Dozens of parachutists drift above Mont Blanc, riding updrafts. They are pale and indistinct at first, in their high distance; I mistake them for phases of the moon. We're told there is a competition going on: the parachute must come to earth within a given circle, from however many miles away.
We've come around Mont Blanc this morning, crossed from Switzerland into France, on a red train with just two cars. We come as pilgrims, looking for the village church with the Saint Francis painted by Pierre Bonnard. It's the kind of pilgrimage that makes your heart glad: coming through the mountains in the morning, fed on bread and apricot jam, in quest of an almost unknown masterpiece—altarpiece—by the artist whose luminous color-drenched paintings you have loved for almost half your life. We're on our way to see every Bonnard in France, and know we'll find a hundred easily in Paris, but this will be the special one, the one we are making our own.
The Mont Blanc Express is an appropriately pilgrimatic conveyance: quietly jaunty, but well-behaved as all Swiss trains are. We soon understand that it has to be so short because of the steep uphill pull. For much of the way, it acts like a funicular, being hauled along on a cable. Everybody else gets off at Chamonix, the car suddenly emptied, spacious, splashed with sun, but we continue on—coming out into the open again with a kind of newborn wonder after having been folded up in the mountains. Now we can see the ranges whole, jagged and white against the sky, immense as portended by their preparatory rise and fall under the climbing train. And then the Icarian parachutists come into focus, higher still.
I ring a bell in the station at Saint-Gervais-les-Bains/Le Fayet to call a man to store our bags, while we look for a hotel and grab a sidewalk table at the first café we see. Though we are eager to get to the church, I'm ravenous. The bread and jam were hours ago, and in another country. I decide to have “le menu”—diced beets and carrots and green beans (a color combination worthy of Bonnard), a tough but welcome steak au poivre and good fries, crème caramel, and a quarter-litre of the slightly effervescent local white wine in its little pitcher. I had expected Alpine temperatures, in mid-September, but instead it's almost hot. A man in hiking shorts and sockless loafers negotiates with taxis in front of the station. Groups walk past uphill, in t-shirts with day packs, apparently headed for the tram that goes up to the Nid d'Aigle, the easiest approach to an ascent of Mont Blanc. There’s another station adjacent to the first, I see, burned. The hotel is in fact named des deux gares—of the two stations.
I am absurdly happy, waiting for the bill, about to see the seven-foot arched altarpiece Pierre Bonnard painted in 1942 during the war for the church of Notre-Dame-de-Toute-Grâce in the village of Assy looking out toward Mont Blanc—"Saint François de Sales," the sixteenth-century Savoyard saint with the face of Bonnard’s artist friend Vuillard, his good friend killed on the road north of Paris a couple of years earlier while fleeing the advancing German army.
It's up high, I know, the church with Bonnard's saint, but its exact location is ambiguous. Assy—plateau d’Assy—Saint-Gervais—Le Fayet—all the dots converge on maps; written descriptions are sketchy. “In the Savoy Alps” leaves a little too much room for error. I’ve pictured the plateau as raised and flat, like a New Mexican mesa, but nothing here looks anything like that. These mountains are sharp, ungiving.
We walk uphill to where the little eglise symbol is on the map, not far from the gare, finding the symbol too on occasional signposts on the street, but as we tentatively push open the nondescript church door and stand in its deserted entry we realize this is a different church, another Notre Dame. Notre-Dame-des-Alpes. I have confused the two, in the confusing Michelin. One dot looks much like another, none of them painted a Bonnard yellow or revelatory violet. There are no other clues to help us find the reticent sister Notre Dame on our own.
So we walk back downhill past the ornate gates and gardens of a grand old spa like something out of Thomas Mann or Erich Maria Remarque, back down to the station where we started, and ask the only taxi there to take us to the plateau d'Assy. The driver nods his head after a moment, and sets out. Across the wide valley, as it happens, all the way back past the previous train station, and up the mountain opposite. He’s warned us, and we have agreed—he ride will cost more than our room, with private bath and view of Mont Blanc.
The church astonishes, so high above the world and equanimously eye to eye with the Mont Blanc range. It is spectacularly rich in art. The work of fifteen well-known Modernist artists was commissioned for it by Dominican Father Pierre Marie-Alan Couturier, believing as he did that all true art is sacret art, expressing the spirit of the age. A vigorously colorful mosaic on its front by Léger, a tiled wall and friezes and windows by Chagall, a Matisse saint on tile, all willowy black strokes, distinctive stained glass and woodcarvings, a gallery-like crypt . . . and the Bonnard we've come to see, like pilgrims, though not after all on foot—climbing the mountain in our taxi, winding up and up the mountainside of fruit trees and geraniums and old stone. And always the parachutes, pale and distant as moons.
It's dark in Bonnard's corner, and you cry out against that at first. But you just have to let your eyes adjust to it, slowly, the way you quiet yourself and let a place disclose itself to you before trying to take photographs there, or persuade a wild animal to come nearer you. After a time, the colors are some of his richest—pinks and oranges and deep blues and purples and even a couple of highlights of red. There are villages in it (Annecy, it's said, where we'll be the following day), and at the top, a bird, a purple dove, besides the interestingly colorless supplicants gathered around the vibrantly cloaked saint, blending into the stone and shadows. It's a painting that you have to let come to you, out of the darkness, after you have come to it, humbly as a pilgrim with a heart open to what it has to give you. It's then a communion with well-being, with being as in a deep well—with the intense round of sky above you and the quenching wetness brimming in gray stone.
Our taxi waits for us three-quarters of an hour while we see the church; the driver goes to see a friend in the village. He tells us it has been mostly sanatoriums there, high on the mountain. Saint-Gervais itself is a well-known spa town, one of the many where Pierre Bonnard's long-ailing wife Marthe stayed for a cure, and the artist with her.
When we get down again, into the valley, feeling we have been much higher and much farther than the winding mile or two of road up, feeling the fine exhileration of a quixotic venture finely achieved, the driver takes us by the place where we can see one of the parachutes just then coming to land: the slow crumpling of red material surely into the chalked circle.