In the Middle Ages, the department now known as the Aveyron was the wild, sparsely inhabited province of the Rouergue. Its most famous site was the pilgrimage church Sainte Foy in Conques, which we have featured several times. Pilgrims from Clermont-Ferrand towards Conques would crossed the Aubrac mountains and met up with the old Roman road that followed the river Lot (known as “Olt” in Occitan). On that road, thirty kilometers east of Conques, stands the small town of Espalion that featured its own pilgrimage church, Saint Hilarion de Perse, as well as the nearby Église Saint Pierre de Bessejouls.
Saint Hilarion de Perse was built sometime in the 11th Century, part of a monastery founded on the spot where the martyr Saint Hilarion was beheaded in 730 by the Saracens. According to legend, Hilarion was born in Lévinhac, just two short kilometers from the spot where he was martyred. He was the parish priest of Lévinhac and was persecuted by the Saracens, often forced to flee across the river Olt. Once, when the river was in flood, he laid down his cloak on the waters and crossed as if on a boat. After he was killed, Hilarion allegedly washed his severed head in a nearby fountain. His remains were kept in Lévinhac but later transferred to the church in Espalion. These relics were the treasure of the Église Saint Hilarion de Perse and were much venerated by pilgrims on the Compostella pilgrimage route.
As lovely a legend that this makes, the truth is that Hilarion was probably a missionary hermit who came to evangelize the people of the Rouergue.
The date of foundation of the monastery of Perse is not precisely known, but it is mentioned in a document of 1060 in which Hughes de Calmont donated the monastery to Conques. This association with the prosperous community of Conques enabled the church to be rebuilt in the first half of the 12th Century. The monastic buildings attached to the church did not survive the religious wars and were destroyed in 1568.
The church that remains is, however, a marvel. It was built of the local red sandstone in the shape of a Latin cross, although two Gothic side chapels were added later. It is a beautiful and elegant space, classically Romanesque.
Inside there are remnants of the wall paintings that originally adorned the church, particularly in the vaults. The choir has a lovely triumphal arch supported by two sculpted capitals. One of my favorite features is the presence of the large pediments supporting the pillar clusters.
But the glory of this church is the sculpture, particularly the exterior sculpture that adorns the lovely south portal. The portal features a tympanum surrounded by four archivolts and supported by a sculpted lintel.
The tympanum and lintel are especially fine, although many commentators consider them primitive. But the carving is dynamic and features a complex symbolic iconography. The lightning bolts at the top denote the Fall while the panel with the Virgin and ten apostles represents Redemption. But the most interesting section is on the lintel – the Judgment. On the left is a representation of Satan and four retainers balanced on the right by Christ and four apostles. If you look closely at the left-hand section of the Judgment lintel, you can see the Maw of Hell, very like that at Sainte Foy in Conques.
After the monastery buildings were destroyed in the sixteenth century, Saint Hilarion de Perse became the parish church of Espalion. In the seventeenth century a new church was built in the town to take that function. But there are still those who worship at the old pilgrimage church, as can see by this votive statue of the Virgin, covered with evidence of devotion and veneration. The walnuts are one of the most interesting features of the shot, laying amid the pile of letters.
Just three miles to the west on the road to Conques is the church of Saint Pierre de Bessuéjouls with its famous Saint Michael’s chapel. That will be the subject of our next post as we explore the road to Conques.