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