Two Saints in Cunault (Dennis Aubrey)


The story of Notre Dame de Cunault is the story of two saints – Maxenceul and Philibert. Saint Maxenceul was a disciple of Saint Martin of Tours and evangelized the Angers region and built a monastery at Cunault in the fourth century. His relics were kept in his abbey church.

Saint Philibert (c.608–684) was the abbot who built some of the most famous monastic centers in France. His greatest achievements were the abbeys at Jumièges in what is now known as Normandy (654), Noirmoutier on an island on the border of Brittany (675), and Cunault, on the site of Maxenceul’s ancient monastery.

Side aisle, Église Notre-Dame de Cunault, Cunault (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle, Église Notre-Dame de Cunault, Cunault (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

In the ninth century, the Vikings conducted an extended campaign of predation that devastated France’s monasteries. In 836 the monks at Noirmoutier were forced to relocate themselves and the precious relics of Saint Philibert to a new abbey at Saint Philibert-de-Grandlieu. Further incursions by the Norsemen forced them to leave Saint Philibert in 847. The brethren moved to Cunault but in their haste left the precious relics behind.

A decade later, several monks returned to Saint Philibert-de-Grandlieu and recovered the relics of the two saints and relocated them to the Benedictine abbey in Tournus in Burgundy. The relics of Saint Philibert remain in the Basilique Saint Philibert of Tournus to this day.

Nave, Église Notre-Dame de Cunault, Cunault (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Nave, Église Notre-Dame de Cunault, Cunault (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Saint Maxenceul’s relics were subsequently returned home. When calm was restored, some monks returned to live in Cunault, taking with them the relics of their founding saint and milk from the Virgin. This later relic became the object of great veneration and Notre Dame de Cunault developed a reputation that attracted many pilgrims.

A new priory church was built in the eleventh century with the natural tufa stone from the region. This became the new home to the shrine of Saint Maxenceul. It was at this time that Cunault became a dependency of Abbey of Saint Philibert in Tournus.

Hemicycle, Église Notre-Dame de Cunault, Cunault (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Hemicycle, Église Notre-Dame de Cunault, Cunault (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The priory built by these monks is simply a masterpiece of Romanesque architecture. The exterior is dominated by the 11th century clocher with three tiers of carved arches. The steeple and small corner turrets are 15th century.

Église Notre-Dame de Cunault, Cunault (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Église Notre-Dame de Cunault, Cunault (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The interior is a large open hall church configuration where the side aisles are as tall as the nave. There is no clerestory level so the lighting comes from the windows in the side aisles. We can also see from the nave vaulting that the last two bays are in a different style, Angevin Gothic with rib vaults instead of the banded barrel vault in the rest of the nave.

Nave, looking west, Église Notre-Dame de Cunault, Cunault (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, looking west, Église Notre-Dame de Cunault, Cunault (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is a magnificent Romanesque sculptural program at Cunault. The 13th century façade is quite austere except for a remarkable tympanum featuring the Virgin seated on a throne, with the Christ Child on her lap, flanked by two angels. This is a representation of the Sedes Sapientiae, the Throne of Wisdom.

Portal and tympanum, Église Notre-Dame de Cunault, Cunault (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Portal and tympanum, Église Notre-Dame de Cunault, Cunault (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Inside, Notre-Dame de Cunault is famous for its 223 carved capitals featuring biblical scenes and a wide variety of demons, creatures, column swallowers, and other fanciful monstrosities. These capitals represent one of the most fascinating sculptural treasures of the age.

Capitals, Église Notre-Dame de Cunault, Cunault (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Capitals, Église Notre-Dame de Cunault, Cunault (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Today Notre Dame de Cunault is still in fine condition. The church received a sensitive restoration by Commission des Monuments Historiques in 1838. The French poet and writer Prosper Mérimée commissioned Charles Joly-Leterme as the architect in charge of the work. Joly-Leterme also performed the first major restorations at the Basilique Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand and Saint Savin in the Vienne, and the Cathédrale Saint Meurice in Angers.

Side aisle, Église Notre-Dame de Cunault, Cunault (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Side aisle, Église Notre-Dame de Cunault, Cunault (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Less fortunate than Notre Dame de Cunault was the local parish church named in honor of Cunault’s founder. The twelfth-century Église Saint Maxenceul was noted for its beauty but was destroyed by – of all things – a hurricane in 1754.

Église paroissiale Saint Maxenceul, Crédits photo Mieusement, Médéric (photographe) - Ministère de la Culture (France) - Médiathèque de l'architecture et du patrimoine - diffusion RMN

Église paroissiale Saint Maxenceul, Crédits photo Mieusement, Médéric (photographe) – Ministère de la Culture (France) – Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine – diffusion RMN

It is difficult to look at the beautiful and peaceful Loire Valley today and think of it embattled with marauding Norsemen and buffeted by hurricanes. But this is part of the region’s history as much as that of their two venerated saints, Maxenceul, companion to Saint Martin, and Philibert, the great builder of Normandy.

The Loire at Chenehutte, photo by Dennis Aubrey

The Loire at Chenehutte, photo by Dennis Aubrey

Location: 47.329476° -0.200660°

15 responses to “Two Saints in Cunault (Dennis Aubrey)

      • No, not at all. I miss my friends (French and foreign)…but we have Skype and the internet…but like my French friends became so frustrated with what seemed like wilful blocking of any initiative that when circumstances allowed it I left quite happily.

        I have my memories of the countryside, the architecture, the sheer pleasure of discovery of living elsewhere, but the change over the years from a system which could be made to work to one which was simply sclerotic made daily life considerably less appealing.

        I have swapped my house in France for one in Spain…just inland of Castellon de la Plana…and am looking forward to spending the spring there, exploring.
        I’ll never know Spain as I knew France, as this is just for holidays, but there’s plenty to keep me busy.

        My father fought in the Spanish CIvil War and one of his engagements was at Teruel…not so far from the house as the crow flies and a very long way by road…but I’m going there.

      • Your father fought at Teruel? One of the worst battles of that bloody internecine war. Hemingway was there as well. Did your father fight on the Republican side? This is so fascinating, Helen.

  1. the hemicycle picture is magnificent in capturing the place volume… such a nice that few visit, I don’t know if the abott is still the same sympathic man it was 10 yars ago…

    • Emmanuel, thank you for the comment, it is a pleasure seeing your name here. We quite often use your Romanes.com site as a reference for our work at Via Lucis, especially when we are planning a trip. For those who read this Via Lucis site, we have a link to Emmanuel’s site called “Romanes.com (French site)”. Well worth a visit.

  2. Re Teruel…yes, for the republican government. He was in his late thirties and had led a double life for years. By day a librarian; in his spare time and using another name, a communist organiser in Glasgow.
    What he saw of the communists in Spain – more intent on wiping out the anarchists than winning the war – changed him completely Not to being right wing…never that…but anti political parties of any hue.
    Hemingway disgusted him, as did Orwell….but he knew the man who would become Marshal Tito – at that time organising the Paris office sending volunteers over the border – and always admired him.
    A pity he did not live long enough to see his comrades rehabilitated in Spain.

    • Helen, both sides did such horrible things in the war … the Republicans killed the Bishop in Teruel during their occupation after capturing it from Franco’s troops. It was enough to terminate any idealism in those who joined. Did you ever get the chance to talk to him at length about his experiences?

      • Only when he was very old….but his memory was still razor sharp. I learned a lot about socialism in Ireland and Scotland in the early years of the twentieth century as seen from the underbelly, not as described by academics.
        He came from a family who farmed and ran an ore crushing business. He lost his elder brothers in the Great War and the injustice of it, not poverty, turned him to alternatives to the then system of government.

        I learned a lot about my father….as he had learned a lot about himself.
        He was a man who loved art, poetry and literature…but he was not a man of mercy when faced with what he considered injustice.

        He never lost his idealism – just became more realistic about the chances of realising it.

      • Helen, this is so moving on so many levels, especially the last line – “He never lost his idealism – just became more realistic about the chances of realising it.” Your father was a man who was affected so strongly by the greatest tides of European history in his lifetime. Thanks for talking about this. If you ever write about your father, please let me know. My sister Ann would be fascinated as well.

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