The Vézère is a river about 150 miles long and flows into the great Dordogne near Le Bugue. The Vézère Valley is famed for its caves filled with painted and incised images from the prehistoric inhabitants of this region. Even the names of these caves are magic – Lascaux, Rouffignac, Font-de-Gaume, and Cap Blanc.
At some point in remote prehistory, men and women entered these caves deep in the earth and by the light of their tallow candles painted and carved their sanctuaries. This is not merely art. This is, in some form, worship. And in service of this worship, they revealed startling artistic skills.
For over 20,000 years there has been an unbroken chain of worship in the dark valley of the Vézère. Recently, a mere thousand years ago, some of those worshippers built the Église Saint Léonce in the town of Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère. This house of God is not deep in the earth, but built proudly in the open on a bluff just above the fast moving river and topped with a lovely two level clocher. The site itself has gallo-roman antecedents and most likely goes back much further.
Saint Léonce was built in the 12th century as a Benedictine priory and is a typical Romanesque hall church – no side aisles, a simple crossing with an apse beyond, and echeloned chapels on either side of the altar. Of the 12th century church, only the apse and the transepts remain. The nave was rebuilt in the 17th century and connected to the older portion of the church by the strong chancel arch supported by two great piers and the passages on each side – the berrichons.
The chancel is topped with a dome on pendentives while the circular choir is covered with a painted oven vault. The apse has five blind arches that I thought originally might have opened onto an ambulatory, but there is no real evidence that this was so.
This next shot clearly shows the slightly raised altar area, the blind arches and the entrances to the chapel to the south of the apse.
In the next shot we can see traces of painted plaster in the arches that tie into the paintings of the oven vault. Through the small door is the chapel to the north of the apse.
About twenty five years ago I visited one of the smaller caves in the region to see some prehistoric carvings. I was the only visitor (oh for those times again) so the guide gave me special consideration. He shined his flashlight on a section of wall that was filled with lines. Closer examination showed that there were images carved on top of each other in a seemingly random manner. It was chaotic and confusing – why would the artists so deface each others work? Then the guide turned off the flashlight and lit a candle. By the dancing light of the candle flame in the coolness of the cavern, a whole other world emerged. Instead of superimposed images, it was clear that these were animated images. Animals danced in the light. This was an extraordinary discovery for me, that 20,000 years ago our ancestors were sophisticated enough to create movement on the walls of their holy places.
Last year I found this animation from Mark Azema that shows the concept of animation clearly, but with originals that were painted and not incised.
I feel this sense of awe now when PJ and I enter these Romanesque churches – that the skill and imagination of the builders reaches through time to touch us profoundly in the silence. In this dark valley of the Vézère, there is a continuum of reverence that we hear in the rushing of the river waters.
Location: 45.009806° 1.088116°