France’s wealth of monuments sometimes results in gems slipping through the figurative fingers of the Monuments National, the state agency responsible for protecting these priceless assets. In the Puy-de-Dôme, a department stuffed to overflowing with Romanesque churches, there is a small village called Ris, population 728. In 952 the Cluniac Priory of the Blessed-Mary was founded there and the current building was constructed between 979 and 985.
In design, it is primarily inspired by Carolingian models and the dates of construction make it one of the oldest Romanesque churches in all of France. The tenth century narthex may be the oldest remaining in the entire country. In addition to the historically significant architecture, there are paintings from the twelfth and fifteenth centuries of importance. But this in itself is not what makes the church in Ris so unusual.
The Prieuré de Ris – now known as the Église Sainte-Croix de Ris – was not listed as an historic monument until 1995! It wasn’t because it was unknown – the church was restored in 1881 and the Editions Zodiaque describes it in Auvergne Romane.
The church demonstrates its early origins in the structure – a high, narrow barrel-vaulted nave with two half-barrel vaulted side aisles and an oven vaulted apse. The arcade arches are supported by massive square pillars. The crossing is covered with a groin vault.
There are several superb medieval tempera murals in the church. One shows Saint Peter in his full canonical glory.
Another shows the stoning of Saint Stephen in Jerusalem. I imagine that the figure on the left is Saul of Tarsus leading the frenzied mob. Saul, of course, became Paul and one of the great saints of the medieval Christian church.
Among the more gruesome murals depicts the martyrdom of Saint Agatha, for whom the church was subsequently named. Born in Catania, Sicily, she received the name of Agathe which means “goodness” in Greek. As a child, she dedicated herself completely to Christ. As a teenager was arrested for this dedication and the judge presiding tried to seduce her. When refused, he had Agatha tortured; her breasts were cut off and then she was dragged over hot coals until she died with a “loud cry of joy” on February 5, 251.
On a more pleasant note, I can’t help but submit a photograph of the Vierge Romane, a copy of an Auvergnat madonna currently on exhibit at the Louvre in Paris. She is a classic of the style and quite beautiful.
She has the serene visage that I always associate with these Romanesque churches. I am sure that when PJ looks up from her work when we are photographing that she sees this look on my face. I know that I have seen it on hers.