Dragons, Pestilence, and Holy Water (Dennis Aubrey)

The Abbaye Sainte-Marie in Arles-sur-Tech in the Pyrénées is not only the oldest Benedictine abbey in Catalonia, but one with the most compelling legend. Prosper Merimée wrote a book called Notes D’Un Voyage Dans Le Midi De La France in which he describes many churches and monuments in the south. Of the abbey church Sainte-Marie, he writes, “The church was constructed in 1045; but the facade is the only remainder of the 11th century: the interior, built during different eras, offers nothing much of interest.”

We are not as blasé as Merimée about the wonderful churches that fill France, and we were delighted with Sainte-Marie d’Arles-sur-Tech. The nave is tall and narrow and flanked by side aisles a good deal lower than the nave. Both the nave and the side aisles are covered with ogive barrel vaults. They were originally furnished with wooden vaults but were covered in stone by the time of the rededication of the church in 1157.

Nave, ‪Abbaye Sainte-Marie d'Arles-sur-Tech‬, Arles-sur-Tech (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Nave, ‪Abbaye Sainte-Marie d’Arles-sur-Tech‬, Arles-sur-Tech (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Merimée doesn’t even describe the church itself, but spends most of the chapter relating the famous legend of Saint Arnulph and the relics of Abdon and Sennen.

In the earliest years of Christian activity in Catalonia, the region around Arles-sur-Tech was plagued with dragons and other fierce beasts, and beset by pestilence. Nothing would abate the plague of devastation visited on the people. A local holy man, Arnulph, resolved to make the 1200 kilometer journey to Rome in order to secure relics that would combat the evils. When he arrived, the Pope was much moved by his plea and said that Arnulph might take any relics that he would like except those of Saint Peter and a few other select saints. Humbled by the choice that he was forced to make, Arnulph spent the day in prayer asking for guidance.

That night, as he slept, he had a visitation from two young men. They said that they were Persian princes, Abdon and Sennen, martyred in Rome, who revealed to Arnulph where their bodies were buried and that would fulfill the mission of saving his village. In the morning, Arnulph went to the locale revealed to him accompanied by a crowd of onlookers. They dug and found the bodies of two young men, perfectly preserved. By the scent of sanctity that surrounded them, it was clear that these were the bodies of the Persian saints.

Side aisle, ‪Abbaye Sainte-Marie d'Arles-sur-Tech‬, Arles-sur-Tech (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Side aisle, ‪Abbaye Sainte-Marie d’Arles-sur-Tech‬, Arles-sur-Tech (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In order to protect the bodies from thieves who might misappropriate his sacred treasure, Arnulph put the bodies in a large barrel and filled it with water. He then transported his lading by mule back across the Alps and into the Pyrénées. Just before he arrived home, on a dangerous path bordering a steep precipice, the driver, a “coarse and brutal man”, thought it necessary to give courage to his beast and gave out a great curse. Immediately, the mule fell from the narrow road and disappeared. Arnulph was desolate – he had lost the precious relics granted by the Pope. Dejectedly, he finished the voyage home.

As he arrived, he heard a ringing of all the church bells and saw all of the townspeople gathered in the square. In their midst was the mule with the precious burden, its task already accomplished. The ravening beasts had fled the region and the pestilence had been cured. The martyrs Abdon and Sennen were acclaimed the patron saints of the abbey and were much venerated through the years.

As an afterthought, Arnulph poured the water from the barrel into an empty sarcophagus. A leper washed himself in that water and was immediately cured. Merimée noted that “…warned of this property, the monks of the abbey closed the sarcophagus and charged money to receive the benefits of the water.”

Sarcophagus (Sainte Tombe), Abbaye Sainte-Marie d’Arles-sur-Tech‬, Arles-sur-Tech (Pyrénées-Orientales)
Sarcophagus (Sainte Tombe), Abbaye Sainte-Marie d’Arles-sur-Tech‬, Arles-sur-Tech (Pyrénées-Orientales)

The monks were able to charge money for the water for centuries because, for reasons that defy explanation, the sarcophagus, called the Sainte Tombe by the inhabitants, produces 200 litres per year of pure, clear water. In 1794, a committee of town officials, lawyers, and clergymen examined the coffin to investigate. The coffin was suspended; they detected no pipes or holes by which it could be filled. Nobody came in the middle of the night to refresh the water.

Two centuries later, science again attempted an explanation. In a study entitled “Water production in an ancient sarcophagus at Arles-sur-Tech France” published in 2001 in the journal “Atmospheric Research,” the four authors concluded; “After collecting thermo-physical and meteorological data over nearly 3 years, the phenomenon of water collection in the Arles-sur-Tech sarcophagus can be understood as a balance between infiltrating rain between the sarcophagus body and its cover, dew condensation, and its complementary process, evaporation. A total water production of nearly 200 liters per year was measured, with a contribution from dew that amounted to about 10% of the whole production, i.e. 20 liters per year.” The explanation that 90% of the total is rainwater is based on the fact that there is an inclined slit in the surface which collects water that subsequently drips into the closed sarcophagus and remains fresh and pure. Whether this account is adequate explanation or not, it certainly lacks in drama and interest.

‪Frescoes, Abbaye Sainte-Marie d'Arles-sur-Tech‬, Arles-sur-Tech (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by PJ McKey
‪Frescoes, Abbaye Sainte-Marie d’Arles-sur-Tech‬, Arles-sur-Tech (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Merimée may not have found much to admire in the interior of Sainte Marie, but he was fond of the Gothic cloister added in the 13th century. It was built of the marble from nearby Céret, which was also used for the famous tribunes at Serrabone. The quarries were located less than ten miles from the abbey church, which was very convenient for the builders.

Cloister, ‪Abbaye Sainte-Marie d'Arles-sur-Tech‬, Arles-sur-Tech (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by PJ McKey
Cloister, ‪Abbaye Sainte-Marie d’Arles-sur-Tech‬, Arles-sur-Tech (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

The cloister is elegant and extensive and opens into the north side aisle of the church. It was never finished and never vaulted.

Cloister, ‪Abbaye Sainte-Marie d'Arles-sur-Tech‬, Arles-sur-Tech (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by PJ McKey
Cloister, ‪Abbaye Sainte-Marie d’Arles-sur-Tech‬, Arles-sur-Tech (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

The ogive arches fall on slender double marble columns with decorative capitals.

Cloister, ‪Abbaye Sainte-Marie d'Arles-sur-Tech‬, Arles-sur-Tech (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Cloister, ‪Abbaye Sainte-Marie d’Arles-sur-Tech‬, Arles-sur-Tech (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Merimée had one final piece of advice in this chapter on Arles-sur-Tech. When one asks for a vial of the holy water; “Il faut en demander en catalan pour en obtenir, et pour avoir parlé gavache j’ai eu le chagrin d’être refusé.

“We must ask in Catalan to receive, and for speaking gavache I had the grief of being refused.”

Therefore, when you visit, remember to use the ancient language of the region to ask for a vial of the water; Puc tenir una mica d’aigua beneïda, si us plau?

Location: 42.456286° 2.634657°

17 thoughts on “Dragons, Pestilence, and Holy Water (Dennis Aubrey)

    1. Thanks, Sue. So much to see in that region that it is easy to miss these gems. We’re returning for a week this spring to catch up on much that we missed – some new churches and revisiting old favorites.

  1. Thank you so much for this Dennis,

    As I said to you before, we were looking at the Romanesque wonders up the Tech and Tet (sorry can’t do circumflex) last year, as they had so fascinated Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who went up the valleys by train from Port-Vendres in his magnificent final career as painter. (And having run a very successful tour to his work in Glasgow, we started planning one around his haunts in Roussillon… but having found these wonderful buildings, the Mackintosh link rather fades in importance!)

    1. John, it is a wonderful area with some magnificent churches. I can’t wait to go back to Saint Martin-du-Canigou again, or to photograph the details of the Cuxa cloister. PJ and I are chomping at the bit!

  2. This is so Gothic, this story. I liked reading about l’eau miraculeuse, but then you explained it. 😦 Pfft. Still, there are ex-lepers out there who’ll vouch for the miracle. I’ll practise the Catalan question, and go there to see for myself. I’ll let you know if I’m granted a miracle. Re the photos: your cloister photos are always magical, like the last one above. Very pleasing to my eye.

    1. Trish, sometimes I find the scientific as difficult to believe as the legendary. 200 litres of water dripping through a slit in the stone, a slit that does not fill up with sediment or detritus? 20 litres condensing? Glad you liked the cloister shots – that last one is a technique that PJ uses all of the time even though I took this particular shot. We use a long lens and condense the columns to nice effect.

  3. I have just come across your wonderful article because I was particularly looking for some information on the miraculous water. Amazingly, my parents told me recently about a man who was completely cured from a very painful back (having had a local tell him about the water and rub it into his back)! He hadn’t known anything about this water before he went to Arles sur Tech – unbelievable but evidently true. It would therefore appear that there is at least one modern equivalent of the original leper (alive and well and living in Dorset); so thank you for the info and wonderful background story!

    1. Pippa, so sorry it took this long to respond, but we are just settling in after moving to our new home. Thanks you for this story about Arles-sur-Tech, we know the story well. Did the man ask for the water in Catalan; “Puc tenir una mica d’aigua beneïda, si us plau?”

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