There are two radically different churches in the Charente town of Aubeterre-sur-Dronne. The first is the Église Saint Jean, a massive monolithic church carved into a hillside. The second, the Église Saint Jacques is a mere remnant located on the top of a hill on the other side of the town. The church was ravaged by Protestant extremists on May 13 and 14, 1562 and the nave, chancel and crossing tower demolished.
As can be seen from this shot from the street, the main part of the church is placed up against the western façade. There is no attempt at integration at all.
What remains of that church, the western façade, is a masterpiece of Saintonge Romanesque sculpture. Not only is it massive – 18 meters wide by 12 meters high – but the quality of the work is magnificent.
There are three arches in the façade. The central portal features a six-lobed arch displaying Mozarabic influence from nearby Spain. The central portal is topped by six voussoir and is bordered on each side by a blind arcade. Both of these side arches are topped by three elegantly carved voussoir.
The second level consists of an arcade of thirteen semicircular arches. It is believed that these once held statues of the twelve apostles around a central figure of Christ, but there are no traces left.
There was once a third level to the façade but that was destroyed in May 1562. All that remains is the one arch and the remains of an equestrian statue, probably the familiar image of Constantine seen in other nearby churches like Parthenay, Melle, or Saintes.
The blind arcade on the left contains a lovely frieze that tracks through the left hand capitals, across the back of the arch opening, and through the right hand capitals. The imagery of the scene teems with exotic animals, mythical monsters from the medieval bestiary like mermaids, centuars, chimeras and griffins).
But the center frieze shows scenes of the labors of the month. There are tableaux of hunting and herding; a man butchers a pig in preparation for a long winter. Another man makes bread while another appears to be making pottery. Surely these chores represent not only the labors of man, but the very passage of time itself.
The interior of the church is plain and sober. There is a narrow nave with rounded arcades and two side aisles. The nave is covered with a roof of exposed timbers the church above large clerestory windows. The effect is Romanesque, but in reality it is much later, rebuilt in the 18th century.
The flat eastern wall of the apse has a large stained glass window from 1970.
In this view from the south side aisle, we can see the stairs leading down into the church from the street outside. The side aisles themselves are low, with flat timbered ceilings.
All in all, the rebuilt Église Saint Jacques shows a very harmonious interior, a bit austere and with no decoration to match the extraordinary sculpture on the western facade. But by the time the church was reconstructed, the great days of the pilgrimage to Santiago Compostela were long gone. The demands of a parish church were more modest and the interior reflects the change both of intent and means.
Less famous than its subterranean neighbor in Aubeterre, the Église Saint Jacques is a reminder of the care and devotion lavished on the pilgrimage churches of the Middle Ages. Only the magnificent 12th century western facade survives to tell the tale of what was once an important stop on the Way of Saint James.
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