The abbey church Saint-Pierre of Airvault in the Deux-Sèvres department of France was first founded as a collegiale in the tenth century by Aldéarde, the wife of viscount Herbert I of nearby Thouars. The church that we see today was built in the second half of the 11th century when Pierre I de Sainte-Fontaine came to the site as abbot in order to reform the abbey and started construction on this church. Saint-Pierre of Airvault was a popular stop on the Via Turonensis pilgrimage route on the way to Santiago de Compostela.
We have come to expect profusely sculpted west facades in southwestern France and Saint Pierre is no exception. This photograph of the three west portals features an elaborately carved archivolt over the central door (with an empty mandorla), exquisite corbels below the cornice, and the remnants of a horsed figure. Usually that figure represents either Constantine and the triumph of the Christian church or Saint Martin giving his cloak to a begger. Because there is no trace of the beggar on the ground, it would seem that (like Saint Hilaire de Melle, Saint-Pierre in the town of Parthenay-le-Vieux and so many others) that this is Constantine.
We can also see the entry to the sunken narthex that leads to the church itself.
The detailing of the carved archivolt shows the crowned elders of the Apocalypse, but is a modern addition to a deteriorated original. The carving is modeled from the remnants that survive from the lower portions of archivolt. Notice the superb border that uses crowns to tie together the woven sections.
The narthex of the church is quite unusual. In 2002 the square was excavated to the original height when the church was built, so we can see that the narthex was intended to be both open to the outside and at a lower level that the parvis. Most likely the pilgrims would have gathered in the square, made their way to the narthex, and eventually entered the church itself (and there are three additional steps leading down into the nave from the narthex entrance). In PJ’s photo, we can also see remnants of a fresco above the entrance.
The frieze behind the font is of particular interest. It almost certainly features Christ in a mandorla surrounded by the symbols of the four evangelists and flanked by four saints. The carving is early Romanesque and it would have been wonderful if the frieze had survived the defacing that it endured.
The interior of the church is what we would expect from a pilgrimage church. Saint Pierre is built as a Latin cross with a long nave, side aisles, transepts with an echeloned chapel on the east wall, a large choir with a hemicycle and ambulatory with three radiating chapels.
The nave has seven high bays topped with complicated ribbed vaults. The high nave arcades are supported by large columns topped with capitals. Notice how the vaults have a pattern of tertiary lierne ribs connecting with the springing ribs. The vaulting was most likely constructed about 150 years after the original church, sometime in the early 13th century. Since this region was part of the territory of the Angevins, the vaults were done in their characteristic style.
The elevation shows the two levels in the nave, the arcades with their rounded arches and a clerestory level under the vaulting. There is a simple cornice separating the two levels. We can also see the windows of the side aisles. Together with the clerestory windows, Saint Pierre receives a great deal of interior light today, but we don’t know if the clerestory level was added when the vaults were redone, so the original church may not have been so bright.
The side aisles are wonderful and show the true character of the original church. They are quite tall and narrow and covered with a banded barrel vault. Each bay is separated by a lovely rounded Romanesque arch supported on one side by the arcade columns and on the other by engaged columns.
The choir features a beautiful hemicycle, high and narrow with seven bays. Each powerful column has a capital. The hemicycle facilitates the ambulatory to accommodate the movement of pilgrims around the church while leaving monastic offices uninterrupted. The choir is covered with an Angevin vault that leaves room for the large bright clerestory windows.
The ambulatory is covered by a complex form of a groin vault (it is difficult to create a true groin vault that covers a curving volume). The walking area is quite wide and could accommodate a large number of pilgrims visiting the relics in the three radiating chapels.
There is a superb set of capitals throughout the interior of the church. Some of them have foliage, legendary animals, and masks, but there are a good number of historiated sculptures as well. This next image is from Daniel 6, showing Daniel in the Lion’s Den with the two lions turning away from him. Also, notice the fine entrelac border on top of the capital. Altogether there are four capitals at Saint Pierre that relate to the Daniel story.
The next capital shows an example of some of the mythical beasts that decorate the church. There is a great contrast between the great toothed creatures in the corners and the more realistic border of lions above.
The third example of historiated sculpture shows a line of horsemen that cover all four faces of the capital. My reference works describe this as a line of knights, but there is no indication of weaponry or armor on any of the figures. Given the wonderful detail shown in the manes and harnesses, it is unlikely that this is an oversight. Again, notice the fine foliage border above the horsemen.
PJ and I have a photographic record of most of the capitals and other sculpture of Saint Pierre d’Airvault, and we should dedicate an entire post to its riches.
There is an interesting sidelight to the town of Airvault. The family of François-Marie Arouet owned property nearby and it might have influenced this writer’s choice of a pen name. It is said that he made an anagram of “Airvault” and called himself “Voltaire.”
Location: 46.826801 -0.137974