A 6,000m² museum pathway interspersed with collections of unusual diversity: sculptures, tapestries, furniture, porcelain, seventeenth century paintings and a gallery dedicated to the Arras School. The Arras Museum of Fine Arts is a little jewel set with a rare pearl: the Gallery of the Mays and its religious paintings straight from the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris.
Saint-Vaast Abbey, historical cradle of Arras
The origin of Saint-Vaast Abbey dates back to the year 667. Founded by the Order of Saint Benedict on the hill of La Madeleine, it became the cradle for the future city of Arras.
Its history reads like an adventure story. Burned down in 783, the target of the Norman invaders, it expanded in the Middle Ages and was later reconstructed according to plans designed by the great Parisian architect Labbé. Miraculously spared by the Revolution, Saint-Vaast Abbey was destroyed during the First World War and then reconstructed in identical style. Together with the adjoining Cathedral of Notre-Dame (the former Abbey Church) it forms one of the biggest architectural complexes of eighteenth century French architecture. Listed as a Historical Monument, for almost two centuries it has been home to the Museum of Fine Arts.
Gems on every floor
No fewer than three levels were needed to display the extensive collections of the Arras Museum of Fine Arts. The ground-floor galleries hold jewels of Medieval sacred art, among them the Angels of Saudemont, two extraordinarily rare statues in polychrome wood (thirteenth century).
Although the first floor concentrates on Flemish and Dutch painting – Rubens’ Saint Francis receiving the Stigmata (1615) – the great staircase opens in particular onto the vertiginous Gallery of the Mays and its seventeenth century religious paintings, immense both literally and figuratively. With its ceilings a full nine metres high, the Gallery of the Mays is breathtaking, and it is irradiated by the splendour of its canvases.
There are also smaller scale treasures, including the Nativity of the Virgin (Philippe de Champaigne) and Saint John the Baptist Preaching (Joseph Parrocel). For its part, the second floor is dedicated to the great masters of the Arras School. Born of a meeting between Camille Corot and the drawing teacher Constant Dutilleux, the Arras School established itself as an artistic hub of rare intensity. Its teaching ushered in a modern perception of landscape painting. Great names such as Désiré Dubois, Xavier Doulens and Charles Desavary enhanced its reputation.
Exceptional setting, exceptional exhibitions
A monumental portico opens onto a majestic courtyard. The Museum impresses the onlooker instantly.
Next are the Cour du Puits (well courtyard), the former Benedictine refectory and, in particular, the great cloister recognisable by its ionic capitals embellished with garlands. All agree that the Arras Museum of Fine arts is a feast for the eyes. An exceptional setting means exceptional exhibitions. To this end, since 2012 the Museum has maintained a close partnership with the Palace of Versailles. This has enabled it to host some presitigious exhibitions such as Roulez carrosses, Le château de Versailles en cent chefs-d’oeuvre and Napoléon, Images de la légende.
The Museum of Fine Arts in practice
- Arras Museum of Fine Arts, 22, rue Paul Doumer à Arras. Tel. : +33 (0)3 21 71 26 43
- Admission : Free (permanent collections)
- Opening times : Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 11.00am to 6.00pm, Saturdays and Sundays from 10.00am to 6.00pm
- Closed on Tuesdays and on 1st January, 1st May, 1st November and 25th December.