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