There is a secret in the old tower at Saint-Hilaire-du-Harcouët. It was put there by an artist so remarkable she earned her own wiki page, but the secret in the tower is not mentioned amongst her many achievements.
First this odd old tower. Our vintage postcard looked intriguing; what could need such a high narrow building? Did it have a wonderful view far over Manche marshes to Avranches and the sea? Was it a watchtower for a castle to keep an eye out for enemy armies?
The simple truth
We know Saint-Hilaire-du-Harcouët has a wonderful church so did not suspect the simple truth. It is a church tower, one so old its stones remember William the Conqueror, for it was built into the walls of his fortress here, part of the southern defences for Normandy raised in 1083.
Nicely placed above L’Airon river with views of three great French counties; Normandy, Brittany and Pays de la Loire, this determined belfry has survived Kingdoms, republics and revolution.
By 1789 the fortress was an aristocrat’s château. Revolutionaries turfed them out and used the castle for a town hall but they were not comfortable. It was all too grand to be a ‘house of the people’. So they sold it to the monks in 1820 who used the stones to build the church with two towers we admire today.
The little old church next door closed in 1789 when religion went very out of fashion. It had a few years of revival but as the new church rose the little old church crumbled. By 1855 all that was left was the old fashioned tower and its saddleback roof with chestnut shingles.
Biggest challenge for this stubborn tower
Somehow this stubborn tower remains. A park was created on the land around its base in 1922, to remember those lost and those who suffered in the 1914/18 war. Then in 1944 the tower faced the biggest challenge in 1000 years.
A photo from just over 70 years ago reveals all. On Wednesday 14 June 1944 around 8pm Saint-Hilaire-du-Harcouët suffered the sharp end of WW2, losing hundreds of homes and 78% of the town to intense Allied bombing and the fires that followed.
Until that day Saint-Hilaire-du-Harcouët had survived occupation reasonably unscathed. The occupiers respected the town’s farming links and wanted nothing more than a peaceful life in Normandy countryside after the horrors of battle.
Under their noses three Resistance groups formed, the largest FTP de Louis Blouet, and all very active from 1943. These Resistance enthusiastically supported the Allies landing, causing as much mayhem as their limited resources allowed. But the carnage of June 1944 was entirely unexpected.
Look to the left of the photo and you can see the old tower still stands amongst the rubble. One of Normandy’s many symbols of endurance. There is a link to an account of WW2 life in the town and that day in 1944, below.
To rebuild or not to rebuild…
The town was finally liberated on 2 August 1944, the reminder of the Manche department of Normandy on the evening of 14 August.
Saint Hilaire du Harcourt was unrecognisable, so horrifically damaged its future uncertain. Should it be rebuilt? There was no question for the townspeople, they would ‘revitalize, relocate and rebuild’ Saint-Hilaire-du-Harcouët. And so they did.
The weekly agricultural market quickly returned. A sign of survival but also chaos. Herds of cattle and sheep piled through paths cleared in the rubble, to the now roofless church on what would become Place de L’ Hotel de Ville. Close by, the old tower, shaken but standing, overlooks it all.
Slowly the town is rebuilt, the grand church is crowned with a fine new roof and Saint-Hilaire-du-Harcouët tries to look forward.
For love, faith and art – meet Marthe
Across France the message is the same, rebuild, survive, live. And art breathes a sign of post war relief and dreams again. Of a new world, of beauty and the freedom to create.
Marthe Flandrin is the daughter of renowned artists Joseph Flandrin and Jean Train and great niece of Jean Hippolyte Flandrin. A family known for the importance of faith in their creativity. Marthe was a member of the Union of Catholic Artists and the Society of St John. To look at her serene face is to see a confidence born of religious certainty and her joy in painting the message of God. Marthe’s favourite medium was the fresco and she spread her stories across the huge walls of churches, schools and public buildings.
It was Marthe who, in 1947, created the secret in the old tower. Yves-Marie Froidevaux had restored its war damage and added a baptismal font.
A secret in pink and blue
Marthe took up her paints, mixed pinks, blues and in the direct style of the time created a wonderful, completely fresh interpretation of the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist.
Curls of waves represent baptismal waters and reflect the nearby seas around Mont Saint-Michel. Angels and burning bushes remember passages from the bible. Here the traditions stop as John the Baptist and Christ are unlike any representation we have seen anywhere else.
They hold bread, they stand together in front of an altar. And they have buzz cuts and flares. Marthe’s genius has reminded us that when John baptised Jesus they were young men living their lives, not taking part in a history lesson. So she brings them forward to our time, reminding us that the message is as relevant today.
Once she finished, Marthe went back on her travels revitalising churches with her paintings across France. We don’t know if she ever visited Saint-Hilaire-du-Harcouët again.
The old tower keeps its secret at Saint-Hilaire-du-Harcouët
If you visit today you will probably not see Marthe’s painting giving thanks for life and hope in Saint-Hilaire-du-Harcouët. The door is rarely opened. But it is there, in the heart of the town. And this makes us very happy.
- Link to Saint-Hilaire-du-Harcouët history blog with info about war and liberation in the town (French).
- The amazing annual Foire Saint Martin; annual November agricultural fair that attracts over 150,000 visitors and has been taking place in this part of the world for over 1000 years.