The village of Biollet is located in the very rural Auvergne commune of Combrailles. It is only 30 miles from the metropolitan area of Clermont-Ferrand, but that short distance takes an hour to drive. Biollet itself boasts 379 inhabitants and has, according to Wikipedia, a density of 41 people per square mile. When I visited the website for the town, I was the 785th visitor. In researching the town, I found a video on the Fête du cheval à Biollet which perfectly conveys the sense of the village.
The town is part of the land once held by the small and insular Celtic tribe of the Cambovices and was transected by the Via Agrippa, a major Roman road between Lyon and Saintes d’Agrippa. In the center of the town is the Église Saint Pierre, a mostly Romanesque 11th Century church of modest interest in a land replete with churches of extraordinary interest. But inside is a set of capitals that are absolutely unique. We have shot over 400 churches in France but have never seen anything like the carvings in Saint Pierre de Biollet.
At first we thought these were extremely naif and primitive sculptures, in fact we referred to them as the “ET” capitals. We imagined that they were carved by some relative of the mason who built the church – “Oh, my son? He’s an artist. He can carve your capitals. And if you hire him, you’ll get the family rate!” They certainly seemed at odds with the sophistication of the architecture of the church itself.
But while the execution may or may not be primitive and unsophisticated, as we looked more intently at the capitals we discovered a complex and enigmatic iconography featuring passionate embraces, decapitation, pagan gods, and more. What is the sense in this?
The answer may lie deeper in time and further distant than French Romanesque sculpture. The British Isles have the greatest collection of Celtic stone sculpture, especially in Ireland where there was no Roman hegemony to interrupt two millennia of Celtic culture. We found several examples of Irish Celtic sculptures that are very similar to the capitals of Biollet.
This figure from the Boa Island off the coast of Northern Ireland would be immediately familiar to those who have viewed the Biollet sculptures.
The figures on the base of the High Cross of Moone feature the same figural style in both humans and animals. The Moone cross is a work of amazing sophistication which was carved perhaps 150 years earlier than Biollet. This cross does not represent a departure from earlier Celtic sculpture in Ireland, but a continuum. It may be that Biollet somehow represents a similar continuum with Celtic culture in the Auvergne.
And finally, there are a series of Celtic statues from White Island, all of which carry the familial resemblance to the Biollet capitals. They suggest that there was a pan-European Celtic culture, undisturbed in Ireland, but still alive in France as well.
In Biollet, Celtic influences co-mingled with Christian. The figure with the cross is clearly Christian, but the others? Decapitation was common in Celtic art because the Celts cut off because the heads of their enemies for display. Notice how the figure to the right of the cross-holder is carrying a severed head. The meaning of the capital is a mystery, however.
There is another capital featuring the Celtic god Sucellus (apparently he was exclusive to the Gauls), whose name means “one who hits hard.” He is represented in this capital in the traditional manner as a bearded man carrying a jar, a symbol of fertility, and a hammer with two heads – one of which may cause death and the other resurrection.
A small monograph in French called “Biollet, Figures d’entre deux mondes,” by Albert and Monique Pinto (2007) further discusses these capitals and their possible interpretation as a fusion of Celtic Gaul and medieval Christianity.
So despite our initial reaction to the capitals, we have come to realize that there is a sophisticated iconography at work at Saint Pierre de Biollet. And perhaps even more importantly, what we took to be primitive execution in stone may be a stylistic choice that hearkens to deep Celtic roots that spread throughout Europe for a thousand years. The Celtic and Christian imagery merged into an iconography unique to this small region in the Massif Central. And we made the same mistake that we so often criticize in others, believing that those who precede are somehow more primitive and less sophisticated than ourselves. Picasso, Derain, and Braque were strongly influenced by Romanesque art because they recognized in it a truthfulness and power of expression that had all but vanished from modern art. Our own lack of understanding of the true intentions of Biollet’s sculptors should occasion in us some kind of humility instead of a rash assumption of superiority.
So Biollet remains outside of our comprehension – eloquent, fascinating, and unclassifiable. And the figures on the capitals mock us gently.
Location: Click this link to see the location on our custom Google Map.