the nuns from Saint-Joseph, present at the time of Van Gogh’s stay, were able to provide him with an environment which was not only propitious to health care but allowed his creative work to blossom. In order not to disturb the site’s magic, I tread very softly.”
Van Gogh wrote that he felt the best in his life here. Beautiful prints of the artist’s works from this period are displayed throughout the grounds and buildings. Often you are looking at the same scenes that brought Van Gogh the peace enabling him to create. The healing and creative capacity of this place continues. Today the Home encourages creative arts as a means of healing. The Home displays and sells works of art created by patients as part of their art therapy. They are amazing artists! The artists receive payment for their art as well as the healing satisfaction of creation and appreciation. This is must see place if you get to Provence!
We stopped for a late lunch at a café downtown. The streets were covered with signs warning of the impending running of the bulls. Yes, here in southern France bullfights are popular and this is the month for big fetes in every city, town, and village. Many towns have bull rings and part of the celebration is a running of the bulls through the town. We removed our car just as the gendarmes were coming through with tape and tickets for cars still on the street. No, we didn’t stay to see the bulls or the following parade of townspeople in traditional costumes.