It’s all about research. One fact about my family is that we love research. My brother John Paul is a professional researcher. Brother David is a Ph.D. oceanographer and has hundreds of publications to his name. Sister Ann is a writer/editor and has innumerable titles on her resumé. I’m not in their league, but make my effort.
This Via Lucis project requires massive amounts of research to identify and learn about the churches that we plan to photograph and to understand those that we have photographed. Our house overflows with books, pictures and documentation on Romanesque and Gothic churches. Things spill out of book cases and accumulate on the bed headboards, tables, and any flat surfaces not used for other purposes.
We have built a Google Earth database identifying thousands of structures, each copiously annotated with material from the Patrimoine de France, the Zodiaque books of Angelico Surchamp, and texts by Conant, Nebolsine, Shapiro, Porter and many others. The internet provides masses of materials available almost instantly.
But even with this world-wide library, there is sometimes very little information to be found and we can’t anticipate what we will see on arrival at a particular site. This was the case when we went to the Abbey Church of Saint-Avit-Sénieur in October. The description in the Patrimoine de France tells us only that the abbey church was built in the 12th Century, listed as protected in 1862 and is the property of the Commune of Saint-Avit-Sénieur. So we didn’t really know what to expect.
The town is built on a rocky outcrop in the valley of the Couze river, a twenty-mile long tributary of the great Dordogne River. It is sited ten miles southwest of the another great abbey in the region, the Abbaye de Cadouin in the town of Le Buisson-de-Cadouin. In the Middle Ages, the Abbaye Saint-Avit-Sénieur was on the Via Lemovicensis, the Compostella route that departed from Vézelay.
There was nothing particularly surprising when we drove into the picturesque town square. Saint-Avit-Sénieur is typical of many small towns in the Dordogne region of France and has many of the same issues, particularly declining population. In 1793 the population was 1,121; it fell to a low of 365 in 1990, and was up to 440 in 2008. A significant portion of that recent population increase was caused by people buying second homes in the commune.
We happened on the town on a gorgeous Fall afternoon. There was a great deal of activity in the square in front of the church, as a good portion of the town’s population was gathered to build floats for harvest festival parade to celebrate the Fête de l’Automne. There were wagons full of pumpkins and squashes of different sorts.
This activity was the only thing that surprised us until we got to the church itself.
The building was constructed as an enormous hall church in the 11th Century as part of the abbey, whose vestiges are next to the building. During the religious wars, the apse, hemicycle, and ambulatory were destroyed, which leaves little evidence of its past as a pilgrimage site. This nave shot was taken with the Canon 17mm tilt-shift lens, which is the perfect lens to capture the scale of Saint-Avit-Sénieur.
The nave is remarkable in its way. First, it is a hall church, but is comprised of three open bays. Each open bay has a blind arcade of four arches and three windows at the clerestory level (except for the left wall on the first bay from the choir, which has two). The nave was fitted with rib vaults in the 13th Century. It is, in many ways, similar to the Église Sainte Radegonde in Poitiers. In fact, we can get a feeling for what Saint-Avit-Sénieur would have looked like with the hemicycle and apse (which would not have been raised above a tomb).
The massive square pillars set off the different bays and provide the springing for the vault arching. But I also particularly admire the detail of the passageway at the back of the church. All the walls are covered in mural paintings, varying widely in their condition. The church shows the effect of multiple restorations over the years, but retains the dignity and grace we find so often in Romanesque churches.
PJ was struck by the fact that the church only had benches for about 150 people, so it looked empty. It makes one wonder about the throngs of worshippers that would come to Saint-Avit-Sénieur during the pilgrimages in the Middle Ages.
There was one detail that was absolutely unique. Most old churches have a “tronc,” a box to collect donations for the maintenance of the structure. At Saint-Avit-Sénieur there was a large tree stump placed on the floor near the entrance. There was an old wooden mallet chained to the stump and a container full of metal brads or tacks next to it. With a donation of one euro, one could use the mallet to hammer a brad into the stump. There were hundreds of these tacks embedded in the wood. It was a novel way to raise money to preserve the church.
As we left the church in the late afternoon, the activity in the square was feverish. Everyone was working on the floats and we regretted that we could not see the festival the next day. If I had done my research properly, we would have known about the festival and planned a little bit more carefully. But, as we so often find out, it is much better to have a good reason to return.