From Mithra to a Missionary (Dennis Aubrey)


The Ardèche town of Bourg-Saint-Andéol has a well documented history going back for two millenia. The town itself was a Gaulish settlement called Bergoiata and was a place of great religious significance. In the late second century the Romans built a temple on the site of two sacred springs and dedicated it to Mithra, the Zoroastrian divinity. The Mithraic cult was restricted to men only and even today there is a remnant of that temple, a large relief carved into a stone escarpment just to the west of town.

Drawing of Mithras relief, Bourg Saint-Andéol (Ardèche)

Drawing of Mithras relief, Bourg Saint-Andéol (Ardèche)

About the same time as the image of Mithra was carved into the rock, a missionary was sent to bring Christianity to the Gauls and Romans of the region. Andeolus was sent by Saint Polycarpe, the Bishop of Smyrna, around 177 to the Roman province of Helvia, the region now known as the Vivarais. He settled in the town of Bergoiata and preached there until caught up in the Roman persecutions of Christians. In the year 208, Septimius Severus came to the region to visit the Mithraeum. The emperor heard that Andeolus was preaching to large crowds and had him arrested. The missionary was compelled to renounce his faith, but refused to submit to threats or blandishments, was tortured and then executed by a sword thrust that split his skull.

His body was thrown into the Rhône river but was collected and buried in Bergoiata. In the book Album du Vivarais, ou itinéraire historique et descriptif de cette ancienne by Albert Du Boys the story becomes further developed. He claims that the body of Andeolus, thrown into the Rhone, was later found and buried by a rich Roman woman, Amycia Eucheria Tullia.

In 858, when the Saracens were ravaging the Vivarais, the Bishop of Viviers reburied the body in a Gallo-Roman sarcophagus, placed in the church in Bergoiata. That church, the nearby Saint Polycarpe, became a place of pilgrimage. In the 15th century, the town took the name of its patron and became Bourg-Saint-Andéol.

North transept, Église Saint Andéol, Bourg-Saint-Andéol (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

North transept, Église Saint Andéol, Bourg-Saint-Andéol (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

The church named after this saint, the Église Saint Andéol was built in the late 11th and early 12th centuries by Léodegaire, Bishop of Viviers, and is one of the most important in this part of the Rhone Valley. It was constructed on the site of the Carolingian church built-in the 9th century but nothing remains of that structure. About the time of the completion of the church, the sarcophagus with the relics of Andeolus were brought to the Église Saint Andéol. The church that we see today is a superb example of the Romanesque, despite extensive renovations between 1862 and 1868, renovations that mostly followed the original construction.

The nave has four bays and is covered with a banded barrel vault. The extremely wide transverse arches of the bands are carried by thin pilasters attached to the powerful piers. There is a clerestory window on each side of the nave in every bay.

Nave, Église Saint Andéol, Bourg-Saint-Andéol (Ardèche)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Église Saint Andéol, Bourg-Saint-Andéol (Ardèche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The apse is a beautiful semicircular structure with a blind arcade topped by large clerestory windows and covered with an oven vault. In the transverse chancel arch there is a large oculus to light the crossing. There is an echeloned side chapel on either side.

Apse, Église Saint Andéol, Bourg-Saint-Andéol (Ardèche)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse, Église Saint Andéol, Bourg-Saint-Andéol (Ardèche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The current altar is in the crossing but we can see the side chapel in the distance under the arch on the north side of the choir. That chapel is also covered with an oven vault. We can see the oculus in the transverse arch here as well as the main choir.

Apse, Église Saint Andéol, Bourg-Saint-Andéol (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

Apse, Église Saint Andéol, Bourg-Saint-Andéol (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

The chancel crossing is covered with an audacious dome, seven meters across and almost 24 meters high at its apogee. It is carried by scallop-shell squinches and features a blind triple arcade in each face.

Crossing, Église Saint Andéol, Bourg-Saint-Andéol (Ardèche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Crossing, Église Saint Andéol, Bourg-Saint-Andéol (Ardèche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The piers separating the side aisles from the nave are massive cruciform structures. We can sense the great height of the church and the boldness of its construction.

Nave piers, Église Saint Andéol, Bourg-Saint-Andéol (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

Nave piers, Église Saint Andéol, Bourg-Saint-Andéol (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

The clean lines of the church are emphasized by the lack of sculptural decoration. The towering arches lead us down the line of the nave to the magnificent crossing and the small but elegant apse beyond.

West end of side aisle, Église Saint Andéol, Bourg-Saint-Andéol (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

West end of side aisle, Église Saint Andéol, Bourg-Saint-Andéol (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

The area of Bourg-Saint-Andéol has been a sacred site for millennia. The two springs at the Mithraeum are famous in themselves as “Vauclusian” in reference to the Fontaine de Vaucluse, source of the Sorgue, near Avignon, which in ancient times was a place of ritual offerings. These springs are known as the Goul de La Tannerie or Petit Goul and the Goul du Pont, or Grand Goul. Since 1953, divers have explored these springs to the depth of 209 meters and have discovered a wealth of caverns and passages without finding an end to them. They remain as mysterious today as they did two thousand years ago. Since the famous Chauvet caves are just 15 miles away and contain Aurignacian era paintings from 32,000 years ago, we can assume that the Église Saint Andéol is just the tip of a spiritual iceberg that goes back to the time when humans first inhabited this plateau above the powerful Rhône.

Location: 44.371109° 4.646811°

7 responses to “From Mithra to a Missionary (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Typical that there are such strong pagan influences in a place like this. I think out of everywhere I saw with you and PJ, Saint-Andeol was one of my favorite for its scale and as you note, the purity of its form.

    Also, we had a great lunch that day!

  2. When invaders steal the center of worship of local populations, they go beyond physical conquest, they try to control more than hearts and mind, they go after the only part of human consciousness that they can not invade…

  3. As wonderful as the Romanesque sculpture can be, there is something more moving about the simplicity and clean lines of this church that sculpture would not enhance. I’ll look forward to your pictures of the Mithra relief.

  4. Very interesting. Regarding the Mithras imagery, have you noticed the similarity with Romanesque depictions of Samson and occasionally David, prising apart the jaws of a lion? It’s fascinating how Romanesque imagery of the twelfth century appropriated imagery from such a wide variety of sources.

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