There appears to have been a church at Châteaumeillant since the early Middle Ages, but the Romanesque church was built as a Benedictine priory in the 11th and 12th centuries. A fire damaged the church in 1152 in the course of struggles between Henry II Plantagenêt of England and Louis VII. The south transept and portions of the nave were reconstructed at this time. This may have resulted in some of the apparent hodgepodge appearance of the interior.
The nave vault was destroyed in 1569, after a fire that was lit by the Huguenot leader Wolfrang, Duke of Deux-Ponts (Zweibrücken) as he ravaged his way across France. Wolfrang paid for his destructions, however. He fell victim to a “quartan ague” a short distance from Limoges. My research finds that the “quartan ague” is “a fever which reoccurred every fourth day; one of the indeterminate febrile ailments of the period, sweating sickness, probably influenza, which could be fatal.”
But the church that we see today is a good representation of the intentions of the original builders. It has a cruciform layout, a bay with five naves and side aisles, with six flanking apsidal chapels in the choir and transepts.
The nave has five bays and is topped with a banded barrel vault. The slightly ogive arcade arches are formed by large piers with engaged columns, split by narrow slender columns that sit atop pedestal bases. All of the columns are topped with capitals. The side aisles also are covered with a banded barrel vault.
The vaulting springs directly from the arcades without the intervention of a tribune, triforium or clerestory level, so the only lighting comes from the side aisles and apse windows.
The apse is lit by three windows and is covered with an oven vault. The six echeloned chapels flanking the apse in the transepts eliminate the need for an ambulatory, so there is no hemicycle structure in Saint-Genès. This is very unusual for a church that sits directly on the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route.
The photograph of the choir and apse is quite interesting for the feel of the space – the dappled blue light, which is the sunlight coming into the space, gives a certain ethereal sensation.
Because of the echeloned chapels, the transept is given increased importance. The visual effect of all the chapels is to create a forest of columns with light coming in from all directions.
The sculpture of Saint-Genès is quite remarkable. The interior capitals are made of pink sandstone and present a fairly unified ensemble featuring leaves and palms, animals, masks, and human figures.
The wonderful capital in the next shot portrays Daniel in the Lions’ Den. At first, because of the bearded and curly-haired figure, we thought it might be Samson fighting the lions, but it became clear that it was Daniel. This is, in my mind, the finest sculpture of the ensemble.
The next shots show a single compelling capital from three different angles. At each corner is a semi-human figure and between any two of them in the face of the capital are birds and animals. The first of these views features a squatting man who appears to be pulling out his own tongue! There is a bird on either side of this enigmatic figure.
The next view shows the corner figure on the right of the previous shot. A tormented figure supports the vault while a sharp-toothed creature devours his head (PJ refers to these as “head-snackers”). The hands of the creature seem to be pressing down on the shoulders of the man. To his left, a bird eats a fish.
The last view shows a man with a ball in his mouth squatting to hold up the weight of the vaulting above him. His job is made more difficult by a ravening beast chewing on his hand. It is possible that this animal is a lion and the mane flows to the left.
I have tried to determine the meaning of the capital but haven’t succeeded. Because each corner figure appears to be squatting to support the weight of the vault that springs from the capital, there seemed to be a theme of humankind beset by the burdens of life suffering various torments and punishments, while the beasts and birds of the earth who have not been cursed with sin do not undergo these trials. It might also depict sinners suffering eternal punishment in hell. But I don’t really understand the iconography and have not been able to find an explanation in my researches. If anyone can help on this, I would love to hear from you.
There is an interesting history behind the saint whose name graces the church. The original Saint Genesius was martyred, probably in the year 258, during the eighth persecution under Emperor Valerian. According to tradition, he refused to write a condemnation of Saint Marcel and Saint Anastasius, who were Roman citizens sent by Saint Stephen to preach in Gaul. Genesius was martyred on this site by a judge named Heraclius.
But for years, this Genesius was confused with Saint Genesius of Rome, who was an actor. This Genesius performed in a series of plays that mocked Christianity but he had a conversion experience and was baptised on stage. He refused to renounce his new faith and was executed by Diocletian in 303. It wasn’t until the 18th century that this confusion was rectified. Saint Genesius of Rome, by the way, is the patron saint of both actors and politicians. Interesting.
Location: 46.562081 2.202346