Sculpted facades in the Aquitaine (Dennis Aubrey)


We have written many times about the devastation experienced by so many churches in this region. Three great convulsions did most of the damage – the Hundred Years War, the Wars of Religion, and the French Revolution. Sometimes it seems miraculous that anything survived, but survive these churches did. The architectural glories of the Charente-Maritime, part of the great province of the Aquitaine, are the sculpted facades that are almost unique to this region. It seems that every church was graced with these beautiful west fronts, like that we showed at Biron.

The church at Chadenac is a fine example of a fully carved facade.

Église Saint Martin, Chadenac (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Église Saint Martin, Chadenac (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The detail shows the quality of the sculpture where it has survived erosion and damage at the hand of man.

Portal detail, Église Saint Martin, Chadenac (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Portal detail, Église Saint Martin, Chadenac (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Notre Dame d’Echillais has a facade with a beautiful central portal with three archivolts with a blind portal on each side. The second story features one open arch and eight blind arches. The effect is altogether charming.

West facade, Notre Dame de Echillais, Echillais (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

West facade, Notre Dame de Echillais, Echillais (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Those who read this blog regularly know of our affection for the figures known as “column swallowers.” These fanciful creatures are very popular in this region but Echillais possesses one that is unique in our experience – an inverted column swallower at the base of a column!

Column swallower, Notre Dame de Echillais, Echillais (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Column swallower, Notre Dame de Echillais, Echillais (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The Église Saint Fortunat in Saint Fort-sur-Gironde is unusual because the facade carvings are almost all geometrical with no human, animal, or monstrous figures at all. But it does feature superb three-dimensional decorations.

West facade, Église Saint Fortunat, Saint Fort-sur-Gironde (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

West facade, Église Saint Fortunat, Saint Fort-sur-Gironde (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is one single feature of the Saint Fortunat facade that is not geometrical – and that is the third archivolt of the central portal – it is composed of a repeating motif of horse heads!

Portal detail, Église Saint Fortunat, Saint Fort-sur-Gironde (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Portal detail, Église Saint Fortunat, Saint Fort-sur-Gironde (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The Église Notre Dame de Surgères is a most elegant facade, almost classical in its approach. The blind portal arches all feature alcoves with carvings and all of the portal archivolts are carved with geometric figures. The stately horses of the second level on either side of the central arch and even the capitals reinforce the feeling of classicism.

West facade, Église Notre Dame, Surgères (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

West facade, Église Notre Dame, Surgères (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The classical influence on this church is not a surprise, because there were many physical remnants of the Roman province of Gallia Aquitania from which the sculptors might take inspiriation. But one element of the ensemble betrays the completely medieval mind of the builders – the corbels that are so imaginative and dynamic in their expression.

Corbel, Église Notre Dame, Surgères (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Corbel, Église Notre Dame, Surgères (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We found the damage done to the churches in this region meant that we were often disappointed in the restorations. The purity of the original conceptions were distorted and often lost completely. But the work of the medieval sculptors redeemed everything. The west facades of the Charente-Maritime are a reminder of the energy and passion of Romanesque art.

7 responses to “Sculpted facades in the Aquitaine (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. The Medieval mind was an amazing entity. I’m sure the world is full of studies and ideas in regard to the “whys” of these strange thought patterns. Nevertheless it is fun to wonder.

    • I am always fascinated by the medieval imagination and how it was expressed, Kalli. I am convinced that people are the same throughout history – they may know and believe different things, but at bottom we would recognize an Egyptian slave or an African goat herder as we would recognize our neighbors from across the street. But when groups get together, a new dynamic enters the picture, and imagination is as much a product of that as it is of the workings of a single brain.

  2. Thank you for the “column swallower” – this inverted design shows artistic imagination(s) at work on this church that were truly thinking outside of the box! I’ve never seen an “upside down acrobat” corbel, either. Wow, these shots were real treats!

    • The imagination of these sculptors is so vivid and powerful. I have a collection of corbel shots that are mind-boggling. It seems that these figures have the fewest requirements to fit into an iconographical program and are more fanciful than the rest. I’ll prepare a post of a few of them soon, Paul. After a post of PJ’s painted Christ in Majesty figures.

  3. A wonderful survey of the romanesque art in Aquitaine, especially Saintonge , which, unlike other regional styles, leaves a large part to ornemental creativity. Hence an overwhelming sense of freedom that characterize the true dimension of art : quite a paradox since these fabulkous stone carvers remain totally anonymous.
    Go on, dear Dennis, with your magnificent job !

    • Albert, so very nice to hear from you! The facades of these churches have such a unified style and are so pervasive that it is hard not to believe the carvers were honored in their day. I can imagine their pride in the work that they produced for so many years.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s