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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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