Our Lady of the Lake (Dennis Aubrey)


blason-thorLegend says that Notre Dame du Lac in the small Vaucluse town of Le Thor was built at the request of the Emperor Charlemagne in the ninth century to commemorate a miracle that occurred in the town. I have found two versions of the miracle. In the first, it appears that there was a local boy and his bull, both very pious. The bull, when brought to a particular pond to drink, would drop to his knees before drinking. Astonished at the piety of the animal, the villagers dragged the pond and discovered a statue of the Virgin in the mud. In the second version, a bull, guided by a star, scratched the ground with his hooves and unearthed the statue. This appears to be the version commemorated in the town blazon, although the first would seem to be more in keeping with the name of the church, Notre Dame du Lac. In either case, the town is ostensibly named after the bull, Le Thor being a variation of taureau, French for bull.

There is, however, a less romantic origin of the name. Thor might be a derivative of Thouzon, a fortified Benedictine monastery on a nearby hill that was created as a safe haven for residents. But whatever the origins, we know that the current church was built in the late 12th century. There is a reference from Bermond, Bishop of Cavaillon who donated to the Abbe of Saint André de Villeneuve-les-Avignon in 1202 the ecclesium novum Sactæ Mariæ, the new church of Sainte Marie, in Le Thor.

Exterior, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

Exterior, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

The church dedicated to Notre Dame du Lac is distinguished as much by what is missing as by what exists – she lacks side aisles, side chapels and transepts. The church consists of a large nave with three bays covered with Gothic rib vaults, a square crossing under the octagonal cupola, and a small apse covered with a ribbed oven vault. The interior height of the church is notable, sixteen meters.

Nave, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The elevation shows that each bay is supported by massive piers with pilasters climbing up to carry the transverse arches. There is a clerestory window high up on the wall in each side of the bay. Notice that there are cornices for decoration and no capitals in the nave. In this elevation we can also see the arches that support the cupola and the scallop-shaped squinches supporting the dome.

Nave elevation, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

Nave elevation, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

One interesting feature of the church is the tribune over the first bay in the west. This was conceived of for the original church, but was constructed of wood. That original wooden structure was replaced by this stone tribune in the 1950’s.

Tribune, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

Tribune, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

The apse is simple but quite elegant. It features a seven-arched hemicycle with alternating windowed and blind arcades. The oven vault is ribbed, which we have not seen too often in Romanesque churches.

Apse, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

Apse, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

The spare interior does feature some wonderful sculptural touches. The finest are the capitals on the arcade pillars in the apse, most of which feature foliated subjects. There are also some wonderful decorations on the corbels supporting the apse cornice. The first is a wonderful smiling angel.

Angel cornice decoration, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Angel cornice decoration, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The second is this charming figure squatting and supporting the weight of the heavy stone load above him. These are seen often in the Romanesque churches, but this is one of the more amusing of them.

Cornice detail, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Cornice detail, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

One of the glories of the church is the superb south portal. There is a combination of the decorated columns with their fine capitals, the three carved archivolts, the double door of the entrance with a tympanum, and the 17th century fresco above the doorway arch. This fresco is in very poor condition and did not photograph well. The portal area itself is covered with a ribbed vault.

South portal, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

South portal, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

The portal features wonderful carvings, far more in keeping with the Romanesque style than the spare interior. We can see how the elements have caused deterioration of the wonderful sculpture, but that is typical of churches throughout Europe.

Exterior capital, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Exterior capital, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

These churches are the property of the French people, not the Catholic Church, and their representatives are charged with keeping this religious and architectural patrimony intact. In 1834, the writer Prosper Mérimée was appointed the first inspector-general of historical monuments, a fortuitous choice. A man of learning and sophistication, he had a deep appreciation for the beauty and historical significance of the monuments in this care.

In 1837, following the request of Mérimée, the departmental prefects were asked to list the monuments of their department that they consider for priority restoration. In 1840, this led the Historic Monuments Commission to establish a list of a thousand monuments “for which relief was sought”. The importance of Notre Dame du Lac is demonstrated because it was classified in this first list of 1840.

Location: 43.929897° 4.994711°

5 responses to “Our Lady of the Lake (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. If Le Thor is near a hill, might the name be cognate with the English word “tor,” a rocky peak or hill, as in Glastonbury Tor? I have no idea whether Old French has a cognate word with “tor” or not, but there’s a possibility.

    • Carrol, actually Le Thor is not on a hill but sits on the river Sorgue (in fact, there is a quai adjacent to the church). The nearby hill with fortifications is Thouzon which may be related to “tor”, but I don’t know. Thanks for following up this interesting train of thought. Now I have to try and find a French cognate of “Tor”.

    • Carrol, a brief check on the Wiktionary page shows the following:

      Noun – tor f (oblique plural tors, nominative singular tor, nominative plural tors) tower.

      We know that the modern French word for “tower” is tour.

  2. I love the little character straining to hold up the church; almost as though he feels he has the weight of the world on his shoulders.

  3. I’m interested in the first photo showing the exterior and the tower with a gallery around it. What was the tower used for?
    I liked the angel; good to see a sculpture smiling for once.

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