Decaying religious artworks to go on tour after restoration
Calvaire d’Oka; Created in 1775, extremely rare pieces were bought at auction
MONTREAL – They are rare, decaying gems of Quebec’s religious, artistic and cultural heritage, soon to be restored for future generations.
The Calvaire d’Oka, as the collection of seven painted wood bas-reliefs are known, were crafted by François Guernon (aka Belleville) in 1775. They were installed two centuries ago near the Église de l’Annonciation in Oka, about 60 kilometres west of Montreal, and for generations they were the centrepieces Catholic worshippers went to visit when they symbolically relived the Stations of the Cross – the depiction of Jesus Christ’s final hours – in four stone oratories and three chapels on the hill near the church.
In vivid colours and sculptural grooves, the artworks seemingly brought to life Christ’s meeting with St. Veronica, his flagellation and crucifixion, among other things.
The chipped artworks, which were exposed to the elements and had parts yanked off for firewood over the years, were to be sold at auction March 8. But the Musée de la civilisation in Quebec City swooped in before the auction and bought the works with $150,000 raised privately by the museum’s foundation.
“They are extremely rare and definitely worth saving,” said Jean Bélisle, an art history professor at Concordia University. “For years, people went into the woods there in Oka and it was a mystical experience, visiting the different places. Eventually people came by in snowmobiles and some people went in and vandalized the art.”
The Calvaire d’Oka was one of just two similar places of worship in the Americas, he added.
“The collection is part of our history, part of our identity as a people,” said Jocelyn Groulx, director of the Conseil du patrimoine religieux du Quebec, a non-profit group that works to salvage religious places and artifacts. There are many other religious artworks in the province worth saving, he added. “We don’t have a shortage of work.”
The museum plans to restore the pieces and tour them around the province, museum spokesperson Serge Proulx said. The proceeds will help the Fabrique d’Oka repair the leaky roof of the church and the artworks will eventually be returned to the chapel inside the church in Oka.
For more information about the Musée de la civilisation’s fundraising efforts, visit sauvonsnotrepatrimoine.com