Adorned Romanesque – Église Saint Sulpice de Marignac (Dennis Aubrey)

Many people comment on our photos that they are surprised by the amount of color that appears in the churches. Some prefer the austere unadorned stone and the consider the colored churches garish. But in reality, what we commonly perceive about the Romanesque churches is essentially false, the product of 19th century restorations. The fact is that the churches were filled with color. The capitals and statues were painted, the walls were covered in frescoes and the pillars adorned.

One of the comments on our post “Color and Saint Austremoine” was from The Wanderlust Gene, which stated, “I have to admit I’m amazed by all that colour – and all the yellow in the church you showed us yesterday. An old stick in the mud, eh – i so so love my romanesque sere and forceful … It’s so interesting! I remember when I learned that the Acropolis used to be lurid – I almost died with regret for it!”

This is not unusual, because the churches have a powerful dignity and beauty when stripped down without the ornamentation. They fit our notion of the serious purpose of the religious architecture.

Église Saint Sulpice, Marignac (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But the Romanesque churches were books, teaching instruments in which the tenets of the Christian faith were explained to the people. The capitals served two purposes – they told bible stories and were symbolic representations of the spiritual struggles to achieve salvation. The Église Saint Sulpice de Marignac in the southwest deparment of the Charente-Maritime is a perfect illustration. Like most churches in the Aquitaine, Saint Sulpice was devastated by wars. The nave was rebuilt in the Gothic style, but the crossing and apse are pure Romanesque.

Crossing and apse, Église Saint Sulpice, Marignac (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

It is the Romanesque detailing in Saint Sulpice that we find so remarkable. In this photograph of the crossing arch, you can see the painted pillars and capitals – even the squinches are painted – but look carefully at the voussoirs. They are all carved in a unique shape, one that we have only seen in the Charente-Maritime. It makes the crossing arch look like a stack of books.

Crossing arch, Église Saint Sulpice, Marignac (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

In this closeup, it is possible to see the painted capital and the stacked-book voussoirs of the crossing arch.

Capital and stacked voussoir, Église Saint Sulpice, Marignac (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The apse as a whole is a remarkable ensemble featuring painted walls, pillars, and vaults, of course, but also a painted cornice band that circles the entire space connecting with the painted capitals to form a seamless band of instructive decoration.

Apse, Église Saint Sulpice, Marignac (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

Again in closeup, we can see the capital and part of the encircling cornice in the background.

Capital and decorated cornice, Église Saint Sulpice, Marignac (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This elegant and stylish decoration has a pedantic intent, but the contribution to the visual excitement of the structure is not forgotten. The bright color and the energy of the sculpture makes Saint Sulpice an occasion for pleasure and well as religion, and we can see it everywhere in the details of the ornament.

Altar, Église Saint Sulpice, Marignac (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

15 thoughts on “Adorned Romanesque – Église Saint Sulpice de Marignac (Dennis Aubrey)

    1. Charles, thanks for the comment. Sorry it has taken so long to respond. I don’t know if the colors have been tested. They are almost certainly repainted at some time, though. But it is also clear that the churches were intended to have these colors. Our post on Angers features a shot of the refectory tympanum that clearly retains traces of the original polychrome.

  1. You’ve taught me something! Perhaps austere Gothic and Romanesque churches reinforce our belief that they were part of the Dark Ages when people were grim and unenlightened. But the painting in Saint Sulpice has made me think again; they knew how to express their joy in this place. Evidently, they knew a lot that we don’t know they knew.
    But you two, Dennis and PJ, are uncovering small details to show us what they did well. Thanks.

    1. Trish, so nice to hear from you again. People are people, and it is a mistake to think that we are more sophisticated than they were in the middle ages. It may be that we may know more about certain things, but depth of feeling and thought are not affected by that kind of knowledge. When I do my post on entasis in medieval structures, it will show you exactly what I mean. When these intentional deformations were made public at the beginning of the 20th century, modern architects were in awe at the accomplishments of their predecessors

    1. Karen, sorry it took so long to respond, but many of these churches are still painted. During the nineteenth century restorations, it was found that they were originally painted and in many cases the choice was made to recreate (if possible) the remnants of the original design. My suspicion is that this occurred in Marignac.

  2. We’ve spent the past 10 days in the Charente, largely because I’d read of the tremendous density of Romanesque buildings. I became interested in them after a visit in the Monferato in Italy, and seek them out whenever I travel in Europe. Your websites have been enormously helpful and informative, and I wanted to pass on my thanks. We got into this church this morning, and spent a long time gazing and photographing. A few other Charente churches have bits of wall color remaining, but this was extraordinary.

    1. Amy, I just looked at your blog, how wonderful. The Charente is, of course, packed with Romanesque churches, and I’m glad our contributions could help. If you want to see some of the finest churches in the region, venture just a bit north and inland to Poitiers. To me, one of the centers of medieval religious architecture in all of Europe. Was lucky enough to live there as a boy and it has remained with me ever since.

  3. For far too long, I have been working on a book about the counts of Poitou/dukes of Aqutainel which included the current dept of Charantes. by now I probably know as much about the counts of Poitou then anyone else. For some reason the dukes don’t get the respect they deserve. (Note that the previous history of the dukes was published in 1905.)

    To me the paintings at Marignac look Tredentine, i.e. 17th century or later. They are similar to those in many pre-Vatican II churches built 75 years ago when I was a child.

    Certified Romanesque paintings usually are more figurative. e.g. the church with a certifed Romanesque ceiling just north of Poitiers.

    I have, however, no expertise on painted chruches. Does anyone know of a book about the subject? I assume one would have to anyalyze the paint to ascertain the date of the work.

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