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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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°
There is an Italian translation of this post by Carlo Balma Mion at this link.