The church of Saint Jouin de Marnes is known as the Vézelay Poitevin, a tribute to its importance and beauty. It was named after a 4th century hermit named Jovinus from Mouterre-Silly near Loudun. Desiring a retired, contemplative life, he settled on a site of a Roman camp near the road from Poitiers to Angers, ten miles southwest of Mouterre-Silly. The site was called Ension and was in the swamps of the river Dives which flows two miles to the east. In 342 he founded an oratory church which attracted a modest religious community. By the time he died in 370, Jovinus had achieved a great reputation for sanctity and miracles. Over the years, his small community grew in importance, but eventually there was another decline.
In 843, however, the monks of Saint-Martin-de-Vertou in Brittany were forced to abandon their monastery by depredations of the Vikings. With the help of Louis the Pious, they arrived in Ension, carrying the relics of their founding saint. They brought the abbey back to life and adopted the Rule of Saint Benedict. In 878, a Carolingian church was dedicated to Saint John the Evangelist. By the 10th century when the town was renamed Saint Jouin in tribute to the founder, the abbey was one of the most powerful in the Poitou and possessed 127 daughter churches.
The ambitious Romanesque church that we see today was built under the direction of the monk Raoul between 1095-1130.
The history of the church is a familiar one – it survived the Hundred Years War because the abbey was fortified, but that did not help during the Wars of Religion. In October 1569, a troop of Huguenot cavalry on the way to the Battle of Moncontour (less than two miles distant) completely pillaged the abbey. The treasury of the church and the body of Saint Jouin both disappeared. The theft was so thorough that there was nothing left for Coligny to pillage as he retreated from his defeat at Moncontour by the Duke of Anjou.
Saint Jouin was better treated by the French Revolution than many of her sisters. The abbey was sold off as private property, but the church was kept intact and reinstated as a house of worship in 1795.
The church was in need of work and in 1889, Joseph Henri Deverin was selected by the Monuments Historique to restore the façade. Among his tasks was to dig out the western front which was partially buried, restore the sculpture and to remove the execrable porch which had been erected over the central portal.
The surviving church of Saint Jouin is enormous. The nave has ten bays and is 137 feet long. In the thirteenth century the nave received an Angevin Gothic vault which rises to a height of almost 50 feet. The vault springs directly from the nave arcades which are themselves 28 feet high. Because there are no clerestory windows, the light into the nave comes only from the large windows of the western façade and the smaller apse windows although some light does come in from the side aisles.
The side aisles are very attractive – tall, narrow and covered with banded barrel vaults. The short, two-level columns on the right are an interesting feature.
In the 17th century, there was a famous school of painting centered on the abbey. It is believed that this painting in the north side aisle is a product of that period.
The vast apse is typical of a Romanesque pilgrimage church, featuring a tall hemicycle to the ambulatory, a blind arcade, and a clerestory level. Notice the Angevin rib vaulting here.
The exterior of the church is remarkable. The beautifully proportioned western façade is pure Romanesque and features three portals. The original portions of the façade apparently were profusely ornamented but sometime in the 12th century new sculptural program was begun that featured more of an accent with human figures.
At the top, centered in the pediment, is the depiction of the Last Judgment. We see the figure of Christ in front of the cross flanked by two angels. Directly below him is the Virgin flanked by rows of pilgrims. These 30 figures of people from all backgrounds are wearing clothes from the 12th century, which gives us an indication of the date of the sculpture. The rest of the figures on the façade vary from saints to peasants and the labors of the months.
Two interesting figures, however, adorn the top of the double capitals below the pediment. On the left is Constantine on his horse and on the right hand side of the arch is Sampson and the lion.
The central portal has five sculpted archivolts. Each archivolt springs from a narrow column topped with a capital. On either side of this portal is a larger engaged column with a finely sculpted capital.
The capital on the northernmost column is a remarkable rendition of animals, including what appears to be a lion spewing foliage. The banded decoration above the figures is quite graceful, but I suspect that it was added by Deverin during his restoration.
This is one of the churches that we photographed before acquiring the Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM that we use for shooting distant capitals and carvings. We hope to return this year during our visit in the area to photograph Saint Jouin-de-Marnes again and get more of the sculptural detail.
The Église Abbatiale Saint-Jouin-de-Marnes reminds us once again of the riches of the Poitou region of France. This was one of the centers of Romanesque church-building and I don’t think that there is any region that features as many spectacular churches as this. I am reminded of the nearby churches of Saint Hilaire in Melle, Saint Pierre in Aulnay, Église Saint-Nicolas in Civray, Parthenay-le-Vieux, and of course Notre Dame la Grande and Sainte Radegonde in Poitiers. We never tire of photographing these churches and never feel that we can completely capture their majesty.
Location: 46.88167 -0.05239