Église Saint-Léger in Ébreuil (Dennis Aubrey)


When Charlemagne was raising his son Louis (soon to be known as Louis the Pious, Louis the Debonaire, and Louis the Fair), he settled the kingdom of Aquitaine on him as his inheritance. He also settled four gallo-roman villas as palaces and required him to live in each of them for three months of the year, except when he was off on his wars in service of the Kingdom of the Franks. One of those palaces was in the town of Ébreuil, today in the department of the Allier about 35 miles north of Clermont-Ferrand.

Chancel crossing, Église Saint-Léger, Ébreuil  (Allier)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Chancel crossing, Église Saint-Léger, Ébreuil (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Ebreuil today is a small commune with a population of about 1270 and has little to indicate that in Charlemagne’s empire it was a place of such importance. It is situated on the left bank of the Sioule River at the intersection of two ancient Roman roads. The Roman settlement was called Eborolacum. Saint Léger, for whom the church was named, was a Merovingian bishop of Autun, raised at the court of Clotaire II. He was martyred by a bitter political rival, Ebroin, Mayor of the Palace under Theodoric III.

South side aisle from east, Église Saint-Léger, Ébreuil (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

South side aisle from east, Église Saint-Léger, Ébreuil (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

The original Carolingian abbey was founded by Louis the Fair in 806 and his son Lothaire donated the palace to the monks after his father’s death. The monks adopted the Benedictine rule. In 898, the monks of Saint-Maixent in the Sarthe fled from Norman incursions and took refuge in Ébreuil. They brought with them the relics of both Saints Léger and Maixent, which were popular with pilgrims and subsequently brought great wealth to the abbey. The current church was built in the 11th century and later updated with a 12th century Gothic choir.

Crossing from transept, Église Saint-Léger, Ébreuil (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

Crossing from transept, Église Saint-Léger, Ébreuil (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

The long narrow Romanesque nave of six bays has very tall arches supported by massive piers. The lighting in the nave proper comes from the large clerestory windows. The church is covered with a wooden vault. Notice the remnants of the fine Gothic frescoes adorning the pillars on the south side.

Nave, Église Saint-Léger, Ébreuil  (Allier)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Église Saint-Léger, Ébreuil (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

These Gothic frescoes include Saint George in combat with the dragon and the Annunciation on the pier of the south side of the nave as we face east.

Pier frescoes, Église Saint-Léger, Ébreuil (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

Pier frescoes, Église Saint-Léger, Ébreuil (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

On the other side of the same pier, as we face west, are two sets of saints. The two top figures are Saint Anthony and Saint Léger.

Pier frescoes, Église Saint-Léger, Ébreuil (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

Pier frescoes, Église Saint-Léger, Ébreuil (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

The earlier and more important of these frescoes, created around 1125, are found in the tribune above the narthex opening onto the nave. They represent Saint Austremoine, the martyrdoms of Saint Pancrace and Saint Valerie of Limoges, and other scenes. Unfortunately, it was not possible to gain access to this tribune for photography when we visited.

Narthex tribune frescoes, Église Saint-Léger, Ébreuil (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

Narthex tribune frescoes, Église Saint-Léger, Ébreuil (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

The choir is a 13th century Gothic update to the church and features a fine hemicycle befitting an important pilgrimage church. The shrine of Saint Léger, still venerated, is at the rear of this passage.

Choir, Église Saint-Léger, Ébreuil  (Allier)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Choir, Église Saint-Léger, Ébreuil (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The day we were in Ébreuil we were unfortunate victims of photo interruptus. We could not photograph the large and unique narthex in the west and our time inside was cut short because preparations were being made for a grand event. Tables were being unloaded in the narthex and the church was a hive of activity. We will be required to go back to do justice to this superb church in the Allier.

Location: 46.114783° 3.088388°

italy-flag smallThere is an Italian translation of this post by Carlo Balma Mion at this link.

13 responses to “Église Saint-Léger in Ébreuil (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Dennis, your wonderful photos and those of P.J. Make me feel the immense height almost squeezed by the seemingly narrow isles. Beautiful! Thanks.

    • Kalli, this is one of those churches that PJ and I had forgotten. One of the reasons is that we were rushed out before really finishing. We looked at the great narthex and thought “Why didn’t we shoot that?” Then PJ remembered the workers setting up tables for the event. So we basically forgot about this church until I found the side aisle shot the other day.

  2. I’m glad you will be returning there and look forward to seeing more of the narthex fresco work.

    I think that one of the other three palaces awarded to Louis the Pious was at Doue la Fontaine in the Maine et Loire, not far from where I used to live…..there are remains said to be merovingian there and it also had a church dedicated to St. Leger, which fell into disrepair in the seventeenth century.

    • You are spot on, Helen. In fact Louis was at Doué-la-Fontaine when he received news of Charlemagne’s death. We had hoped to visit the town when we were in Angers, but there was so much in the city that we never got out to the surrounding areas!

    • Ana, the name thing is something that appeals to me as well, one of the reasons I put in the Roman names or Celtic names whenever possible. And the names like Austremoine are certainly more interesting that most we see today.

  3. Wonderful photos. Too bad you were interrupted, but isn’t it marvelous that the church is still in use and is not merely a monument to things past.

  4. Hello!
    There is two errors in your text.

    1- The monks fleeing the vikings did not go from Saint-Maixent in the department of Sarthe, but from Saint-Maixent-in-Poitou, department of Deux-Sèvres.

    2- You write “The original Carolingian abbey was founded by Louis the Fair in 806 …”, No ! the date is 903 under Charles III. The monks flee Saint-Maixent-en-Poitou in 863 and Louis the Pious is dead in 840.
    Sincerely
    Georges Jousse
    Author of “Ebreuil, l’abbatiale Saint-Léger – son histoire, ses mystères”, édit Imestra, 2015

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