The Cousin River in the department of the Yonne rises in the lake district of the Morvan National Park about 3 miles southwest of the medieval town of Saulieu. It wends its way about 45 kilometers as the crow flies to the town of Sermizelles where it joins with the Cure. One of its most picturesque reaches is the shaded Vallée du Cousin between Pontaubert and Avallon. This three-mile stretch of the river is home to hikers, fishermen, and families on picnics. The dominant sounds are the rustling of leaves and the murmurings of the river. The Vallée ends below a rocky outcropping topped by the town of Avallon, ten miles from Vézelay.
As might be expected from its dominating position, there have been churches in this town since at least the fourth century. There is evidence that there was a pre-Carolingian structure and in 846 a new church dedicated to Our Lady was founded by Girart de Roussillon, the founder of the original convent at Saint-Père-sous-Vézelay.
In the heart of the old city, surrounded by walls and towers, is the Collégiale Saint Lazare. PJ referred to this church as a “pudding”, which confused me completely. She said it was like a puddingstone, a rock conglomerate of different pebbles and sand that is common in Massachusetts. She couldn’t have been more right – Saint Lazare is one of the most eccentric mélanges we have seen. The choir is 2.5 meters below the portal and requires 17 steps for the descent. The west facade is not perpendicular to the axis of the nave, but at an extreme angle. There are no transepts but there is a double chapel for the canons on the south side of the apse. The south side aisle is significantly wider than the north. In addition, attached to the south wall of the church is the Chapelle Saint-Pierre d’Avallon, built in the 15th century on the site of another older church. It served as the parish church during the revolution but now is an exhibition hall.
The church is a Collégiale, or collegiate church, home to a group of non-monastic clerics who lived together communally and served an extended territory. Sometime after the year 1000, Henry I, Duke of Burgundy, donated a relic of Lazarus, who was raised from the dead by Christ, to the Collégiale. This gift was to change the fortunes of the community.
Construction of the current structure began in 1080, and the Collégiale was consecrated in 1106 by Pope Paschal. Because of the important relics of Lazarus, the church was renamed Saint Lazare. It was during this time that the pilgrims on to way to Santiago de Compostela began to visit the relic, a piece of his skull that was reputed to fend off leprosy. The pilgrimage was an easy detour because Avallon is only ten miles from the famed Basilique Sainte Madeleine in Vézelay. The community adopted the Benedictine rule and became part of the Cluniac order and under its direction expanded the church to accommodate the throngs of pilgrims.
Under the Cluniac rule, the church underwent significant expansion. Part of that modification was the construction of the famed western facade, which comprises two elaborately sculpted portals. The one on the left is the original central portal which has lost its tympanum. The north portal was destroyed in a storm in 1633 when the great tower collapsed, but the south portal is almost complete.
The door was bricked up in the 17th century but the sculpture on the lintel, archivolts, and tympanum still preserves much of its deep-carved detail. Most of the damage done to this ensemble was done in the Wars of Revolution and the French Revolution. The wonderful twisted columns are a special bonus.
We have visited here many times and always find the massive doors wide open. The nave drops down in three levels to the apse giving the church a theatrical aspect.
The pillars are cruciform with four engaged columns topped with floral capitals. The capitals of the nave and choir show a varied plant decoration of vines, acanthus leaves, arum fruit, and flowers.
The apse consists of four central arches of double columns and capitals, with the oven vault characteristic of the Cluny school. The stained glass windows and the frescoes of the vault, the trompe l’oeil, are 19th century. Under the chancel is an ancient crypt, now ruined, walled and inaccessible. Several construction periods have been identified, the oldest dating back to the first building from the 4th century, another of the date of Girart’s structure. The relics of St. Lazarus were kept in this crypt since the 11th century.
The aisles lead directly down to side chapels in echelon on each side of the apse.
This shot of the same aisle shows very clearly the difference in elevation from the choir to the western facade.
In this shot, we see the great doors to the west of the church, surmounted by an elaborately decorated organ stall above the open narthex. This richly carved wood platform supports 19th century pipe organ built by Paul Chazelle from the nearby town of Cruzy-le-Châtel.
An interesting sidelight is that there is a second Romanesque church in Avallon, the Église Saint-Martin-du-Bourg. Set off the main road going to the Autoroute, it is now a private domicile. PJ and I have wandered all through this, courtesy of our friends, the Schori’s of the Hotel Crispol, our home in the Vézelay. Paule, the proprietress of the hotel, has become a good friend and it was through her good offices that we first met Angelico Surchamp. It turns out that Paule’s son-in-law bought the church and is converting it into residences. PJ and I looked at one on the second floor that had the tops of the nave arcade pillars with their capitals embedded in the walls.
We are both very fond of Avallon and consider it our local market town. When we are desperate for Wifi, we head to the McDonalds (the only one in the entire region) where we can get a good cup of espresso and use the internet to our heart’s content. We look forward to the return and our next visit to the Collégiale Saint Lazare.
Location: 47.486173° 3.907699°