After several visits to the Etang de Font Merle in Mougins, I finally took time to visit the very peaceful hermitage once painted by Winston Churchill.
Built in 1613, the hermitage of Notre-Dame de Vie stands on a beautiful site overlooking Mougins and at the top of a long meadow bordered by two rows of giant cypresses.
The hermitage would normally shelter some poor soul, housed and fed by the Municipal Conseil. 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.
Built in 1646, the chapel 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”.
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.
Picasso’s villa, (l’Antre du Minautore) is well screened by trees and bushes and located just opposite. He spent the last 15 years of his life here until his death in 1973, using his villa as both a studio and his home. His house was a former mas, converted before the war into a luxurious villa by Benjamin Guinness, who also paid for the restoration of the chapel.
After your visit to the chapel, and if you’ve not already done so, you may like to walk round the lovely Etang de Font Merle located just a short drive away. In fact, as you continue along the one-way track you will find yourself at the top of this vast park. It is a spectacular sight, made more so when the lotus flowers are in bloom (between July and mid-September).
The easiest is by car along the A8 motorway. Take exit #42 for Mougins which will bring you to the Rond-point de la Libération. Go round the round-about and take the D6185 exit (Pénétrante Grasse-Cannes) and drive until you see signs for Mougins Saint-Antoine (D350). Continue along that road and then go round the round-about, keep to your right (Avenue du Golf) and then take the first right Avenue de Grasse.
Take the second turning on your right, Prom. du l’Etang, and continue along this road (the Etang de Font Merle will be on your right). Drive through the bollards and continue until the end of the road. Go through the next set of bollards and continue on to the T-junction where you’ll see signs for the Chapelle de Notre-Dame de Vie. Turn right along the fairly narrow road. There is a small parking area on your left as you arrive. A short walk along a grassy verge brings you first to the chapel and, next to it, the hermitage.