Two Survivors in the Meuse (Dennis Aubrey)


There is an extensive strip of land in the north of France looks oddly new. This is unusual in a country that has been settled for thousands of years and shows that history in its everyday surroundings. We see the physical remains of Celts, Gauls, Greeks, Romans, and Arabs even before the medieval world that we photograph. But the Picardie and Marne are different. Its physical history, usually present in architecture, has been mostly erased. The Meuse, part of the Argonne region next to the borders of Belgium and Luxembourg, has been ravaged by three major wars since 1870 but there was a 12th Century Romanesque church in the village of Mont-devant-Sassey that has somehow remained intact. The survival was somewhat miraculous given that in the Franco-Prussian War, on 2 September 1870 the French emperor Napoleon III was taken prisoner with 100,000 of his soldiers at the First Battle of Sedan, just 45 kilometers to the north. In World War II the Second Battle of Sedan was won by the Germans and enabled them to bypass the Maginot fortifications. As if that were not enough, equidistant to the south was the World War I slaughterhouse called Verdun.

Eglise Notre Dame de l’Assomption,  Mont-devant-Sassy (Meuse)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Eglise Notre Dame de l’Assomption, Mont-devant-Sassy (Meuse) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

When we arrived in Mont-devant-Sassey, we saw the church perched on the hillside above the village. In addition to whatever guardian has protected Notre Dame de l’Assomption in this land of battles, she currently has an earthly protector as well, the Association of the Friends of the Church of Mont-Devant-Sassey. One of the Association members, Madame Mercier, an Alsatian from Strasbourg who lives in the town now, devotes her time to overseeing the care and restoration of their beloved church. Twice a year the town gathers to picnic and scrub the mold from the walls that threaten the integrity of the stone.

Madame Mercier, who is an art historian by training, was kind enough to show open up the church for us, guide us through, and answer our many questions. The church is entered through the south narthex which shelters the beautiful Gothic portal.

Door to narthex, Eglise Notre Dame de l’Assomption, Mont-devant-Sassy (Meuse)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Door to narthex, Eglise Notre Dame de l’Assomption, Mont-devant-Sassy (Meuse) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The portal is a stunning ensemble featuring a tympanum and a sculpted panel of five figures on each side of the door. The lintel has a rendition of the Nativity scene while the tympanum features Christ in Majesty. One the right hand side, the figures are of Eve, Adam, Moses, Abraham, and Noah. On the left are the Virgin Mary, Isaiah, John the Baptist, Jeremiah and Ezekial. This narthex was struck by a shell in the First World War and several of the statues were damaged.

Portal, Eglise Notre Dame de l’Assomption, Mont-devant-Sassy (Meuse) Photo by PJ McKey

Portal, Eglise Notre Dame de l’Assomption, Mont-devant-Sassy (Meuse) Photo by PJ McKey

The interior of the church is simple but elegant, featuring a nave with ogive arcade arches and two side aisles. The nave features four bays covered with rib vaults and with a single clerestory window on each side.

Nave, Eglise Notre Dame de l’Assomption, Mont-devant-Sassy (Meuse)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Eglise Notre Dame de l’Assomption, Mont-devant-Sassy (Meuse) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The side aisles look through the short transepts to the distant echeloned chapels on either side of the choir. I particularly like the contrast of the round transverse arches compared to the ogive arches of the arcades.

South side aisle, Eglise Notre Dame de l’Assomption, Mont-devant-Sassy (Meuse) Photo by PJ McKey

South side aisle, Eglise Notre Dame de l’Assomption, Mont-devant-Sassy (Meuse) Photo by PJ McKey

The raised apse is simple and elegant. The choir is covered with a barrel vault and the altar by an oven vault. In the foreground right we can see the stairway leading down into the crypt.

Crossing, Eglise Notre Dame de l’Assomption, Mont-devant-Sassy (Meuse) Photo by PJ McKey

Crossing, Eglise Notre Dame de l’Assomption, Mont-devant-Sassy (Meuse) Photo by PJ McKey

One of the most interesting aspects of the church is this crypt, which is full of light because of its position on the side of the hill. This elevation shows the location of the crypt in the east, under the apse.

Elevation, Eglise Notre Dame de l’Assomption, Mont-devant-Sassy (Meuse)

Elevation, Eglise Notre Dame de l’Assomption, Mont-devant-Sassy (Meuse)

The double staircase leading down into the crypt and back up to the nave enabled the pilgrims who descended on one side to return on the other. The crypt is full of light because of the many windows. The three bays of the crypt are separated by monolithic columns – carved from a single block of stone. They are decorated with capitals with stylized foilage.

Crypt, Eglise Notre Dame de l’Assomption, Mont-devant-Sassy (Meuse)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Crypt, Eglise Notre Dame de l’Assomption, Mont-devant-Sassy (Meuse) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In addition to the main altar at the eastern end of the crypt, there is also a lovely side chapel.

Crypt chapel, Eglise Notre Dame de l’Assomption, Mont-devant-Sassy (Meuse) Photo by PJ McKey

Crypt chapel, Eglise Notre Dame de l’Assomption, Mont-devant-Sassy (Meuse) Photo by PJ McKey

The photograph of the crypt stairs shows the effect of the mold on the stone, but it is quite stunning photographically.

Crypt stairway, Eglise Notre Dame de l’Assomption, Mont-devant-Sassy (Meuse)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Crypt stairway, Eglise Notre Dame de l’Assomption, Mont-devant-Sassy (Meuse) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

One of the reasons that we went to the church was to see the famous Vierge en majesté, Notre Dame de Mont-devant-Sassey. The statue stood on the altar in the crypt, but it was unfortunately a replica. The original is now protected in the musée de la Princerie in Verdun. The original, a 12th century polychrome wooden statue of the Virgin, one of the oldest found in this region, is a powerful representation of the Marian faith in the Romanesque Lorraine.

Vierge en majesté (replica), Eglise Notre Dame de l’Assomption, Mont-devant-Sassy (Meuse) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Vierge en majesté (replica), Eglise Notre Dame de l’Assomption, Mont-devant-Sassy (Meuse) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

PJ and I were so delighted to see that Notre Dame de l’Assomption had survived so much warfare over the centuries. We finished our long day of shooting and returned to our gite in the nearby town of Stenay. Normally we stay in hotels, but thought it might be fun to shop and cook for ourselves for a change, to “play house” as it were. But after cleaning up, prepping the equipment, and loading the pictures into the database, we were too tired to do so and decided to eat at a restaurant. Unfortunately, it was also a Monday night and all of the restaurants were closed except for an unpromising pizzaria. We did hear of a place we might eat in a village about 8 kilometers away, so with little hope we drove to Inor, with its population of 204 souls, to find the half-timbered Hotel Restaurant Faisan Doré. It appeared to be a traditional country hotel for solitary business travelers and the patrons in the restaurant were men in suits sitting alone at their tables.

Hotel Restaurant Faisan Doré, Inor (Meuse)

Hotel Restaurant Faisan Doré, Inor (Meuse)

PJ and I were seated at a nice table near the old-fashioned fireplace and ordered. My meal was a spectacular reminder of France from yesteryear – a terrine de gibier and jarret du porc accompanied by a wonderful red Cote de Meuse. The specialty of the restaurant is the gibier – game; pheasant, partridge, rabbit, boar, and venison – and we will return to this dining throwback to regional cuisine if whenever pass through this part of France. In fact, the Faison Doré might be inducement enough to return just to eat here again.

Location: 49.412178° 5.166003°

11 responses to “Two Survivors in the Meuse (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Superb! But what kind of a barbarian could load an artillery piece and deliberately fire a shell at the front of such a beautiful place? Even if you were at war and your enemy was desperate enough to try to shelter there, which I seriously doubt was the case, there’s no excuse for that sort of vandalism. Not even the Khmer Rouge, whose barbarity was ideological not just military, were game to shell Angkor Wat.

    I love the way this church is perched on the edge of a slope which lets the crypt have windows and sunlight. I’ve not seen that before.

  2. I’m delighted that Niall mentioned the lovely ruined Franciscan Friary in Buttevant – although Tadgh O’Keeffe thinks that the crypt may actually be part of a donjon or castle keep put to a holier use when a new Buttevant Castle was built nearby on another site.

    The image of the Virgin and Child in majesty or Sedes Sapientiae figure is lovely – but I wonder if the paint is original. If so, then it’s an important survival.

    • Anthony, the Virgin and Child at Mont-devant-Sassey is a copy unfortunately, although the original is well-protected at a museum in Verdun. I have only seen black and white photos so don’t know if the polychrome still remains. But even without, it’s probably the most important of these Romanesque vierges in Northern France.

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