There are many churches in France that we admire and appreciate, but there are a few that we love. The Basilique Sainte Madeleine in Vézelay, Notre Dame la Grande in Poitiers, and Sainte Marie de Souillac are three that come immediately to mind. PJ and I have written so many articles about the sculpture at the abbey church Sainte Marie de Souillac that it came as a shock to us today that we have never done a post on the church itself.
In the 12th Century, the town was known as Souillès, a name that evolved from the Occitan word Souilh meaning a marshland where boars wallow. Benedictine monks drained the surrounding marshland and built their priory church between 1075-1150. Sainte Marie was granted the status of abbey at the end of the 15th century but suffered badly from the Hundred Years War when everything except the church dedicated to the Virgin was destroyed.
That surviving church is a beautiful example of a domed structures found in southwest France in Périgueux at the Cathédrale Saint Front, Cahors at the Cathédrale Saint Etienne, and in Angoulême at the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre.
Souillac’s large open nave is covered with two domes set on pendentives, which serve as a transition between the heavy square pillars and the circular dome itself. There is a third dome covering the crossing at the transepts. The nave has no side aisles and is directly lit by large clerestory windows set in the frame of the pendentive arches. Notice the walkway at the window level.
The apse is a lovely semicircular structure covered with an oven vault. The arches surrounding the side chapels and the apse windows give the appearance of an ambulatory, but in reality there is no circulating walkway around the choir.
The exterior shot of the east end shows the superb chevet and the cupola over the chancel crossing. We can clearly see the echeloned chapel on the left and the large chapel at the east axis. Between the two, on each side, is a small radiating chapel.
In this interior shot of the apse, we see the echeloned chapel and the radiating chapel. Notice how these open directly to the choir without an ambulatory. This would seem to indicate that the Benedictine abbey was not a major pilgrimage church, since there was no need to funnel pilgrims around the choir in order to see the relics in the chapel. This photograph also shows the effect of the light on a church like Sainte Marie de Souillac. All of the interior photographs used in this article were taken during rainy weather except for this shot of the apse. We can see the extraordinary difference the light makes on the interior stone.
As beautiful as the church may be, however, the sculptures are the crown jewels of this – or any other – Romanesque church. All of these pieces once adorned the western portal, but during the destruction of the Wars of Religion, they were salvaged and placed inside the church on the western wall. This is one of the greatest acts of artistic preservation in history. The grouping is dominated by the carved tympanum that depicts the legend of Theophilis of Adama, a disappointed cleric removed from his post by a vengeful bishop. Theophilis sold his soul to the Devil and renounced Christ and the Virgin Mary. Later, fearing for his soul, he repented and prayed to the Virgin who came to his aid.
The two figures on the left depict Satan striking the bargain with Theophilus for his soul. The deal is sealed with his bond. On the right hand side, Satan redeems his bond and lays his hand on Theophilus’ wrist, taking possession of his claim. Above, the prostrate Theophilus is rescued by the Virgin Mary, who returns the bond. The detailing of the tympanum sculpture is superb – notice the chain mail garment worn by Satan.
To the south of the tympanum, at the level of the base, is a fragment of sculpture with remarkable energy and power, a male and female lion tearing at the flesh of a goat. The curves of the feline bodies and the vegetation that entwines them is a masterful, yet it is just a small detail that is easily missed among the rest of the work.
This tympanum ensemble alone would be a treasure for any church in the world, but there are two additional works that make this one of the centers of the Romanesque universe. The first is a large statue of the prophet Isaiah, dancing in an intoxicating swirl of robes. We believe that this is carved by the same sculptor who created the Jeremiah on the trumeau at the nearby abbey church of Moissac. What was intended originally as a portrait of a biblical prophet is simply a a miracle of movement and ecstasy captured in stone.
The second extraordinary work is the detached trumeau, once the center pillar from a set of double doors that led into the church but now set into the interior west wall of the church. Where the Theophilus tympanum is a religious narrative told for pedantic purposes, the trumeau is one of the most wildly imaginative and evocative works I have ever seen.
Cut from a single block of stone, some of the figures are so deeply incised that they seem independent of the rest of the carvings. What we see is a vision of writhing, twisting, ravening beasts and fantastic monsters, coupled with the story of the sacrifice of Abraham and Isaac. This image embodies the mystery of art and its ability to express our deepest fears and doubts. That this expression has been chiseled out of that great block of stone is proof of the greatness of the artist and the beliefs that motivated him.
Sainte Marie de Souillac is one of the reasons that we were moved to start this photographic record of the Romanesque churches that eventually became Via Lucis. Every visit reveals a nuance or detail that magnifies the whole. I remember the first time that PJ and I sat down to analyze the imagery of the trumeau and realized the rhythmic patterns of the sculpture. We began to understand the depths of the genius of these anonymous builders who could not only execute, but conceive, such extraordinary works.
It is one thing to sculpt for the glory of man, the glory of victory, or to memorialize the sacrifice of the lost. But a sculptural conception that explores the mysteries of the human soul and the darkest imaginings of our fears represents a completely different ethos. It is that world that we explore at Via Lucis.
In a month we will be back in Souillac to “visit with Isaiah” and see one of our favorite churches. There are seldom any people there and we are able to spend hours admiring Sainte Marie de Souillac in blissful contemplation.
Location: 44.893972° 1.477482°