Painter Gilles Weissmann has been working since the beginning of February 2023 on a large-scale project: writing icons for the future chapel of the Abbey of Ourscamp (France)
Just one verse each day.
On this sunny afternoon in April, Gilles Weissmann is sitting in front of his desk. He’s working on an icon of Christ. Gregorian chants pierce the silence of his workshop. Many brightly colored icons adorn the walls of this Haussmann apartment. In one corner of the wall, St. George is fighting the dragon. Near the window, an icon of the Virgin Mary on a blue background raises her arms towards the Parisian sky. Next to it, a sketch of the icon of Christ in glory fascinates with its grandeur. That icon will soon adorn the wall of the future chapel of the Abbey of Ourscamp, as part of the restoration project of the Lorraine wing of the abbey.
A providential encounter
Located in the Oise region, this 12th-century sacred jewel is one of the oldest Cistercian abbeys in France. The ravages of time are the main enemies of this site which is classified as a historic monument. Fighting against collapse is the long-term task to which the Servants of Jesus and Mary have dedicated themselves for over 70 years. Since October 2022, they have been leading an ambitious restoration project of the Lorraine wing, which dates from the 17th century and was damaged by bombing during the First World War, leaving it unoccupied.
This is the first restoration project of a private historical monument in France to be carried out in the spirit of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’. Once the wing has been restored, it will include a guest house that will be able to accommodate a hundred people spread over several floors, a sacristy, and confessionals, but above all a chapel large enough to accommodate 115 people. The purpose of the latter will be to welcome pilgrims who will stay at the abbey. On February 5, 2023, painter Gilles Weissmann went to the Lorraine wing to get to know the place and to meet with the brothers of the congregation in order to respond to a particular request: to write icons for this future chapel.
It was a providential meeting! “One of the students of my Anastasis Icon Workshop told me in December that she had shown my work to Fr. Eric de Thézy, superior of the Abbey of Ourscamp. He was looking for someone to write icons for the abbey’s chapel,” recalls the 68-year-old artist, who until then had only done private commissions.
Convinced by the enthusiasm of his pupil, he visited the abbey, spoke with the brothers, and immersed himself in the place. He felt at ease there, and he and Fr. Eric de Thézy connected immediately. “We didn’t really know what we wanted. We were thinking of a scene in glory, but we didn’t really know which one to choose,” Fr. Eric told Aleteia. Gilles Weissmann quickly gained the trust of the community. He has a good eye, he projects himself, he proposes ideas, sketches…
“Gilles Weissmann proposed a landscape format with an icon of Christ in glory in the center, the Virgin Mary on his right and Saint John the Baptist on his left,” says Fr. Eric with a smile. “A proposal that was unanimously accepted by the brothers in record time. And to reflect the spirituality of the Servants of Jesus and Mary, the congregation also asked that St. Joseph and St. John also be represented on this set of icons.
“They are the first servants of Jesus and Mary,” said Fr. Eric. St. Joseph will be placed next to the Virgin and St. John next to St. John the Baptist, he explained. The five icons will be 5½ feet tall and will be installed above the tabernacle, behind the altar. In just two months, the project was born and even began to take shape in Gilles Weissmann’s workshop.
“The colors on the icons must be joyful”
“The work should take a year,” warns Gilles Weissmann. He knows not to rush things when it comes to icon writing. In the case of Ourscamp, there’s no rush, since the work on the chapel itself is not expected to be completed before November 2023. While the sketches are ready, the boards for the future icons are still not.
“They should arrive soon. The boards are coming from the same tree. It’s lime wood with more than 25 years of drying,” says the painter, noting that he will have to prepare the boards so that they won’t deteriorate over time. Only after applying several coats of plaster will he be able to transfer his sketches onto the wood.
In addition to these five icons, the abbey has entrusted him with the task of writing three others which will also be hung in the chapel. “We’d like to have an icon of a guardian angel. We’ve also commissioned an icon representing the scene of the washing of the feet where Christ becomes a servant and invites us to do the same. In this way, we’ll be able to contemplate what our congregation of the Servants of Jesus and Mary is called to do. An icon of a conquering lamb will also be placed on the base of the altar,” Fr. Eric explains.
While everyone knows what the figures will look like, no one, not even Gilles Weissmann, knows what colors they will be. “I’m listening to the wishes and needs of the brothers, but since the chapel is still under construction, it’s difficult to fully project (how they will be). The icons must be in harmony with the wood of the pews, the stalls dating from the 18th century, the walls of the chapel… The luminosity of the chapel must also be taken into account.”
But what is certain is that the painter, who is inspired in particular by Romanesque art, will use “fresh colors.”
“The colors on the icons must be joyful,” he says. “We have undertaken major work for the rehabilitation of the Lorraine wing. The chapel is at the heart of this project and we are particularly pleased. We need the support, talent and investment of everyone!” concludes Fr. Eric.