St. Paul’s clinic in St Rémy by Janice Lert

For anyone interested in art history, there are few better places that St Rémy de Provence. Within a few steps, you can admire Gallo-Roman remains, visit the medieval cloisters of St Paul’s, and see the landscapes painted by Vincent Van Gogh in 1889-90 when he was a patient at the clinic in St Rémy, called St Paul de Mausole, so named because it is located beside the Roman Mausoleum.

The clinic is actually housed in a medieval monastery with buildings dating back to the 12th century, and located on a spot where health has always been a priority. For proof, the temple dedicated to the goddess Valetudo, the goddess of health, in the old Gallo-Roman town of Glanum next door. The medieval monks of St Paul’s took in the sick, and today, the privately- owned clinic still continue the same tradition of treating the mentally ill.

St Paul s clinic in St Remy 1

The Monastery of Saint-Paul de Mausole

 

 

Once through the gates you cannot help but be moved by the beauty and silence of the main walkway open to the public, which leads from the gate to the medieval buildings, a chapel and cloisters perfectly integrated into the more modern parts of this mental clinic whose patients, mostly women, participate in activities inspired by the history of Vincent Van Gogh, such as, of course, painting. The walkway is lined with iris and includes a statue of Vincent Van Gogh with his arms full of sunflowers. And if you want more flowers, you will find lavender and poppies in the fields in back of the bookshop.

 

Along the walkway have been placed at regular intervals works painted by Van Gogh during his year in St Rémy, from May 1889 to May 1890, when he did almost 150 paintings, including some of his most famous, such as the Starry Night or the Irises. You will recognize around you the landscapes that he immortalized: the Alpilles hills, the olive groves, the stone quarries, the poppy fields, all within a stone’s throw of the clinic.

 

The buildings of the old monastery straight ahead of you are open to visitors. Even though the façade of the chapel was rebuilt in the 18th century, the building itself is a typical Romanesque chapel with a simple nave ending in a rounded apse lit by three stained-glass windows (symbol of the Trinity). Side chapels have been housed between the buttresses on the north side; on the south side the walls were reinforced to support the lovely bell tower visible from the cloisters. This chapel can still be used for religious services.

 

The entrance to the cloisters is located to the right of the chapel. This beautiful calm spot would have been a favorite for the monks of the Middle Ages and still moves us today. The courtyard, separated by arcades from the four walkways forming a rectangle around it, is planted with flowers that bloom all year round, a brilliantly sun- lit space surrounded by the shadows of the walkways on all four sides.

 

Take time to look at the sculpted capitals on the columns of the arcade. Not many have religious significance, but there are many other influences. Some have a little head peeking out between the leaves, a model found in Glanum. Others have delicate entwined vegetation similar to that illustrating medieval manuscripts. And try to find the double capitals with a Sagittarius shooting at a mermaid who has an arrow in her tail!

 

The rooms surrounding the courtyard are not open to the public, with one exception, the former chapter room on the east side. This room is today a bookstore dedicated to Vincent Van Gogh, and gives access to a stairway to the upper level where you can visit a bedroom furnished like the one where Vincent slept when he was a patient at St Paul’s (his room was in a pavilion that has since been destroyed). Another room on this level contains items and information about the treatment used at the hospital in Vincent’s time. The current director of the clinic has done a lot of research and written a book about Vincent Van Gogh and his stay in St Rémy, on sale in the bookshop.

 

Vincent arrived in St Rémy from Arles in May of 1889 after he had cut his ear and the residents of Arles wanted him interned. Coming to the mental clinic was his own choice: he hesitated between that and joining the French Foreign Legion. What he wanted was a place to live where meals and a bed would be provided. But the clinic had the advantage of allowing him to be able to continue painting.

 

He was very positive about his choice at first, and had good periods in Saint Rémy when he would go outside to paint with a warden, but at other times his behavior became erratic. He finally realized that he would not find a cure in Saint Rémy, and left the clinic in May of 1890 for Auvers-sur-Oise, where he died two months later, in July, 1890.

 

Also on sale in the bookshop are the works done by today’s patients. Many are short-term patients who have returned to live with their families after treatment, but come back once a week for a painting workshop. Some of the best works are on display and can be purchased. The patients even exposed in New York a few years ago. So Van Gogh’s legacy lives on, and art therapy appears to have a brilliant future!