“We shall draw from the heart of suffering itself the means of inspiration and survival.” Winston Churchill
I have read that there are five thousand Romanesque churches still standing in France. Five thousand buildings that are between eight hundred and a thousand years old. To those of us in America, where the oldest handful that we possess are barely half that age, it is almost inconceivable. What makes it even more difficult to believe that these buildings exist is the fact that they have survived the ravages of not only time, but of war, religious upheaval, and revolution.
To go to the different regions of France and look at the churches is to read that history of devastation. The Albigensian Crusades in southern France resulted in pillage of churches and towns. In the Aquitaine, one sees the destruction of the Hundred Years War, where armies and bandit companies marched back and forth destroying everything in sight. One can see the devastation of the religious wars where Protestants and Catholics contested. The Protestants destroyed statuary as idolatrous, no matter how brilliant the craftsmanship. The hands and the faces of the statues were shattered and the evidence of iconoclasm is everywhere in France.
During the French Revolution, the clergy were ejected from their churches and the buildings were converted to granges, stables, warehouses, prisons, public halls, and even whorehouses. Churches were looted and their treasures scattered to the winds. The greatest medieval monastery in the world, the Abbey of Cluny, was sold to a Dijon merchant who blasted it with explosives, toppled the great walls, and sold the stone piece by piece. Only small fragments remain. Horses were stabled in Notre Dame de Paris. In World War I, the Germans bombed some churches and cathedrals as a matter of military policy, while the inevitable tides of conflict destroyed many others. Personal spite was even responsible as the great tower of Coucy-le-Chateau was dynamited by retreating Germans in 1917.
The donjon of Coucy was one of the most remarkable monuments from the Middle Ages, home to the Coucy’s who protected Paris from invasion from the north. The donjon was 210 feet high, 100 feet in diameter, and the walls were 34 feet thick. The Germans used 30 tons of cheddite in the donjon, plus another ten tons in each of the four towers of the chateau. Each of the three gates was mined with a smaller charge. The explosion was detonated on 27 March 1917. At the same time, the adjacent village of Coucy was bombarded by artillery and transformed into ruins.
The U.S. Ambassador to France, William Sharp, upon witnessing the devastation in the wake of the retreat of German forces to the Hindenburg Line in the Spring of 1917, said, “After traversing a distance of more than one hundred miles in this invaded territory, I left with the conviction that history records no parallel in the thoroughness of destruction wrought either by a victorious or a vanquished army.”
The Germans themselves bore witness. In 1917, the journalist Georg Querl exulted, “Let them see it over there! Let them see it over there! This fearful naked war should be reflected in all the shop windows of the Boulevards. We have put distance between us and our enemies. It is a desert full of wretchedness … Farewell, comrades of the Somme! The earth which drank your blood is upheaved and torn asunder. It is made unfruitful, it is turned into a desert, and your graves are made free from the dwellings of men. Those who tread it, your desert, will be greeted by our shells.”
But the Germans were just the latest of invaders, who included Romans, Vandals, Huns, Franks, Saracens, Magyars, and Norsemen, among so many others who chose to ravage this fruitful land. It defies reason that anything survived this orgy of destruction, but somehow, five thousand precious Romanesque jewels accomplished the miracle. Certainly it is a testament to the solidity of stone from which they were built. Certainly it is a testament to the craftsmanship of the builders who considered that they were building for their God and not for humankind. But perhaps it is also the parallel to the sacrifice that was made by their Saviour and from those believers who drew from that heart of suffering “the means of inspiration and survival”. Perhaps it is this indomitable spirit that kept these churches intact, as a reminder and a living witness to a faith based on suffering and redemption.
If you are interested in seeing more of these images, please see the Via Lucis website.