Published the 24 July 2018
Pelicans and other angels
The Vallée des Belleville holds plenty of treasures and surprises: mysteries, stories and puzzles dating back to the end of the 15th century. Why not try your hand at solving all the clues to the secrets and symbols waiting at the foot of the Péclet Glacier, the Pointe de la Masse and Vallée des Encombres?
Two pairs of pelicans nesting in the valley
Yes, it’s true! Along with the chamois, ibex and marmots, the Belleville Valley boasts two pairs of pelicans nesting among the mountains.
But where are they hiding?
One has taken up residence on the high altar of the Church of Saint-Jean Baptiste in the village of St Jean de Belleville, and the other is on the tomb of the Blessed Paul in the Church of Saint Martin de Belleville! Protected by thick walls, both nests have watched over the valley for over 5 centuries.
But what are they actually doing in a Savoyard church?
When a pelican feeds its chicks, it arches its neck over its breast so that they can take the food from its beak pouch. This gave rise to the belief that it tears open its chest to feed its young with its own flesh and blood. For Christians, the pelican therefore symbolises charity, compassion and goodness.
As shown by the people of Belleville, perhaps?
Pelican’s nest in the Church of St Martin de Belleville
Illustration “Portrait d’une haute vallée”
Look up - over 150 angels are watching over you
One, two, three… they gradually appear between the colonnades, over the arches and on pillar buttresses.
Full-figure representations - clothed in antique draperies, holding a trumpet or carrying pincers and other artefacts - over 150 of them watch over the people of Belleville and their visitors. In the Churches of St Jean and St Martin and the Chapels of Nôtre Dame des Grâces and Praranger – they’re everywhere!
Can you see the one playing the pipes? His wings are spread and he’s peering down at you mischievously from the top of his column to the left of the central altarpiece of Notre-Dame de la Vie.
Detail of the altarpiece of the Church of St Martin de Belleville
Concert performed at the Tarentaise Baroque Music Festival against the backdrop of the altarpiece of the Church of St Jean de Belleville
Dreaming of Seville?
Ah, Seville: the heat, the shady backstreets, the majestic altarpiece!
But don’t worry – there’s no need to head off to the city with the biggest Gothic cathedral in the world to catch a glimpse of these cartoon-like altarpieces.
A mix of painting and sculpture - these monumental jewels might have cost the equivalent of €500,000 back in the day.
Their purpose? Quite simply to depict scenes from the Bible, inspire reverie (or fear!) and, above all else, to make a powerful impact on the faithful. Made of wood as everywhere in the Alps, the altarpiece has two closely linked functions: to reveal the beauty of the celestial realm and teach the Catholic dogma through symbols and characters.
By the way – did you know that on 5 August 1873, over 120,000 people made a pilgrimage from Moûtiers to Notre-Dame de la Vie, which has one of the loveliest altarpieces in all of Savoie?
Chapelle Notre Dame de la Vie
Altarpiece of the Chapelle Notre Dame de la Vie
And now it’s time for you to head off to uncover the many more mysteries surrounding the valley’s Baroque churches and chapels.
One final tip
If you’re out of an evening in a winter storm, keep your eyes peeled – you might catch sight of the bent silhouette of Blessed Paul over towards the Lac du Lou.