Chapelle de Notre-Dame de Vie, Mougins
Once painted by Sir Winston Churchill, Chapelle de Notre-Dame de Vie in Mougins stands on a beautiful site at the top of a long meadow bordered by two rows of giant cypresses.
Churchill painted Chapelle de Notre-Dame de Vie several times during his holidays in the South of France in the 1930s and often stayed at Château de l’Horizon (built in 1932 by the American architect Barry Dierks for the actress Maxine Elliott) on the shores of Golfe-Juan. From there he would often be chauffeured to Mougins to see his friends, Bryan and Diana Guinness, who owned the Mas Notre-Dame de Vie situated near to the chapel (later bought by Pablo Picasso in 1961 as a wedding present renaming it l’Antre du Minotaure).
In the car would be his painting paraphernalia such as his easel, parasol and stool, freshly cleaned brushes, water jars and selection of canvasses. With a little imagination one can imagine him sitting in front of this peaceful and quite secluded chapel wearing his favourite hat, his cigar box duly replenished, and painting with only the birds and the chatter of cicadas for company.
In his letter to Clementine Churchill dated 25th August, 1934 (who had chosen to holiday in Scotland with their daughters) and written from Château de l’Horizon he mentions how he’d painted four pictures, including another one of the church of Notre Dame de Vie, which he thought was very luminous and would look good in her bedroom and went on to say how he believed it was the best painting he’d ever done.
The chapel is a little off the beaten track but if you’re visiting l’Etang de Font Merle, it’s only a 400 metres walk from the top of that park. Although you can’t get lost as Chemin de la Chapelle is a narrow one-way road there is no footpath or pavement so be mindful of any traffic. About half way there you’ll see its tall, square tower through some trees. A small car park is on your right as you get to the site as well as a public toilet. The chapel is to your left and set slightly back from the road and bordered by two rows of cyprus trees.
The chapel was restored between 2012 and 2013 upon the initiative of the Mayor of Mougins with the help of a number of private donations and inaugurated 30th June 2013 by Dr. Richard Galy, Maire de Mougins and the Conseil Municipal. A museum, “Le Trésor de Notre-Dame de Vie” was created in the annexed hermitage.
Visiting the Chapel
It is possible to visit the chapel every day in July and August between the hours of 10:00 and 12:30 and again at 14:00 to 19:00. In May, June and September it is open every weekend at those times too. It is then only open on Sunday between the months of October to April from 10:00 to 16:00.
History of Chapelle de Notre-Dame de Vie
Built in 1613 the hermitage would normally shelter some poor soul, housed and fed by the Conseil Municipal. He would be permitted to beg for money as well as receiving a small payment for work entrusted to do. It was totally forbidden for any woman or young girl to enter the hermitage under pain of excommunication. Adjoining the hermitage is the Chapelle Notre-Dame de Vie.
The chapel was built in 1646 and stands on the former site of an earlier church, Saint-Marie, built during the 11th century. However, it is interesting to note that this church was itself built on the original site of a temple dedicated to “Diana the Healer”.
Renaming of the Chapelle
The chapel was renamed Notre-Dame de Vie as it was said that one could find respite there. It was known throughout the area as a “Sanctury of Grace”; as it was believed that if still-born babies were brought here they would resuscitate long enough to be christened during Mass. In 1730, this belief was brought to an abrupt end when the Bishop of Grasse prohibited its practice and had the building, where the babies were kept, completely razed to the ground. A tomb in an adjacent enclosure holds the remains of all the tiny bodies.
The pinnacle, dating back to the 13th century, is the oldest part of the building as nothing else remains of the church Saint-Marie.
The porch has three elegant arcades built in 1656. Embedded at the base of the corner pillar is a Roman stone, funeral stele of one of the members of the Falvius family, whose villa was probably built on that spot. There are two other Gallo-Roman funeral inscriptions possibly belonging to another member of the Falvius family.
Interestingly, the nave was finished in 1556 and not 1646 as indicated on the door’s vault. The chapel itself is very humble, almost bare, and paved with ordinary, baked clay tiles.
On the high altar is a fine altarpiece of the Assumption in blue and gold. On the left-hand wall is a collection of votive offerings one of which is a commemorative plaque, made out of cloth, recording the violent storm of 1668 when hailstones “the size of oranges” wiped out Mougins’ harvest.
After your visit to the chapel, and if you’ve not already done so, you may like to walk to Etang de Font Merle located about 400 metres away. It is a spectacular sight, made more so when the lotus flowers are in bloom (end of June to end of September).