The Abbaye de Saint-Gilles was founded in the 7th century by its patron, Saint Giles. Giles was a hermit from Arles who settled in the forests near Nîmes. Legend has it that the King was hunting in the forest and his hunters fired an arrow at a deer but hit the anchorite instead. The King was greatly taken with Giles’ sanctity and built him his monastery on the site of what is now Saint-Gilles-du-Gard. Giles placed it under Benedictine rule and eventually became the patron saint of cripples. His original church was dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, but took the name of its founder in the 9th century.
The abbey church of Saint-Gilles was also the site of one of the most remarkable penances exacted by the Church during a time when even the most rich and powerful had to submit to the authority of the Pope. Gregory VII had forced a Holy Roman Emperor to bow before him at Canossa. After three days of waiting bare-headed in the snow, Henry IV was admitted into the presence of the Pontiff and forgiven.After some of his knights murdered Thomas à Becket in his cathedral at Canterbury, Henry II of England, whose drunken ramblings encouraged the assassination, was forced to seek absolution. His penance was described by Robert Burton: “… when King Henry came out of France, he went to Canterbury; and as soon as he was in sight of the Cathedral, he put of his Shooes and Stockins, and went bare-foot to Beckets Tomb; the waies being so sharp and stormy, that his feet bled as he passed along; and when he came there every Monk in the Cloister whipt the King’s back with a Rod;was whipped in Canterbury Cathedral.”
A similar penalty was meted out to Raymond VI Count of Toulouse when he tangled with the Pope in the early years of the 13th century. Raymond was infamous for his style of life; he married six times, and was friendly with the religious dissidents in his native lands. He survived the divorces and remarriages, but his support of the Cathars got him into serious trouble, eventually providing the pretext for the horrifying Albigensian crusades.
Pope Innocent III sent a Cistercian monk, Raymond of Castelnau, as an emissary to address Raymond’s tolerance of Catharism. These negotiations took place in Raymond IV’s home town, Saint-Gilles, but did not go well and culminated in Raymond threatening his papal guest in front of witnesses. On January 15, 1208, the Papal envoy was assassinated on the steps of the abbey church by one of Raymond VI’s attendants.
The identity of the murderer was never discovered, but the Church made Raymond VI responsible. In 1209 a Crusade was amassed to march south on the Languedoc and, although Raymond protested his innocence, he had to voluntarily subject himself to a penance in the square at Saint-Gilles in order to have his excommunication revoked.
On 29 June, he presented himself at the abbey church. He was led to his punishment with a rope around his neck, stripped naked and whipped, and then dragged down the aisle of the nave.
The church that we see today is the one where Raymond VI was whipped, but it is merely a fragment of the magnificent structure built in the 12th century. In 1562 during the Wars of Religion the church was virtually destroyed – only the crypt and the west façade survived. The church was rebuilt in the 17th century with a severely truncated choir and apse. Saint-Gilles is currently 50 meters long, just over half of the original 98 meters. We know this because the ruins of the original apse are still in place behind the rebuilt structure.
Seen today, the church is quite powerful, but feels out of scale; the long and impressive nave terminates in a small abrupt apse with no ambulatory, radiating chapels, or hemicycle, all of which existed in the original.
One of the best features of the nave is the wonderful quadripartite vaulting that leaves ample room for the large clerestory windows.
The enormous crypt dates from early in the 11th century, measuring 50 by 25 meters, and occupies the entire subterranean section of the nave. The crypt also contains some of the oldest ogive vaults in France. At its center is the tomb of Saint Giles, fervently venerated throughout the medieval era and up until the 16th century. During the religious wars, the relics of Saint Giles were moved to the Basilique Saint Sernin in Toulouse for protection.
In the course of the 19th century restoration, the original tomb of Saint Giles was rediscovered and the greater part of the relics that had been sent to Saint Sernin were returned. The pilgrimage to the abbey church was resumed and continues today.
The real glory of the abbey church is the opulent west façade which features some of the finest sculpture in southern Romanesque. The work was done in several phases; the central portal was the first, executed by the sculptors of the Toulouse school. Artists from the Île-de-France did the two side portals, and local artists finished the project.
I first saw this façade in Pittsburgh while in College. At the Carnegie Museum, there is an enormous cast of the portal in the Hall of Architecture, measuring 38 feet high and 87 feet wide. The cast was paid for by Andrew Carnegie, who got permission to make the casts after donating 2000 gold francs to the town of Gard, which was suffering from the effects of a poor grape harvest.
But the original façade is simply astonishing. The three recessed portals are each surmounted by a carved tympanum. The left portal depicts the Adoration of the Magi while the right one shows something unique in Romanesque exterior sculpture – the Crucifixion. The central portal (which is a 19th century replica of the badly damaged original) presents the more familiar Christ in Majesty surrounded by the signs of the four Evangelists. Surrounding the portals are sculptural decorations featuring scenes from the Old and New Testaments and a bestiary. The ensemble is magnificent, even though there is a great deal of damage done to the individual figures in the west facade, the result of carefully aimed musket fire by the Huguenots.
It is both the wealth and exquisite detail of the carvings that make it one of the hallmarks of medieval sculpture. Like its neighbor, the Cathédrale Saint Trophime in Arles, Saint-Gilles is an unforgettable reminder of the artistic splendor of the Romanesque renaissance.
Many great figures have been humbled like Raymond of Toulouse, but others have been more clever in avoiding punishment. In 1595 Henry of Navarre was ordered to submit to flagellation in order to secure absolution from the Pope Clement VIII. Rather than submitting his own body to the punishment, he created a system called “vicarious punishment.” He hired two associates to accept his lashes. The two retainers, named Du Perron and D’Ossat, were subsequently promoted to cardinals. In England, Mungo Murray stood in for Charles I of England and was rewarded with the titles Baron Huntingtower and Earl of Dysart. The young Irishman Barnaby Fitzpatrick was appointed Edward VI’s ‘proxy for correction’ in 1551. This particular practice has been formalized among the wealthy in China with the practice of dǐngzuì, hiring a body-double to receive punishment.
There is a rather terrifying sidelight to the concept of flogging. The whip was probably the first man-made object to break the sound barrier, traveling at over 760 mph. The crack of a whip is actually a small sonic boom. Strikes could be so severe that pieces of flesh were torn right off, and losing an eye was common. It is no wonder that the lash is the symbol of dominance and oppression throughout history.
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