We have often remarked how astonishing it is that France still holds 5,000 Romanesque churches from the 11th and 12th centuries. They have survived war, accident, nature, religious strife, revolution, and age while standing proudly in the French countryside.
One of these survivors is the priory church in Anzy-le-Duc. The first church on this site was founded in Carolingian times, in 876, as a gift from the noble couple Letbald and Altaric. Their purpose was to establish a monastic institution dedicated to the revived Rule of Saint Benedict. The first prior was Saint Hugues of Poitiers, whose fame brought the priory into great repute. Hugues “died in great veneration” in 930 and was buried in the crypt of the church. His relics attracted many pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. This influx of pilgrims resulted in the construction of the Prieuré de la Sainte Trinité in the late 11th and early 12th Century.
This great priory church announces its presence from a distance with a stunning octagonal bell tower, one of the finest in Burgundy.
However, the pious motivations behind the construction of the church have not protected it during the years. In the “calamitious 14th Century” (thank you, Ms. Tuchman) the furies unleashed by the Hundred Years War reached deep into southern Burgundy. In 1368 the troops of the Black Prince attacked and sacked the church.
In 1576, the religious wars that divided France made their mark when the Protestants desecrated the tomb of Saint Hugues and mutilated sculptures of the western portal. In 1594 the Catholics of the League, set the church on fire.
Not to be outdone, nature lent a hand. In 1652 lightning damaged the signature bell tower.
Mankind returned to its destructive ways during the Revolution when great scars were inflicted on the sculptures on the west portal. In 1789, almost out of exhaustion, the priory was dissolved and the church abandoned. About 20 years later, the citizens of Anzy-le-Duc bought the structure and converted it to the parish church, dedicating it to Notre-Dame de l’Assomption.
The church survived, and what remains is quite interesting. The nave is narrow, with three bays and rounded arches. Each bay is separated by a thick rounded diaphragm arch that helps support a groin vault above. The two side aisles are also groin vaulted. This is the same vaulting schema that occurs at the Basilique Sainte Madeleine in Vézelay.
The chancel crossing features a fine painted dome resting on squinches.
The west portal’s richly sculpted tympanum has, unfortunately, suffered greatly over the years. As previously mentioned, the Protestants mutilated some of the figures in 1576, but the greatest damage was done during the French Revolution. One of the citizens of Anzy-le-Duc, in his revolutionary fervor, invited his fellows to fire guns at the statuary.
The figures on the lintel, representing the Elders of the Apocalypse, various figures carved onto the archivolt, and the Christ and the angels of the tympanum were all mutilated by gunfire, which was rewarded by “a modest premium of three sous for each head shot.”
The statuary inside, especially the fine historiated capitals, have survived much more successfully.
Somehow, the Église Notre-Dame de l’Assomption has withstood the assaults of history and changing currents of religion. It stands today as a monument to the faith of Hugues of Poitiers and the pious Benedictine monks who followed his footsteps.
Location: Click this link to see the location on our custom Google Map.
✜If you are interested in seeing more of these Romanesque churches, select this link to see a list of those that we have featured in this Via Lucis blog.✜