Exploring the Four Chapels of the Penitents in Nice
The Penitents refers to a Christian movement dating back to the 4th century. During this time, those who confessed a grave sin were assigned a penance, a means by which your sin could be forgiven. This penance, assigned by a Bishop, could assume the form of repairing a church, helping the poor and sick, or performing a pilgrimage to a holy site. During these moments of atonement, the penitents wore special-coloured robes in order to show their status as sinners. Later, some people voluntarily entered the brotherhoods of penitents, which became charitable associations that helped the most vulnerable.
Nice is home to four penitent churches which pursue to this day community-minded initiatives. The Penitents appeared in the city around the 14th century and are considered among Nice’s oldest benevolent associations. According to ancient criteria, each church had a different mission and dress color.
My favourite Penitents’ church, and probably the most popular in Nice, is la Chapelle de la Misericorde, or the Mercy Chapel, a large yellow building right in the middle of Cours Saleya. Although one might be fooled by its modest exterior, its interior is stunning and is definitely worth a visit. Dating back to the 18th century, this Baroque beauty is justifiably considered one of the best examples of this style of architecture in all of France. The remarkable series of paintings on the ceiling and the beautiful Virgin of Mercy in the sacristy are a must-see. The Chapel belongs to the Black Penitents of Nice, whose mission was to deal with prisoners sentenced to death and arrange pauper’s burials.
A few steps away from the Mercy chapel, just at the end of Cours Saleya, you can find the sober Sainte-Suaire Chapel. The name dates back to the 16th century, when the church sheltered the Saint Suaire, or Shroud of Turin, for five years to hide it from invaders. Among some remarkable works found in this tiny neoclassical chapel, don’t miss out the Holy Trinity painted by Barbéri. The Sainte-Suaire chapel is home to the Red Penitents, whose mission was to help abandoned children. To aid in this mission they ran an orphanage outside the church.
The Brotherhood of the White was formed in 1306, and is the oldest of the four associations in Nice. The White Penitents are based at la Chapelle Sainte-Croix, or the Holy Cross Chapel, built in the baroque style by architect Spinelli. Inside the church you can admire a series of paintings focused on Christ’s cross, protector of the brotherhood. The White Penitents were devoted to helping the ill and founded a small, private hospital. Today it is called “Maison Sainte-Croix”, which shelters therapeutic coordination units since 2005.
Also built by architect Spinelli, the baroque Très-Saint-Sépulcre chapel belongs to the Blue Penitents. Hidden in the middle of a spectacular yellow building in Garibaldi Square, this little gem can be found on the second floor. The initial mission of the brotherhood of the Blue was to help lepers. They later moved their efforts to help orphans and opened an orphanage for abandoned girls.
These four emblematic buildings provide insight into the rich history and tradition that made Nice the remarkable city it is today. These chapels also offer superb architectural value, which must be preserved as an important piece of Nice’s heritage.