There was an established medieval tradition whereby military leaders took religious orders or became hermits later in their lives. Perhaps witnessing the brutality of medieval warfare made some hearts yearn for peace and surcease. On an exploration of the wine-growing hill of Hermitage outside the Rhone town of Tain, I once climbed up to the small chapel built by the knight Gaspard de Stérimberg in 1235 on his return from the Albigensian Crusade. One could sense that he might recover from both his physical and spiritual injuries in the solitude of his hermitage.
There is another monument to the spiritual retreat of a warrior a few hundred miles away. The Abbaye de Bénédictins de Gellone de la-Transfiguration-du-Seigneur à Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert in the Hérault is one of the oldest Romanesque churches in France. The church is found in a scenic medieval village wedged into the narrow valley where the Gellone River flows into the gorge of the Hérault River.
The Abbey of Gellone is a jewel of early Romanesque art and remains in excellent condition. The nave of the church that we see today was built of the local limestone in the early 11th century, the apse and chevet are late 11th century and there is a 15th century bell tower.
The chevet is straightforward but masterful, with the rounded apse with a tile roof and an echeloned chapel on either side. There is a superb lombard band below the roof of the apse. A lombard band is a decorative blind arcade, usually on the exterior of the church.
The tall, narrow nave is flanked by two side aisles and covered with a banded barrel vault.
The nave elevation shows the strong square pillars supporting the rounded nave arcades, topped with small clerestory windows. A simple pilaster rises on the nave face of the pillar to support the transverse bands of the barrel vault.
In the photo of the barrel vault we can see how the simplicity of the vertical line of the pilaster extends to the vault and across to the other side of the nave to form a continuous band. It is a simple and elegant design.
The side aisles are also barrel vaulted and have the same pilaster-band motif as the nave. The impression is of solidity and strength. There is little decoration to detract from the almost penitential severity of the lines of the church.
There may be a reason for this impression of strength and severity. The abbey was founded by Guilhem de Gellone, the second Count of Toulouse, a grandson of Charles Martel and cousin of Charlemagne. He was also the hero of the Chanson de Guillaume, an early chanson de geste. Guilhem was a warrior and this is a warrior’s church.
In 790, after his father had died, Charlemagne confirmed Guilhem (known in France as Guillaume au Court Nez, William the Short-Nose) as the second Count of Toulouse. He defended his territory against the Saracen king Hisham I who declared Holy War against the Christians and invaded the Languedoc. Guilhem defeated Hisham in 800 and the Muslims returned in defeat to Spain. Guilhem ended his military career by capturing the territories around Barcelona in 803 from the Moors of western North Africa. For this service he was named the Count of the Spanish Marches.
In 804 the Count founded the monastery of Gellone, endowing it with a fragment of the True Cross, a present from Charlemagne, who received it from the Patriarch of Jerusalem. This relic remains at the Abbey of Gellone to this day. In 806, Guilhem retired to his Abbey of Gellone where he died eight years later, on May 28, 814. His body was buried in the Abbey. I would like to think that when Guilhem died in his remote sanctuary in Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, he found the peace he craved.
Guilhem’s fame as the hero of the Chanson de Guillaume and the presence of the fragment of the True Cross made the Abbey of Gellone an important pilgrimage stop on the Via Tolasana originating in Arles.
It is hard to believe, but many linguists believe that Guilhem is responsible for the popularity of the name “William” in all of its variations among European royalty. He himself was variously known as William of Orange, Guileh, Guilhelmus, Guillaume Fierabrace and Guillaume au Court Nez.
Guilhem married as his second wife the widow of a Saracen lord who he had killed, a woman called Gibourac. This union resulted in the founding of the House of Orange, later to become one of the leading royal houses of Europe. Today, the monarchy of the Netherlands is directly descended from Guilhem and Gibourac.
Just a short note to end this post. We decided to stay at the small town of Aniane (home of Benedict of Aniane) just five miles from Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert. When we arrived, the owner’s dog – a small black and white French bulldog – came scuttling out and growling at us. PJ and I both enjoy dogs and reached out to greet the ill-tempered little beast, but he retreated snarling. The owner of the hotel looked at us and gave the prototypical Gallic shrug. “His name is Balthazar. Il est une catastrophe!” PJ and I can’t think of Guilhem’s great monastery without laughing about the “catastrophic” Balthazar.
Location: 43.733916° 3.549623°