A Pilgrimage Church on the Gironde (Dennis Aubrey)


Medieval France was the crossroads of Europe for the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella, one of the most important religious journeys of the Middle Ages. Four major routes through France led to the Spanish Cathedral in Galicia, originating in Paris and proceeding through Tours (Via Turonensis), Vézelay (Via Lemovicensis), Le Puy-en-Velay (Via Podiensis), and Arles (Via Tolosana). Each of these funneled the pilgrims through the Pyrenees and onto the great Camino Francés toward the cathedral in the west of Spain.

Map of Compostella routes in France

Map of Compostella routes in France

There are variations on all of these routes that accommodated pilgrims coming from different places. The English had their own, called the Voie de Soulac Littoral Aquitain, or sometimes the Vois des Anglais. English pilgrims came by ship to Nantes or to the Gironde estuary and their route followed the Atlantic coast of France from the Gironde to the Spanish border and the town of Irun. The most important stop on the Vois des Anglais was the town of Soulac that featured important relics, mostly of Saint Veronica who was reputed to have died there in 70AD. The Basilique Notre-Dame-de-la-fin-des-Terres (“Our Lady of Lands’ End”) contained relics of Veronica, a candle carried by an angel at the birth of Christ, a few drops of milk of the Virgin Mary, palm leaves that were thrown down before Christ entering Jerusalem, and many others.

Soulac and its shrine of Saint Veronica was so important that pilgrims diverted from the Via Turonensis at Saintes to go west to the coast to venerate the relics. That route crossed the great Gironde estuary at the small town of Talmont, with its Benedictine abbey church Sainte Radegonde.

Church on the Gironde estuary, Église Sainte Radegonde, Talmont (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by PJ McKey

Church on the Gironde estuary, Église Sainte Radegonde, Talmont (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

The first known religious structure at Talmont was a chapel was built in the sixth century dedicated to Sainte Radegonde. The Romanesque edifice that we see today was built in the late 11th and early 12th century by Benedictine monks from nearby Saint-Jean-d’Angély. It was clearly designed to service pilgrims on the Compostella route.

North portal, Église Sainte Radegonde, Talmont (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

North portal, Église Sainte Radegonde, Talmont (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The actual town of Talmont-sur-Gironde was built after the church. In the late 13th Century, Edward I created Talmont as a bastide, a fortified town, to protect the Gironde estuary. The walls of the fortifications encompassed the church as seen in this shot featuring the superb three-level chevet.

Exterior bastide fortification, Église Sainte Radegonde, Talmont (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by PJ McKey

Exterior bastide fortification, Église Sainte Radegonde, Talmont (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

The years have resulted in some destruction at Sainte Radegonde, but the greatest damage was not the result of war. The worst of the abuse was caused by the action of the Gironde, the largest tidal estuary in Europe. The shifting of the dunes due to the currents and the westerly winds caused the estuary to silt up and the water rose to such heights that the church was periodically flooded. It is hard to imagine such a thing when we see Sainte Radegonde perched so high on the cliff. Eventually, the monks were forced to raise the level of the ground around the church almost ten feet to prevent the flooding. For this reason, the church sits in a kind of bowl with higher ground on the south side next to the Gironde.

Southeast view, Église Sainte Radegonde, Talmont (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by PJ McKey

Southeast view, Église Sainte Radegonde, Talmont (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

In the 15th century, part of the supporting cliff gave way and the church lost two bays of the nave. Today it is truncated – what was once a cruciform church has lost its south transept (replaced today with a side chapel) and the west face was rebuilt in the Gothic style. There remains only a single bay of the nave.

But the Gironde continues to wreak havoc on the church even now. The sculptures of the south portal and the interior capitals are all severely damaged from the action of the salt spray.

Eroded capital, Église Sainte Radegonde, Talmont (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Eroded capital, Église Sainte Radegonde, Talmont (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The interior of the church is sober and pure. The main feature is the apse with an echeloned chapel on each side. There are stairways on both sides of the nave leading down to a crypt and funerary chapel, now abandoned. But the loss of most of the nave and the south transept makes the church feel more like a chapel these days, except that the apse is so large. The apse and the nave still have their original ogive barrel vaults although the transept crossing is covered with a modern dome, one of whose pendentives can be seen at the top right of the following shot.

Apse, Église Sainte Radegonde, Talmont (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by PJ McKey

Apse, Église Sainte Radegonde, Talmont (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

PJ is always fond of ex-votos and Talmont has a 19th century ship in the north chapel that attests to the sea-faring history of the local community. This shot also shows the bad condition of the capitals.

Marine ex-voto, Église Sainte Radegonde, Talmont (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by PJ McKey

Marine ex-voto, Église Sainte Radegonde, Talmont (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

The Église Sainte Radegonde de Talmont is one more example of the importance of pilgrimage to the medieval church and its people. It was well-worth the considerable effort and expense to build these churches to shelter and comfort the pilgrims as they made their long journey to Santiago, Rome, or even Jerusalem. The journey was like reading a book of their faith. The pilgrim could see the relics of Saint Martin, the patron saint of France, in the cathedral of Tours. In Soulac they might venerate the relics of Veronica who was so moved with pity when she saw Jesus carrying his cross to Golgotha that she gave him her veil that he might wipe his forehead. At Rocamador, they could climb the face of a sheer cliff to see the tomb of Saint Amador, companion to Veronica, who ended his days in the wilderness of the Dordogne. In Conques, they would see the relics of a young girl who suffered martyrdom at the hands of the Romans. And in Santiago, they would see the tomb of Saint Iago, James the Greater, one of the apostles and companion to the Saviour.

The scallop shell badge of the pilgrim was an emblem of faith and prized because it was evidence of the contact with the things venerated that defined the Christian religion. Martyrs, saints, and companions of Christ were all evidence that their God was everywhere, surrounding and protecting them, even on this lonely windswept cliff on the Gironde.

✚ Our next two Via Lucis posts will be on the great European pilgrimages, The Path of Sant Iago – Pilgrimage and The Path of Sant Iago – Churches.

17 responses to “A Pilgrimage Church on the Gironde (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. A few drops of milk of the virgin Mary? Did Mary voluntarily give her breast milk to be kept for posterity? How was it collected? I know you don’t have all the answers, Dennis 🙂
    But you certainly captured my interest, and I kept reading to the end. It’s always sad to see buildings ruined by salt. Salt is one of those things that can make life better, but in just the right amount. Not too little, not too much.

  2. A fascinating and very instructive post. If PJ likes ex-votos, I can show her a couple of interesting ones in the chapel at Pirou – a fortified castle which was surrounded by sea in mediaeval times but nowadays is about 5 km from Pirou Plage.

    • She does love the ex-votos, Viv. One of our favorites are the irons at Orcival, from the prisoners, but in the seafaring areas, there are always the ships, like the ones at Talmont, or Guingamp.

  3. There is another English route down from A Coruña, probably used during those times when the English were fighting the French.
    Beautiful photos even with the small piece of lens flare in one of the pictures.
    This is one of my favourite web sites.

    • The lens flare is a hazard we must live with when using the 17mm tilt-shift, unfortunately. Sometimes we can account for it but other times we can’t see it until too late. Thanks for your kinds words and we’re so glad you like the site. We carry a French flag that we can clip on the tripods but even that doen’t save us occasionally.

  4. On our cruise down the Rhine River last May we passed many places that linked to the various French routes to Santiago. In Speyer (spelled “Spire” on your map) we learned that the bishops allowed pilgrims to sleep in their cathedral. There’s a large statue dedicated to the Santiago Pilgrim near the Speyer Cathedral.

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