The “Assumption Capital” of Rieux-Minervois (Dennis Aubrey)


In the marvelous Église Sainte Marie in Rieux-Minervois there is a piece of carving that quite astonished me this October. Initially the church is interesting because it is a center-sanctuary like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, but it is seven-sided.

Église Sainte Marie, Rieux Minervois (Aude) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Just constructing the heptagonal structure in the Middle Ages would have been a challenge. Given that the builders used the compass and a straight-edge as their design tools, look at this animation of how the design would have been accomplished. The technique to derive the angle “a” of approximately 51.3178° (one seventh of the circle) would have been a higher order of calculation for the masons.

Heptagonal dome, Église Sainte Marie, Rieux Minervois (Aude) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The great claim to fame of this church is the work of the famed “Master of Cabestany,” the anonymous master sculptor who worked in France, Spain and Italy in the second half of the 12th Century. While most of the sculpture was probably done by his apprentices or assistants, one in particular is by his own hand (and some claim that he actually designed the church itself as well).

The Master of Cabestany capital, "The Assumption of the Virgin", Rieux-Minervois (Aude) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In this detail of the Virgin in the mandorla, we can appreciate the beauty of the composition and the carving (as well as see the traces of polychrome that would have originally covered the stone). The Master used the mandorla, the almond-shaped aureola around Mary, in keeping with the iconographic tradition of using the convention to depict sacred moments that transcend time and space. Mary is being conducted heavenward by a trio of angels on each side of the capital.

"Assumption" capital - Rieux-Minervois (Aude) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In this detail of the angels of the opposite side (only two heads are visible; the third has been destroyed some time in the past), there is a sweetness of characterization that strikes me all the more because it has been coaxed out of stone by this anonymous master who lived eight centuries ago.

Angels of the Assumption of Mary, Rieux-Minervois (Aude) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

I find so much in this capital that moves me. I am moved by the technical considerations of carving a single block of granite in three dimensions to achieve the effects that he did. I am moved by the marvelous characterizations of the angels conducting the Virgin to Heaven. And above all, I am moved by the story-telling of the capital – the pride of the angel in front and the desire of the angel behind to lean forward and see the serene Queen of Heaven.

Location: 43.282614° 2.587373°

7 responses to “The “Assumption Capital” of Rieux-Minervois (Dennis Aubrey)

    • Thanks, JP. This church was a great surprise to us because pickings are pretty thin in the Romanesque style down there. This sculptor was amazing, and later I’ll be posting his altar from the church in Saint Hilaire.

  1. Loved the church and the wonderful carved capitals. Anyone know what stone was used for the building ? It is browny grey ?like clunch if this exists in this part of France.

    • Chris, now that is an interesting question! My research notes on Rieux say that it is the local limestone (calcaire), but I don’t find an attribution. The information is probably from the Patrimoine site. I know that granite is quarried locally and that outstanding red marble that has been quarried in nearby Caunes-Minervois from Roman times. This marble was used at Versailles.

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