Many, if not most, of the churches in the Calvados region of France are bereft of their clochers, clock towers, and spires because they were located in the combat zone of the Battle of Normandy in 1944. Ideal spots for snipers and artillery observers, these towers were quickly fired upon with artillery and knocked down. Most have been rebuilt in the original fashion, but few churches escaped serious damage from the battle.
In this region, right in the center of the battlefield between Bayeux and Caen, is the Église Saint Pierre de Thaon which is remarkable for the preservation of all of its exterior elements. Located in a small, narrow valley, the Romanesque clocher did not rise high enough to see over the neighboring trees and therefore survived.
However, the church is no longer a religious sanctuary and sits empty and vacant, locked to keep out the inevitable vandals who have no idea of what they are defacing. We came down a long narrow dirt road hemmed in by the famous bocage of Normandy and emerged in the small valley with the church at one far end. Stunning in the afternoon light, we were delighted to photograph the exterior, even though the doors to the deserted, deconsecrated church were locked.
But our examination of the exterior revealed some strange things – the nave arcades were visible in the external masonry. Columns with their carved capitals could be seen from the outside. Clearly the church had suffered the loss of her side aisles and was merely sealed up. We were anxious to see inside.
We discovered, however, to our good fortune that the Journées du Patrimoine began the next day and that the church would be open from 10am until 6pm, so we traced our way back the next morning to see the interior. The little valley was empty and the church was closed. Even though it was 10:30, nobody was there to open the building. Again, at 1:00pm, nobody was there, but of course it was lunch time. Finally we returned at 4pm and to our delight, there were five cars parked under the trees in the little valley. The church was open!
Inside, the church was desolate and empty. The floor was dirt and rubble. The walls were covered with a green algal growth and graffiti defaced the wall of the apse.
But as desolate as the church appeared, it was beautiful and strangely moving as well. It felt like we were seeing in an elderly woman the glimpses of her youthful remarkable beauty. We could see how the loss of her side aisles damaged the church, which was sealed in at the nave arcades so that the fine capitals were swallowed up by the wall. But the bones of the structure showed the fine work that allowed her to survive still, despite neglect and damage.
There was a great beauty to see the fine stone work of the nave arches sealed in as they are and it was easy to imagine the dignity and grace of the church when it was built. But we can only imagine that now. Today we had lunch with Angelico Surchamp in Tournus again, and he remembered this small anonymous church from his visit many years ago. “Ah, Thaon,” he said. “Beautiful workmanship. Superb details.”
It sounded so much better in French than in translation, but of course he was right. “Bel ouvrage et des détails superbes.” (We will post more on this latest visit with Pere Surchamp soon.) It was so fitting that we shared a remembrance of this church with the small Benedictine priest who has done so much to keep their memory alive.