The Portal of Saint Just de Valcabrère (Dennis Aubrey)


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.

Église Saint Just de Valcabrère, Valcabrère (Haute-Garonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Église Saint Just de Valcabrère, Valcabrère (Haute-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Parchment  discovered in 1885

Parchment discovered in 1885

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.

Tympanum, Église Saint Just de Valcabrère, Valcabrère (Haute-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Tympanum, Église Saint Just de Valcabrère, Valcabrère (Haute-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Portal statue - Saint Pastor and Saint Stephen, Église Saint Just de Valcabrère, Valcabrère (Haute-Garonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Portal statue – Saint Pastor and Saint Stephen, Église Saint Just de Valcabrère, Valcabrère (Haute-Garonne) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Portal statue detail  - Saint Pastor and Saint Stephen, Église Saint Just de Valcabrère, Valcabrère (Haute-Garonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Portal statue detail – Saint Pastor and Saint Stephen, Église Saint Just de Valcabrère, Valcabrère (Haute-Garonne) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Portal capital - the stoning of Saint Stephen, Église Saint Just de Valcabrère, Valcabrère (Haute-Garonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Portal capital – the stoning of Saint Stephen, Église Saint Just de Valcabrère, Valcabrère (Haute-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Portal statues - Sainte Hélène and Saint Justus, Église Saint Just de Valcabrère, Valcabrère (Haute-Garonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Portal statues – Sainte Hélène and Saint Justus, Église Saint Just de Valcabrère, Valcabrère (Haute-Garonne) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Portal capital detail - the execution of Saint Justus, Église Saint Just de Valcabrère, Valcabrère (Haute-Garonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Portal capital detail – the execution of Saint Justus, Église Saint Just de Valcabrère, Valcabrère (Haute-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

9 responses to “The Portal of Saint Just de Valcabrère (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Right you are–what a fascinating ensemble it is! I wonder about the placement of the animals at their feet; as you suggest, there is something pagan lurking about. Looking forward to the next piece.

  2. beautiful photography as always. The detail in both the photography and the writing builds my appreciation for these lovely buildings even more. I am looking forward to reading the next post.

  3. Wonderfully well preserved. The Herod connection is very intriguing. There is supposedly a tree in Scotland he planted still present in some form.

    On a less than wholesome note – in her modern Dracula novel ‘The Historian’ Kostova centred his death on an anonymous monasetry in the Pyrenees (from where he learnt of vampirism) – I wonder if she had this Herod connection in mind.

    • Pieter, it was so much fun for PJ and I to return to the photos that we took four years ago and to see the images again. We gain renewed appreciation every time. It is one of the surprise benefits of the Via Lucis blog – we enjoy the churches a second time! Also, the additional research points out things that we might have missed – in this case, we are returning to Saint Just de Valcabrère in June so that we can do better justice to the chevet and some of the interior details.

  4. Your summary makes me curious to your next detailed analyse. I was there in Sep14 and I find also some interesting topics, of which I made my pictures. I am wondering if these will be explained. Thank you for sharing this with us.

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