The small commune of Echillais in the Charente-Maritime sits about seven miles inland from where the Charente River joins the part of the Bay of Biscay called the Pertuis d’Antioche, almost at the Ile d’Oleron. This is a quiet town of 3,000 with Romanesque church that is typical for the Saintonge region. fIt has suffered damage and restoration over the years from wars, predation, and revolution. But it preserves the hallmark signature of these churches – the magnificently decorated western façade. It also preserves a monster to protect and defend the church, the Grand’Goule.
The interior of the nave was rebuilt after it was mostly destroyed in 1577 during the Wars of Religion, and then restored in 1970 and 1971. What remains is simple – a central passage composed of three bays covered with a banded barrel vault. The bands are sprung from pilasters along the nave walls.
The nave is flanked on each side by a wide, raised side aisle. Each side aisle is covered with a half-barrel vault.
The choir is a simple elegant hemicycle covered with an oven vault. There is a central window along the central axis of the church and two windows on each side of the chevet. The windows are beautifully framed by slender pillars topped with carved capitals. A narrow decorated frieze connects these windows.
The interior of Notre Dame d’Echillais is clean, elegant and spare, but does not compare to the bejeweled western façade. The carved portal and façade is an extraordinary and rich example of the Saintonge architectural style.
The sumptuously decorated central portal was recently restored and today the original limestone is once again white and pristine.
So, where is this great eponymous monster of Echillais that claimed the title to this article? The Grand’Goule can be found just to the left of the main entrance of the western portal. It is one of our beloved column-swallowers, gorging himself in full view of everyone.
For the ghoulish, the discoloration on the stone just below the mouth looks like a trail of blood dripping from the maw for the feeding goule.
There is another, far more rare, cousin to the Grand’Goule, just to the north. It is not a column swallower, but a column spewer! He is upside down and the column emerges from his mouth.
Unfortunately, there are other monsters in Echillais. A few years ago a band of moto-riders from the village decided to convert Notre Dame de Echillais into a medieval moto-cross. They brought their motos inside and raced by slaloming through the nave arcades. The sacristan came in the following morning to find cigarette butts everywhere, tire tracks on the floor, and damaged fittings – the vandals smashed the font and shattered a 17th century crucifix. Perhaps the Grand-Goule was too outraged to stop his fellow monsters from their profanations.
Location: 45.898437° -0.952764°