PJ and I have found the Allier department, part of the Bourbonnais, to be fertile ground for Romanesque churches. One of our particular finds was in Meillers, a commune with a total population of 157. Saint Julien de Meillers was founded as a priory church and was a dependency of the diocese of Bourges and attached to the Abbey of Saint-Menoux, of which we have written before.
In this case, the church is a simple structure with three nave bays, a crossing under the tower, a short rounded apse covered with an oven vault and flanked by two 19th century side chapels.
The nave piers are solid and come to a slightly ogive point on the arcade arch. The barrel vault drops down to the top of the nave arcade. The only light comes from the windows in the side aisles. These side aisles appear to have been built later in the construction and were not originally part of the church design.
This simple solid structure has stood since the 12th century (it was constructed between 1180-1248). Inside, the church contains little structural decoration – a few capitals in the crossing and some small corbels decorated with figures of acrobats. One of those latter can be seen in PJ’s next shot at the intersection of the two arches.
The chapels contain mostly modern sculpture with one significant exception.
In the church is one of the oldest Vierge en majesté in the Auvergne. This 12th century wooden vierge romane is made of fruit wood and still preserves traces of the original polychrome paint. Like so many others, this statue was stolen on September 30, 2007, but recovered by the Office Central de lutte contre le trafic des Biens Culturels (OCBC), part of the Police Nationale. It was returned to the commune on June 30, 2010.
Aside from this vierge, the glory of Meillers is the west portal. There is an arch with several unadorned archivolts. There are supporting pillars on either side that have decorated capitals, and in the center, where we would normally expect to find a tympanum, there is a wonderfully sculpted lintel.
The subject is familiar; in the center Christ is depicted in a mandorla supported by two angels. On either side are five apostles, each sheltered under an arch. I have been told that Thomas and Judas are not represented here, but don’t know how that conclusion was derived.
The capitals are wonderfully inventive. On the north side of the door, there is an allegorical capital depicting an ass playing a lyre. It refers to the following fable by Phaedrus:
How Genius is often wasted through Misfortune.
An Ass espied a Lyre lying in a meadow: he approached and tried the strings with his hoof; they sounded at his touch. “By my faith, a pretty thing,” said he; “it happens unfortunately that I am not skilled in the art. If any person of greater skill had found it, he might have charmed my ears with divine notes.”
So Genius is often wasted through Misfortune.
This is a popular motif in Romanesque churches as shown in this photo of the Basilique Notre Dame de Saint-Nectaire – and poses a question to the viewer – Christianity is the lyre; are you able to bring forth the harmonies or, like the ass, be unable to play the instrument? Such is the pith of this modest priory church in the Allier. And just in case you think that we are finished using these fables as moral lessons, try this modern version!
Location: 46.506575° 3.093192°