The basilica of Saint Just de Valcabrère is a Romanesque church dating from the 11th and 12th centuries located in the Midi-Pyrénées area just north of the border with Spain. This area was settled as a Roman colony called Lugdunum Convenarum by Pompey to guard the roads to the Val d’Aran in the south. The town was later known as the home in exile of Herod Antipas, notorious for his association with the executions of John the Baptist and Jesus. In the 19th Century, an inscription was found outside of the chevet recording the burial of two Christians in 347 – Valeria Severa and a priest named Patroclus. The inscription is adorned with the Chi-Rho symbol. This marks Lugdunum Convenarum as an early Gallo-Roman Christian site.
There is a tradition that after the 5th Century destruction of the Roman town by the Vandals, Saint Just was used as the local cathedral. Others use the evidence of the many burial monuments to suggest that it was a necropolis.
At any rate, the present basilica was consecrated in 1200 by Bishop Raymond-Arnaud de Labarthe and was constructed in part with stones from the remains of the Roman town.
We know the date of the consecration by a remarkable accident. In 1885, the priest of Saint Just discovered a parchment in the masonry of the high altar. The document reads, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord thy God is one. Thou shalt not take in vain the name of thy God. Observe the day of Shabbat. Honour thy father and thy mother. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s well … The year of the Incarnation 1200, Philippe was king of the French, in October, the altar was dedicated in honor of Saint Stephen the first martyr, the saints and martyrs Just and Pasteur, by Lord R. Bishop of Comminges.”
Also found in that cache were a pair of glass urns containing bloodstained cloth and bones, presumably from the brothers Justus and Pastor, martyred in Alcalá de Henares near Madrid in 304 during the Diocletian persecutions. The church was named after Saint Justus.
The church is approached from the north, and the north portal is a remarkable ensemble. It features a conventional tympanum with Christ in Majesty surrounded by the four evangelists, with censing angels above on either side.
The items of most interest to me are the four unique statue-piers around the portal, surmounted by historiated capitals. They represent Sainte Hélène, the mother of Constantine who brought the True Cross back to Byzantium and three martyrs – the brothers Justus and Pastor and Saint Stephen, disciple of Christ who was stoned to death by the Sanhedrin. Each of these columns serves as the springing for the archivolts over the tympanum.
The figures on the left of the door represent Saint Pastor and Saint Stephen. Notice how these figures stand on compositions of animals.
The capital over each statue-pier tells the story of that person. We can see in this detail the decapitation of Saint Pastor and the stoning of Saint Stephen.
The closeup of the capital showing the stoning of Saint Stephen demonstrates the superb quality of the sculpture here at Saint Just de Valcabrère, probably from a nearby school at Comminges. We also see remnants of the polychrome paint that once decorated the entire ensemble.
The statues on the right side of the portal represent Sainte Hélène and Saint Just. The capital of Saint Hélène is quite enigmatic and seems to be of a man carrying a keg offering a woman a ride on a horse. Nobody seems to provide a satisfactory explanation for the imagery, but the image of Sainte Hélène is important to Saint Just de Valcabrère because at one time the church held a fragment of the True Cross that was an important pilgrimage relic.
In the detail of the execution of Saint Justus, we see the bound martyr with the sword at his throat. I am not sure about the object in the other hand of the executioner. It appears to be a mallet of some sort, probably used to drive the sword home, although in the capital showing the death of Saint Pastor, the executioner uses his free hand to hold the head of his victim.
While there is a good deal of other fine sculpture at Saint Just de Valcabrère, PJ and I find that the north portal is one of the most fascinating sculptural ensembles in Romanesque France. There is something almost pagan about the figurative piers, which is appropriate for a church built on the site of a Roman city and dedicated to two young martyrs to Roman persecution. Our next article will be about the interior of this fine Romanesque church, which is certainly deserving of so much attention.