Charm and Simplicity in a Country Church (Dennis Aubrey)


In preparing for our last trip, we were aware of a cluster of churches in the Ardèche region, just to the east of the west of the Rhone and south of Valence. It was also the place where we decided to meet Nathan Mizrachi. We rented a small two-bedroom house in a vineyard and used it as our base of operations to explore the region. We were taken with the beautiful scenery of the Ardèche and the fantastic fruit, especially cherries, that we found there.

Vineyard view from our Ardèche gite, Photo by Nathan Mizrachi

Vineyard view from our Ardèche gite, Photo by Nathan Mizrachi

The Romanesque churches that we visited were all fairly close to each other, but even so we were struck by the differences of the terrain in so small a region. We were in valleys, high flat plateaus, and even steep gorges like that found at Vallon-Pont-d’Arc. PJ and Nathan even went kayaking, but that is a story for another time.

PJ and Nathan at Vallon-Pont-d'Arc  (Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

PJ and Nathan at Vallon-Pont-d’Arc (Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

The churches we found were charming and attractive, none more so than the Église Saint Pierre de Larnas, situated in a meadow outside of the village of Larnas. The church was built by the Benedictine monks of Cruas, who were in charge of administering the entire plateau just to the west of the Rhône.

Exterior, Église Saint Pierre de Larnas (Ardèche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Exterior, Église Saint Pierre de Larnas (Ardèche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The region, known historically as the Vivarais, was a major center of Protestantism during the Reformation. During the following Wars of Religion (1562–1598), the Vivarais was considered a strategically important location between Protestant Geneva and Lyon and Catholic Languedoc to the south. The area suffered eight pitched battles between 1562 and 1595 and much damage was done both to the population and to the churches.

Saint Pierre shows the effects of those disputed years – the eastern portion of the church is original but only the lower section of the nave is Romanesque – the upper reaches of the walls are clearly later reconstructions. In addition, there appears to have been a third bay to the nave. The western façade that we see today is abrupt and we can see the supporting arch that would have separated the sections of the barrel vault. We can also see buttressing on the exterior that would indicate that there was another bay. As a result, the nave is very little longer than the transepts.

Western facade, Église Saint Pierre de Larnas (Ardèche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Western facade, Église Saint Pierre de Larnas (Ardèche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The form of the church is cruciform with three apses – the central choir and two echeloned chapels. There are no side aisles and two-bay nave space is covered with a banded barrel vault, which is clearly a later addition although it utilizes the pilasters to spring the banding arches. Much like the exterior, the church is sober and simple with almost no decoration

Nave, Église Saint Pierre de Larnas (Ardèche)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Église Saint Pierre de Larnas (Ardèche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The glory of Saint Pierre is the eastern end – the transepts, crossing, and apse are splendid examples of Romanesque. This was clearly not a pilgrimage church because there are no side aisles or ambulatory, but would have served perfectly as a parish church. As we might expect in a church like this, the apse is covered with an oven vault.

Apse, Église Saint Pierre, Larnas (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

Apse, Église Saint Pierre, Larnas (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

The exterior of the eastern end of the church shows the classic Romanesque chevet with the central apse and the two echeloned side chapels. In addition, we can see the lovely octagonal clocher over the chancel crossing. There is a little lantern on top of the tower, but that is a modern addition.

Chevet, Église Saint Pierre de Larnas (Ardèche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Chevet, Église Saint Pierre de Larnas (Ardèche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The cupola is a surprisingly elegant octagonal structure given the simplicity of the rest of the church. The dome is supported by pendentives. This is a finely worked structure with a window in the east and a smaller window high up in the clocher itself. The three-bayed blind arcades on each side between the pendentives is a wonderful touch.

Crossing dome, Église Saint Pierre de Larnas (Ardèche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Crossing dome, Église Saint Pierre de Larnas (Ardèche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In the view of the chancel crossing from the nave, we can see the blind arcades in the dome between the pendentives and the Romanesque window in the chancel arch. We can also see the chapel in the south transept. This photograph also shows the rather careless and inaccurate work in the upper walls of the nave, work that in no way harmonizes with the lower sections.

Crossing from nave, Église Saint Pierre de Larnas (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

Crossing from nave, Église Saint Pierre de Larnas (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

There are several fascinating fragments associated with the church. On the north wall of the nave, just before the transept, is the incised signature “Stephanus”. Robert Saint-Jean, a history professor at the University of Montpellier and the excavator of Sainte Marie de Cruas stated, “You have at Larnas something rare: the entire signature of the architect Stefanus.” He also signed the nearby church of Bourg-Saint-Andeol.

In addition, there are fragments of the earlier church, in this case a fine entrelac, a Carolingian interlacing knot.

Carolingian entrelac, Église Saint Pierre de Larnas (Ardèche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Carolingian entrelac, Église Saint Pierre de Larnas (Ardèche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

And finally, we have a lovely shot of the transepts and nave from the north chapel. It is graced by three photographers, Nathan and PJ on the left and Dennis on the right taking his shot of the cupola. At least one of us was working!

Three photographers at work, Église Saint Pierre de Larnas (Ardèche)  Accidental photo by PJ McKey

Three photographers at work, Église Saint Pierre de Larnas (Ardèche) Accidental photo by PJ McKey

Location: 44.449371° 4.599966°

7 responses to “Charm and Simplicity in a Country Church (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Charm and simplicity are evident in Saint Pierre as it dominates the countryside. Yet it is also imposing and intricately designed in its detailing and construction. Beautiful lines establish purpose and characterize the era during which the church was built.

  2. Dennis: Your photograph of the vineyard took me back to Sept 2002 and our visit to the south of France. We had rented a Gite on the outskirts of the village of St. Cesaire whose back deck looked out on a wonderful vineyard during harvest. We could reach out and touch the vines.
    I felt to sorry for the little church in your post and the agony that must have been felt during those fruitless wars.

  3. Dennis: I’m always interested in knowing what smells were present in these ancient churches. Is it candle wax? Is it a dry, earthy aroma, or is it a moist, wine smell that you would find in a cellar? Excellent piece! Vann Helms

    • Vann, so often it is a moldy smell in the church, but it was not the case in this particular one. I seem to remember a hay-like smell in it. In a church that is in constant use we find the scents of incense and candles. In the more deserted churches, often it is a cellar-like scent like you described, and in others it is just musty. Very interesting train of thought that you bring up here.

  4. Pingback: Weekly Photo Challenge: Endurance | Say It With A Camera

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