The Charente-Maritime can be difficult for explorers of churches like PJ and myself. While there is a wealth of Romanesque churches, many are closed and accessible only a certain times of the day or even the week. Some are not open at all except for services. In addition, it is heartbreaking to see so many that have suffered the ravages of the various wars that plagued the Aquitaine in the Middle Ages and especially the 16th century wars of religion.
The condition of the churches, however, meant that when we planned our shoots every morning, we also scouted different churches to see if we should visit at a later date. One of those we scouted, for which we held no particular hope, was the fortified 12th century Église Saint Eutrope in the small village of Biron. There was good reason for it to be fortified. In the gently rolling hills just a few miles away, the Battle of Jarnac in March 1569 resulted in a Huguenot defeat at the hands of the Catholic forces and the death of Louis I de Bourbon, prince de Condé.
We drove by and saw a lovely little church with a beautiful western facade. And most important, the doors were unlocked. There was even a Romanesque interior and the apse, which was Gothic, was not the product of war but of a 14th century modernization. We immediately decided to return the next day.
We had no information as to who built the original Saintonge church, but it does not seem to be monastic in origin. We would have to find that information from the structure itself since the research gave us nothing.
The church sits in a fine setting, just outside the village in a large open space, standing away from any other buildings. The 12th century octagonal clocher tops the church at the chancel crossing but is not a dominating presence as are so many others of its kind. Its main charm is the series of lovely round arches around the tower.
Inside, the visitor descends five steps into the Romanesque nave with five arches dividing the space into four bays. The original barrel vault has disappeared and was replaced by a functional wooden one. Note the fine sculpted capitals on the nave columns.
The clocher is carried by pediments from the four large chancel pillars, each topped with superb capitals. In a feature that we’ve seen often in the Charente-Maritime, the chancel walls are closed in because there are no transept arms to the north and south. Beyond the chancel, as if at the other end of a short tunnel, is the Gothic apse.
The nave columns feature some wonderful historiated capitals but this shot also shows something else, what may be the key to the origin of the church. There is a barely visible black band extending around the church just below the height of the nave capitals. This is usually a “mourning band” dedicated to some important figure of the parish who has passed. While it is not definitive proof, it is the first evidence we have that this was a parish church from the very beginning, since we have not seen these bands in monastic structures.
The interior of the church is quite interesting, but it is the exterior that marks Saint Eutrope as special. The pedimented west facade is remarkable for the elegance of its classic Saintonge ornamentation and is, for the most part, in good repair.
The five Romanesque arches that make up the portal are flanked by two blind arcades, but everything is tied together by an abacus on each capital that joins with a frieze to make a continuous band across the facade. Each archivolt of the portal arch is topped with a line of lovely, imaginative carved figures that break the harshness of the arches. This motif is carried over on each side with similar lines that spring above the ogive arches of the blind bays.
Okay, in trying to be precise in my description, I just used seven complex architectural terms in two sentences. That’s ridiculous. PJ makes fun of the Aubrey penchant for precision. Ask one of us the time or distance and we will say “8:32″ or “39.5 kilometers”, not “about 8:30″ or “almost 40 kilometers.” I confess my guilt. Let’s try it again.
There is a ribbon-like carving that extends across the entire facade just above the level of the capitals. And at the top level of the arches, there is another sculpted band that traces the outlines of the two side arches and join together at the top of the main central arch. Since this is worth a closer look, here is a link to a larger version of the image.
The capitals and the frieze feature some wonderful sculptural scenes including centaurs hunting stags, beasts, and a terrifying image of a demon consuming a man, presumably a sinner.
It is always surprising to see such a church in the tiniest villages of France. There are 257 inhabitants in Biron now, and I can’t imagine the town ever having been very large. They key lies, I believe, in the fact that Biron is on the flat plain three miles east and below the hill town of Pons. At the turn of the twelfth century, Pons was heavily fortified and ideally situated on the main pilgrimage road to Saint Jacques de Compostela. Pons itself, and probably many of the churches in the region, provided shelter and comfort for the stream of pilgrims moving north and south. It must have been revenue from these penitents that made it possible for the people of Biron to build such a splendid church.
I would try to be more precise, but PJ is looking over my shoulder.
Location: Click this link to see the location on our custom Google Map.