A Chapel for Saint Michael (Dennis Aubrey)


In Christian theology, Saint Michael the Archangel is the leader of the Army of God and the forces of heaven in their triumph over the powers of hell. He is also described as the patron saint of high places. Everyone knows Mont Saint Michel on the border between Normandy and Brittany where his statue soars high atop the spire of the church to demonstrate that his warrior spirit protects the monastery named for him.

Saint Michael atop spire, Mont Saint-Michel (Manche)  © Anthony Levaufre et Fanny Poulain 2008 (Used with permission)

Saint Michael atop spire, Mont Saint-Michel (Manche) © Anthony Levaufre et Fanny Poulain 2008 (Used with permission)

In Romanesque architecture, Saint Michael appears in an unusual fashion. In a pilgrimage church, we often find a chapel above the narthex – this second story structure is, because of its location, called the Saint Michael’s chapel. Chapels of this kind are found in Vézelay, Tournus, Paray-le-Monial, Brioude, and many other pilgrimage churches.

On the Via Podiensis, the pilgrim route from Le Puy-en-Velay to Saint-Jean-Pied-du-Port where the pilgrims would cross into Spain, there is one of the most interesting of these chapels. The Église Saint Pierre de Bessuéjouls, classified as a UNESCO Heritage site, is tucked into a wooded area near a stream not far from Espalion. The name Bessuéjouls, which means “clearing in the wood,” is of Celtic origin, attesting to an early human habitation. The presence of a dozen modern pilgrims who visited the church singly or in pairs on the early October morning while we were photographing confirms its past reputation as a pilgrimage church on the Camino.

Romanesque clocher, Eglise Saint-Pierre à Bessuéjouls,  Bessuéjouls (Aveyron)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Romanesque clocher, Église Saint-Pierre à Bessuéjouls, Bessuéjouls (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The overall impression of the church is interesting, but it is not really Romanesque. The present version was built in the 14th century and over-restored in the 19th. It is a simple barrel-vaulted structure with short transepts and a gilded baroque altarpiece.

Nave, Église Saint-Pierre à Bessuéjouls, Bessuéjouls (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Église Saint-Pierre à Bessuéjouls, Bessuéjouls (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But the west end features an 11th century clocher that contains a Saint Michael’s chapel – known as the chapelle aérienne – a Romanesque masterpiece.

There are two steep and narrow stairways going up and we immediately decided that I would shoot the restored church below and PJ would shoot the Saint Michael’s chapel. PJ was up there for quite awhile and when she finally emerged, she was so enchanted by the chapel that I had to go up to see for myself. She left her tripod and camera upstairs for me to use and I worked my way up. What I saw was sublime.

Chapel, Église Saint-Pierre à Bessuéjouls, Bessuéjouls (Aveyron) Photo by PJ McKey

Chapel, Église Saint-Pierre à Bessuéjouls, Bessuéjouls (Aveyron) Photo by PJ McKey

This chapel is a small room about 20’x20′ made of pink sandstone. The wooden ceiling is relatively high for the size of the room and supported by six columns with historiated capitals. The capitals look like they were inspired by those of Conques. On the nave wall there are four ranges of colonettes aligned like a cloister. I believe that these once opened out onto the nave. On each side of these colonettes there are lintels over the stairways carved with entrelacs.

Chapel colonettes, Église Saint-Pierre à Bessuéjouls, Bessuéjouls (Aveyron) Photo by PJ McKey

Chapel colonettes, Église Saint-Pierre à Bessuéjouls, Bessuéjouls (Aveyron) Photo by PJ McKey

There is also a superb Romanesque altar, also made from pink sandstone. It is divided into three arched parts, separated by columns of which only the bases survive. Each interior section is decorated with entrelacs.

Altar, Église Saint-Pierre à Bessuéjouls, Bessuéjouls (Aveyron) Photo by PJ McKey

Altar, Église Saint-Pierre à Bessuéjouls, Bessuéjouls (Aveyron) Photo by PJ McKey

On the two sides of the altar there are representations of angels – the left side features a carving of Saint Michael with his spear thrust into the throat of a dragon.

Altar detail, Église Saint-Pierre à Bessuéjouls, Bessuéjouls (Aveyron) Photo by PJ McKey

Altar detail, Église Saint-Pierre à Bessuéjouls, Bessuéjouls (Aveyron) Photo by PJ McKey

On the right side of the altar, the angel Gabriel holds out a banner from which the inscription has unfortunately disappeared.

Altar detail, Église Saint-Pierre à Bessuéjouls, Bessuéjouls (Aveyron) Photo by PJ McKey

Altar detail, Église Saint-Pierre à Bessuéjouls, Bessuéjouls (Aveyron) Photo by PJ McKey

This chapel is a beautiful example of the Romanesque architectural style. It is odd, in a way, because this church was part of the Cistercian order. In his “Apologia” to William, Abbot of Saint Thierry in 1125, Bernard of Clairvaux wrote, “But in cloisters, where the brothers are reading, what is the point of this ridiculous monstrosity, this shapely misshapenness, this misshapen shapeliness? What is the point of those unclean apes, fierce lions, monstrous centaurs, half-men, striped tigers, fighting soldiers and hunters blowing their horns? ”

Capital and lintel, Église Saint-Pierre à Bessuéjouls, Bessuéjouls (Aveyron) Photo by PJ McKey

Capital and lintel, Église Saint-Pierre à Bessuéjouls, Bessuéjouls (Aveyron) Photo by PJ McKey

We can assume that this ornamentation was possible only because the chapel was built before the founding of the reformed Cistercian order. Personally, I think that the white-robed monks who lived here found great delight in their private chapel with the beautiful ornamentation, despite the censure of the great Monk of Clairvaux.

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

✚ If you interested in seeing more of the marvelous kite aerial images by Anthony Levaufre and Fanny Poulain, please follow this link. ✚

9 responses to “A Chapel for Saint Michael (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Because of the storm, we have been without power since Friday afternoon. Sorry I’ve been out of touch with the people who have corresponded and commented. I’ll try to catch up in the next couple of days. Meanwhile, here is the post that was supposed to go out on Saturday.

    • Douglas, it is beautiful. The best thing is that it is up in the chapel like it is – can’t imagine how they got it up there in the first place but they did. I like to think that when they were building the chapel, they hefted it up and the sculptor created it in situ. Only a fantasy, or course, but I’ll indulge myself!

    • Maritta, in most cases, it is Saint George who is depicted killing the dragon. But I believe this represents the battle against evil with Michael as the commander of the legions of Heaven.

  2. St Michael and the Dragon has an esoteric sense as a stage in spiritual alchemy, the defeat of the devil in an anagogic context, which is why he is the Patron Saint of Brussels.

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