It has always been one of my favorite churches, the Basilica of Saint Austremoine in Issoire, located in the heart of the Auvergne. For one, it is one of the largest, most perfectly conceived Auvergnat churches. But it is also painted in bright, stunning colors which remind us that these Romanesque churches were painted like this originally. Just 50 kilometers away in Brioude one can still see the original paint on some of the surfaces and they remind one of this 19th Century repainting. Between 1857 and 1860, a certain Anatole Dauvergne was paid 60,000 francs to whitewash the structure. He was possessed of some kind of inspiration, because he came up with this bold and dynamic result.
Because of the boldness and dynamism of this treatment, I have always loved the church. But in the last year as I have studied our pictures of this structure, my mind has begun to change. As the perfection of the structure itself has revealed itself to me, it seems that the painted treatment is less successful than I earlier felt. The beauty of the modest perfection of the architecture does not need decoration of this kind – in fact, such painted decoration takes the eye away from the marvels accomplished in the more difficult medium of stone.
In this shot of the chancel, the decoration completely diverts our gaze from the altar hemicycle with its glorious balance of arches and the marvelous windows beyond the ambulatory. And the paths of light reaching down to the altar seem overpowered by the the zealousness of the decoration. And beyond that, the compelling sobriety of Auvergnat Romanesque architecture becomes almost baroque in its flamboyance. The house of God draws attention to itself instead of the worship which is its purpose.
And so I become frustrated with this great church, wanting to see it as it was a millineum ago, as it was originally envisioned by those who conceived and built it. And then, almost by accident, I turn a corner, into the south side aisle, and am confronted with a sight that takes my breath away, and perhaps takes me back to that 12th Century in this remote province where builders of genius created a structure as austere and beautiful as prayer itself.
It reminds me that I will never stop growing in appreciation of these magnificent structures. The humility I feel before them is the same that I would feel before the God who inspired their construction.