One of the churches that we visited with Nathan Mizrachi in our sojourn in the Ardeche was the Abbaye Sainte Marie de Cruas. The current version of Sainte Marie was built in the 11th century on the site of an important Carolingian church, of which very little remains except the remarkable crypt. The abbey church was consecrated in 1095 by Urban II who was quite busy in the region during that time, consecrating the Cathédrale Saint Apollinaire in Valence at the same time and other churches. He was in the region because he had convoked the Council of Clermont where the topic was the request by the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos for military assistance against the Seljuq Turks. This council eventually on November 27, 1095 with the call for the First Crusade.
Sainte Marie de Cruas is one of the most interesting churches in the region and this can be seen the moment that you enter the church. First, the nave was built on two levels. There were originally four bays but at some time during the 12th century, the monks added a fifth. Because of the configuration of the land on which they built (visible in the elevation drawing), they were forced to construct the new bay a level above the original church.
In addition, they added one of the rarest Romanesque architectural devices, a raised tribune for the monks. When one enters the church, it is necessary to descend to get to the nave and then climb up to the tribune.
The original nave is a lovely construction. The arcades are supported by large piers with engaged columns to support the round arches. The columns inside the nave proper soar upwards to spring the bands that separate the barrel vault.
It is the tribune itself that is the greatest feature of the abbey. The platform was designed to separate the monastic community from the throng of pilgrims who came to venerate the relics of Saint Torquat and Saint Josserand that are found in the Carolingian crypt beyond the back wall of the church.
I went to my standard French resource for saints (Les Petits Bollandistes vie des saints) to find details of Torquat and Josserand, and found little useful information. Saint Torquat, bishop of Saint-Paul-Trois Chateaux died in 324. There is no information on Josserand except that he was identified as a monk of Cruas. I don’t know how accurate this information could be, given that the abbey was founded by the Benedictines in 804. I have read, however, that there were monks on the site by the end of the first century.
Their bodies were burnt by the Calvinists during the religious wars and there was a legend that grass refused to grow on the ground where the bodies of the two saints were burned, But all reports on that legend and the details of their lives were lost when the books and manuscripts of the abbey were burned during the Revolution.
Despite our lack of knowledge now, the medieval pilgrimage to the relics of these two saints was thriving and the monastic services were continuously interrupted. By the end of the third quarter of the 12th century, the monks decided that having services interrupted by pilgrims passing through the nave on the way to the crypt to venerate the relics was no longer feasible, so they built this platform to hold their services while leaving the main nave below to the civilians.
The tribune was placed between the first two bays of the nave and supported by fifteen slender columns that carry a fine ribbed vault. Each of the columns features a fine capital. We see how the side columns alternate from being engaged to the nave columns and freestanding. The back part of the apse at line of the chancel arch appears to have been filled in on the lower level to present a flat back to the lower level while retaining the semicircular shape in the choir above. Notice also the lombard bands delineating the springing of the oven vault of the apse.
The elegant ribbed vault supporting the tribune contrasts greatly with the earlier groin vault that is visible in the crypt.
The crypt at Cruas is a superb ninth century construct that held the relics of our saints Torquat and Josserand. The columns remind me of those of the church at Saint Martin-du-Canigou – thin narrow columns topped with carved capitals supporting a heavy groin vault.
The capitals are carved with great energy and dynamism and feature flowers, plants, and a wonderful bestiary – a rooster, donkey, wolf, and birds. There is even a famous praying man seen here in front of the crypt altar.
There is much more to the church that we were not able to photograph because we ran out of time. The exterior is truly spectacular (and merits a separate post) and there is a fine mosaic. As a side note, because the floor of the nave was lower than the entrance of the church, the church suffered inundation many times when the nearby river Leyne flooded its banks. Over the years it became more and more difficult for the few remaining monks to clear out the debris so that by the eighteenth century they had filled the interior to the level of the tribune and the entire original floor had disappeared.
This act of burying the church did much to preserve the perfection of the crypt and the tribune. Sainte Marie de Cruas has the distinction of never having been renovated (with the exception of the Saint Michael’s chapel in the western tower which was rebuilt in 1987). All that was necessary was excavation and cleaning. What we see here in this small town in the Ardèche is the original church as built by the Benedictine monks over nine centuries ago.
Location: 44.656828° 4.763134°