Richarde’s bear in the wilds of Andlau (Dennis Aubrey)


We have written about Alsatian town of Andlau before but it was in reference to a wonderful art atelier run by Valérie Hein-Christmann and Patrick Chemin. The atelier opens up into the courtyard in front of the north entrance to the church, the Église Saint Pierre et Saint Paul.

Nave, Église Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Andlau (Bas-Rhin)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Église Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Andlau (Bas-Rhin) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The Église Saint Pierre et Saint Paul was founded as the church of one of the oldest and most important abbeys in the Alsace. In 862 Charles le Gros, the German Emperor and the great-grandson of Charlemagne, married Richarde of Eleón, a daughter of a noble family of the region. The devout Richarde decided to build an abbey at Andlau, at that time a wild, undeveloped forest region. Tradition has it that a bear scratched the earth at the site where the abbey was built.

Two things resulted – the new abbey was presented to the Holy See and became a dependency of the Pope, and the bear became the special symbol for Richarde’s abbey. In fact, a live bear was kept on the abbey ground for years. Apparently an accident in the 15th century put an end to the practice. In any event, by the 17th century the forest surrounding Andlau had been cut down and the last wild bear was shot in 1695.

Choir,  Église Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Andlau (Bas-Rhin) Photo by PJ McKey

Choir, Église Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Andlau (Bas-Rhin) Photo by PJ McKey

Richarde ruled as a queen for a number of years and retired eventually to Andlau where she was elected Abbess. She died in 897. In 1045, the abbey church burned and Abbess Matilda rebuilt it. For the consecration in 1049, Pope Leo IX, born in Alsace, canonized Richarde and had her heart transported to the abbey as a relic. The church was known from then on as the Abbey Church of Saint Richarde.

Pulpit detail, Église Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Andlau (Bas-Rhin)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Pulpit detail, Église Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Andlau (Bas-Rhin) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The church has undergone many restorations since the rebuilding of 1049. In the 12th century the west facade was replaced, at the turn of the 18th century the nave, vestry and parts of the transept and choir were completely rebuilt. The crossing tower was completed in the middle of the 18th century. The abbey was disbanded during the Revolution and the church rededicated as a parish church dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul.

Side chapel, Église Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Andlau (Bas-Rhin)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Side chapel, Église Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Andlau (Bas-Rhin) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The interior of the church shows a fine, elevated crossing and a deep, richly decorated apse. The high, wide tribunes extend down the length of the nave and in a most unusual fashion continue across the transepts. Because of the large bay openings and spacious tribunes, the church has a strong feeling of openness and space about it.

Nave and tribunes, Église Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Andlau (Bas-Rhin)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave and tribunes, Église Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Andlau (Bas-Rhin) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The Romanesque portal in the west is one of the masterpieces of Alsatian medieval sculpture. The sculpted portion includes a tympanum, lintel, and a jamb on each side carved with interlacing foliage surrounding birds and quadrupeds.

West portal, Église Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Andlau (Bas-Rhin)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

West portal, Église Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Andlau (Bas-Rhin) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The tympanum shows Christ in Majesty, giving the keys to Saint Peter and the book to Saint Paul. These figures are in much deeper relief than the other carved elements.

The historiated lintel tells the story of Adam and Eve starting with the creation of Eve, the original sin, and the eviction from the Garden of Eden. This is the work of an artist known as the Master of Andlau.

Tympanum and lintel of west portal, Église Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Andlau (Bas-Rhin) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Tympanum and lintel of west portal, Église Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Andlau (Bas-Rhin) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is also a lovely crypt dating from two different periods. The western part dates from around 1045 and was below the altar of the choir. The characteristic elements of this era are the narrow columns topped by the heavy cubic capitals. The eastern part dates to 1080. This crypt was the site of the pilgrimage to the Virgin, which was famous in its day.

Crypt,  Église Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Andlau (Bas-Rhin) Photo by PJ McKey

Crypt, Église Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Andlau (Bas-Rhin) Photo by PJ McKey

Today Andlau is no longer wild but part of the picturesque wine route of the Alsace. It is heavily frequented by tourists who enjoy the characteristic half-timbered and brightly colored houses. There are no bears except on signs and only Richarde’s church is there to remind us of the wilderness that once welcomed a great medieval abbey.

The wilds of Andlau today.  Photo by PJ McKey

The wilds of Andlau today. Photo by PJ McKey

Location: 48.387795° 7.415527°

13 responses to “Richarde’s bear in the wilds of Andlau (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Excellent entry! And spectacular photographs. Stunning use of light. Thank you for the always-interesting history included with the photos.

    • Thanks, Ann. The photographic results came out well, especially after a couple of years. We shot in the Alsace in 2010 (and watched much of the World Cup from there). It took a while to write about the churches because on the whole we were a little disappointed in the region – too touristy and the churches were over-restored. But when we look at them after this distance of time, we can see how interesting they truly are.

  2. Den:
    Pardon my ignorance, but can you settle a linguistic point? When is an ‘e’ appended on Saint for a female – and when is it not?

    • JP, I am not aware that it ever happens in English, only in French. In this post, I refer to the Abbey Church of Saint Richarde. Had I used the French, it would have been the Église Abbatiale Sainte Richarde.

      • Thanks, Den. That settles it – I was confused between your usage in French and English. Cheers!

  3. Alsace is a lovely part of France that is so easily overlooked by most visitors. Small towns like Turkheim are a joy to spend a few hours in. An interesting example of how the French preserved their heritage is the Cathedral of St Die on the other side of the Vosges. Built on the site of the hermitage of Deo Donatus (an Irish hermit) it combines Gothic and Romanesque with a Classical front and late Gothic cloister. Wrecked during the last war, it has been beautifully rebuilt.

    • Tony, sorry I haven’t responded by PJ and I have taken about ten days off to enjoy summer in Cape Cod. As you say, the Alsace is quite lovely. The churches that we saw were all in excellent condition and have benefited from extensive restoration and being very well maintained.

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