The Monolithic Church of Aubeterre (Dennis Aubrey)


Aubeterre-sur-Dronne is about 50 kilometers west of Périgueux, the prefecture of the Department of the Dordogne, and lies just over the border into the Charente. The town is small and extremely picturesque, built on a hill above the Dronne River. It is one of those completely charming French towns that even in October had plenty of tourists visiting. Most of them found there way to the center of town with its lovely square, the Place Trarieux, shaded by tilleuls, lime trees.

We enjoyed a lunch on the square with my parents, but our real purpose for the village was to photograph the two Romanesque churches – the Église Saint Jacques with its magnificent façade (which we will feature later) and the unique monolithic Église Saint Jean. Saint Jean is called monolithic because it is underground and almost completely carved out of the limestone.

Nave, Église Saint Jean, Aubeterre-sur-Dronne (Charente) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Église Saint Jean, Aubeterre-sur-Dronne (Charente) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Saint Jean, the largest underground church in Europe, was hewn out of solid rock in the 12th Century. It is massive – 27 meters long, 16 meters wide, and 20 meters high. It is important to understand that this was not just a giant cave that was converted into a church. It is actually carved in the form of a contemporary church – from the great columns to the vaulted nave. This was an enormous endeavor and must have somehow answered an equally enormous need.

The 12th Century Benedictine monks who created the church that we see today did take advantage of caves that already existed. Indeed, there is a baptismal pool in the center of the nave which was carved out of the rock sometime before the 9th Century, perhaps as early as the 4th Century. This is almost certainly an early-Christian remnant because the base is carved in the form of a Greek cross.

The structure is older than this Christian version. At the west end of the nave is a necropolis with eighty stone coffins. This was pre-Christian and features layers of coffins. When one layer was filled and covered with soil, the next layer was filled up. This necropolis was hidden from sight until January 1961. A truck was passing on the adjacent street when the road began to collapse and revealed the necropolis below.

Necropolis, west end of apse, Église Saint Jean, Aubeterre-sur-Dronne (Charente) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Necropolis, west end of apse, Église Saint Jean, Aubeterre-sur-Dronne (Charente) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But despite using these pre-existing elements, the monks excavated and created this Romanesque church. Notice the perfect apse with an oven vault at the east of the church. In that apse is a superb stone reliquary six meters tall, also carved from a single rock. This is classic Romanesque – two levels each decorated with clusters of columns and arches. This was originally built to house relics of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, brought back during the Crusades by Pierre II de Castillon, owner of the castle in Aubeterre. These relics made the church part of the prestigious pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella.

Reliquary, Église Saint Jean,  Aubeterre-sur-Dronne (Charente)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Reliquary, Église Saint Jean, Aubeterre-sur-Dronne (Charente) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Three sides of the church are bordered by a high gallery or triforium which is accessed by a staircase cut directly into the rock. This gallery originally opened to the outside and served as an entrance to the church. The beautiful arched windows open out onto the nave below. I like the following shot particularly because my father is seated just left of center, studying the vaulting.

Gallery and pillars, Église Saint Jean, Aubeterre-sur-Dronne (Charente) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Gallery and pillars, Église Saint Jean, Aubeterre-sur-Dronne (Charente) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

On the fourth side – the south wall – are large windows to the outside which flood the church interior with sunlight.

Nave windows, Église Saint Jean, Aubeterre-sur-Dronne (Charente) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave windows, Église Saint Jean, Aubeterre-sur-Dronne (Charente) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

It is interesting to note that the only three monolithic churches in France (that I am aware of) are in this region. There is the famous monolithic church in the wine town of Saint Emilion just 60 kilometers away, and just south of Talmont in the Charente-Maritime is the monolithic chapel of Mortagne-sur-Gironde. They were all built at about the same time and this is evidence for some scholars to suggest that they emulated the monolithic churches seen in Cappadocia by French crusading knights and monks. Whether this is true or not, they are unique and fascinating variations on the Romanesque churches of France.

Location: Click this link to see the location on our custom Google Map.

40 responses to “The Monolithic Church of Aubeterre (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Really spectacular Dennis! I’m wondering if having the church carved into the rock made it a more spiritual place………

    • Maybe not just the fact that it was carved, but think about entering in the Middle Ages. To enter from above and then go through the arcades, wending their way down into the church and then opening into the nave. And then the trip to the reliquary for the devotions. It must have been pretty awe-inspiring.

  2. I never knew it was possible to carve a church out of rock. Why don’t we do this any more? I have to say it looks cryptish, but I can’t judge until I see it for myself. How many of us, these days, would go to this much trouble to build a place of worship? Monks are awesome.

  3. Just awesome, Dennis. Is most of the lighting as we see it artificial? Or is there enough outside light to illuminate the church sufficiently for worship?

    I hope you and yours have a spectacular New Year of 2013!

    Elliott (elliottingotham@wordpress.com)

    • Elliott, so nice to hear from you again, trust you had a wonderful holiday season. Most of the lighting that you see in the nave is natural (with the bluish tinge) supplemented by artificial (white or yellow). But there is enough exterior light to move around, but not enough to see the elements of the church clearly, which is why it is supplemented. I do believe, however, that there would be plenty of natural light for services.

  4. This is fascinating! I had no idea that churches like these were created in Western Europe, although they do remind me strongly of the carved chambers in Capadoccia. Christians in Ethiopia also created monolithic churches, as at Lalibela, which lok similarly stunning.

    • John, the chief sensation was the coolness of the stone, like a cellar. The sounds were amazing. At one brief point I was alone in the nave, but I could hear the muted echoes of people moving above me in the galleries. Even though it was just conversation, it would be easy to imagine these as prayers of pilgrims wending their way down to the reliquary. Neither PJ nor I remarked any particular smell, though. Not like some of the churches that have the growth on the walls where things are musty. It is probably because it is such a large open space with plenty of ventilation. We’ll have to pay more attention to this, though.

  5. Dennis, I marvel at the variety of your discoveries, and the thoroughness of your research. A fascinating find illuminated not only by natural and artificial light, but by your insight.

    There is a small chapel within the Troglodyte village near Saumur – Village Troglodyte / Rochemenier / 49700 Have you seen it?

    • We have seen this, Viv. Our family lived in Herbilly, near Beaugency years ago so we love this area and the whole troglodyte community there. I remember marveling at how beautiful some of these cave homes were. There are also troglodyte homes in Perrier, near Issoire, but we haven’t gone into one yet.

  6. Is it possible that these subterrenean caverns served another important purpose in that violent period; that of a “saferoom”, so to speak? With entrance from the top, this space could accommodate an entire village when danger threatened. Just speculating……

    • Vann, not sure how I missed your comment, but here goes. Don’t think that this is a defensive structure. We have done posts on fortified churches and this doesn’t seem to match. You are now getting me to hazard a guess, but I think, from the positioning of the baptismal font, that there was a small structure from early Christian days, probably one that followed pre-Christian and Roman antecedents. This was common in France – the Hypogée des Dunes and the Baptistere Saint Jean in Poitiers come immediately to mind. At some point, the Benedictine monks decided to enlarge it, perhaps as a chapel, and ultimately to the church that it is now. I think that the relics that were brought from the Middle East during the Crusades brought pilgrims, and this necessitated a larger structure. What better way than to carve out the church as we see it today.

      Thanks for the comment, and sorry for the delay in answering.

    • Thanks, Mark. It is a stunning place, no doubt. But there is also another magnificent church in Aubeterre. Will do a post on that soon. You won’t believe the western facade.

  7. Really, really inspiring–beautiful photos! We’re headed to the Dordogne region in May to see some of the caves and archaeological sites as well as the river, but I think this may have just gotten added to the list. Thanks for stopping by my blog–I’ll be sure to explore here soon. 🙂

    • Thank you, Lisa. The Dordogne is my personal favorite area in the world. The caves there can be spectacular, of course, but places like Aubeterre are real finds. Have a great trip and we look forward to your photos of the Dordogne.

  8. Thank you for this wonderfully insightful, visually arresting profile. I had been seeking information about this site in Aubeterre and yours is by far the most enlightening, and inspiring. With regards to monolithic churches, have you ever heard of Geghard monastery in Armenia? It is similarly carved out of living rock, and is considered one of the finest examples of ancient Armenian architecture. It is also a UNESCO world heritage site. I would love to read – and see – your impressions of this special place.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geghard

    Best regards,

    Zareh

    • Zareh, thanks so much for this. We have long admired Geghard in Armenia and would some day love to photograph there. It is a long way from our current haunts, though. Do you know about the churches in Lalibela in Ethiopia? Another place that we long to visit. I was in a taxi cab in Washington DC once and the driver was from Lalibela. His descriptions made me want to get on a flight immediately.

      Thanks for your commentary – we appreciate the feedback very much.

      • Thank you Dennis, for your very kind reply. I have indeed heard of Lalibela, and have been enchanted by photos of it. Like you, I yearn to visit someday. I’m so pleased you know about Geghard, and doubtless you are aware of other remarkable churches in the Caucasus. Should you ever see an opportunity to visit Armenia, please get in touch, and I will be happy to advise and assist in any way I can.

        Please continue the excellent and invaluable work you are doing.

        Yours,

        Zareh

      • Zareh, was delighted to go to your Google profile and see that you are a film maker. I was able to look at some of your work (the Stalin piece) and will certainly spend more time watching about the discovery of Handaberd monastery (wish it were in Englis!). For other Via Lucis readers, here is a link to an article in English about Zareh Tjeknavorian and his work.

  9. Dennis, I really appreciate your having taken the time and interest to look at my work, not to mention introducing me to your readers via the interview you found. I’ve been meaning to add subtitles to the Handaberd piece and will endeavor to do so soon.

    My main interest for many years has been rediscovering Armenia’s prehistoric, pre-Christian monuments, and exploring the cultural continuity between pagan and Christian Armenia, in terms of both architecture and cultural tradition. Our short Embers of the Sun (https://vimeo.com/16325425) explores the symbiosis of ancient monuments – megaliths and rock art – with the landscape: a preoccupation with the natural world that was continued by the builders of Armenia’s medieval churches and monasteries. Our current project focuses on the persistence of archaic folk customs in the spiritual life of the countryside.

    In light of my research, my wife and I were privileged to host the British writer and prehistorian Julian Cope when he visited Armenia a decade ago. His blogpost of his visit is very informative – and very funny – and given its focus on sacred spaces, prehistoric and Christian, I thought it might be of interest to you and your readers as an introduction to Armenia.

    https://www.headheritage.co.uk/addressdrudion/52/2014

    I don’t mean to digress any further here from the topic of this page, but look forward to following your work and staying in touch.

    Again, many thanks.

    Zareh

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