The medieval cartulary of the nearby Abbey of Viviers written in the 8th century refers to the existence of a church in Vinezac. The current church, at least the Romanesque portion, dates from the 12th century. Over the years the church has changed significantly, partly when it was integrated into the fortified walls protecting the village during the Hundred Years War and partly because of the liturgical demands of the organization of penitents that were housed by the church.
A significant characteristic of the Christian churches was the continuous demand for spiritual renewal, not merely of individuals, but for the church itself. These demands encompassed everything from the founding of new and more strict monastic orders to complete reformation of the church. One of the more interesting was the founding of the Penitent orders, associations of the laity gathered for a charitable purpose. These organizations began in the twelfth century by embodying the concept of “penitence” in the sense of “gift of self to the other,” which is totally different from the spirit of mortification and redemption of sins.
The Confrérie des Pénitents Noirs de la Miséricorde et de la Fidélité was created in 1329 during a virulent outbreak of cholera. These secular brothers dedicated themselves to helping the dying. Later they changed their mission to provide spiritual and material support to prisoners and accompany them at their executions. In recognition of these efforts, on September 8, 1596 Pope Clement VIII granted the Confrérie the right to commute the death sentence of one prisoner a year on the day of the liturgical feast of the beheading of John the Baptist.
The Pénitents Noirs were particularly active in this region; the Confrérie des Pénitents Noirs de Saint-Sébastien de Vinezac was founded in 1612 and was granted the church at Vinezac for its home.
The town of Vinezac set one of the best preserved medieval towns in France. The walled enclosure is almost intact with its three gates, and it looks like a town in the Middle Ages with its narrow ruelles and alleys winding through the old stone houses. The church granted to the Confrérie, Notre Dame de Vinezac, is a strange mélange church today, what PJ calls a “pudding church“.
There is a nave of three bays terminating in a semi-circular apse in the east, which was entirety of the Romanesque church. In later years, there were additions, of course, the most prominent being the addition of the long side aisle/chapels on either side of the nave by the Pénitents Noirs in the 19th century. In addition, a painted cupola was superimposed on the crossing.
The chancel crossing supports the painted dome, probably from the late 17th or early 18th century painted in an Italianate style. Both the style and the opulence of the decoration is surprising in a small rural church, but most likely stems from the importance of the Confrérie. The triangular pendentives at the base of the dome represent the four Evangelists – Saint Mark with a lion, Saint Luke and the bull, Saint John and an eagle, and Saint Matthew showing a book to an angel.
One of the most unusual features of the church is the visual impact of the barrel vault in the third bay of the nave. We can see a polychrome decoration formed by the alternating bands of gray sandstone and reddish limestone.
The sculptural decoration of the church is unusual as well – there are five corinthian-style capitals decorated with foliage and a couple of others featuring animal motifs filled with aggression and fantasy. One is an image that we have seen in Chauvigny and other places where two animals share the same head.
The second is a theme that reminds me of the great trumeau at Souillac where animals are depicted devouring each other. In this case, one animal eats another and is in turn eaten by a third.
On the south wall of the church there is a bas-relief depicting the story of Daniel in the lion’s den. The carving is primitive and has led some to ascribe it as a 9th or 10th century Carolingian remnant from the earlier church. Many scholars now believe that it was carved no earlier than the end of the eleventh century, however the Centre de recherche des monuments historiques classifies it as Epoque mérovingienne, which would date it much earlier, possibly as early as the 7th century. There is no indication anywhere of the original placement of the fragment.
The Église Notre Dame de Vinezac is a lovely reminder of the Pénitents movement of the church during the Middle Ages. Even the secular believers committed themselves to good works in order to provide for the poor and underprivileged. These organizations still exist – my father has been very active in the Knights of Columbus for decades and both my father and mother are still active in the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, whose mission is to “End poverty through systematic change”.
A church whose goal is spiritual, not material, must by necessity renew itself in order to thrive. These secular societies have been – and are today – part of that never-ending process.
Location: 44.539090° 4.325280°