The Three Virgins of Corneilla-de-Conflent (Dennis Aubrey)


Today’s post is inspired by conversations we’ve been having with Trish who is going to the Pyrénées in a few weeks, conversations that made us realize that we had not done this area nearly enough justice. So we will discuss the small village of Corneilla-de-Conflent nestled at the foot of the iconic Mount Canigou in the Pyrénées-Orientales, not five miles as the crow flies from the Abbey Saint Michel-de-Cuxa. The village has only 425 inhabitants, so it is hard to realize that in the Middle Ages, this was the summer capital of the counts of Cerdanya. The pride of the town is the spectacular Église Sainte Marie, first mentioned in 1018 as a priory church entrusted to the Order of Saint Augustine.

This is one of the best-preserved of the early Romanesque churches in France and has a simple cruciform plan with a nave, two side aisles, two transepts each with two echeloned chapels and a simple rounded apse.

Plan,  Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales)

Plan, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales)

The 11th century nave has four bays covered with a barrel vault supported by massive piers. This vault is the earliest form of the barrel vault with no bands at the arcade piers for strengthening. It is a straight passage from the western facade to the apse, passing even through the transepts. With this unabated weight of stone from the vault, it is no wonder that the walls and piers are so solid.

Nave, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent,  Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We can see quite clearly in the nave elevation that the vault rises directly from the arcades, separated only by a cornice. In the distance we can see the echeloned chapel in the north transept.

Nave elevation, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent,  Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave elevation, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The side aisles are covered with half-barrel vaults and are pierced by small windows in each bay. This is the most significant source of light in the dim and somber interior. At the end of each side aisle is a chapel in the east wall of the transept. In this shot, we cannot see the second chapel on the south side which is just to the right of one we see here.

Side aisle, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

The 12th century apse is covered with a short barrel vault that terminates in an oven vault. There are three narrow windows lighting the altar.

Apse, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent,  Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

One highlight of the apse is the stunning red porphyry altar with marble columns topped by small capitals featuring carved lions, eagles, and griffins.

Porphyry altar, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Porphyry altar, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The church is named for the Virgin Mary and her image is found throughout the church. She is featured in the west tympanum and there is an inscription reading HEREDES VITAE : DOMINAM : LAUDARE : VENITE : PER QUAM VITAM DATUR : MUNDUS PER EAM REPARATUR, which translates approximately as “The heritage of the Lord, we praise the Lady from whom life is given and by whom the world is restored.” But the real sign of devotion to the Virgin is the presence of three vierges romanes on the altar. The Sedes Sapientiae(“Throne of Wisdom”) is an icon of the Mother of God in majesty and was found throughout Romanesque Europe. Most of these are small (30 inch/76 centimeters) polychrome wooden statues from the 12th and 13th centuries.

The most famous one in this particular church is the 12th century Notre Dame de Corneilla, known in Catalan as la Mare de Déu de Cornellà. Prior to restoration and retouching, Notre Dame de Corneilla was known as a vierge noire, a black madonna.

Notre Dame de Corneilla, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Notre Dame de Corneilla, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

The second of these vierges is Notre Dame de la Crêche (la Mare de Déu del Pessebre), a 14th century statue that came from the abbey of Saint Michel de Cuxa.

Notre Dame de la Crêche, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Notre Dame de la Crêche, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

The third of these marvelous Virgins in Majesty was a 13th century Catalan donation from Barcelona. This vierge has unfortunately lost her right arm.

Vierge Romane, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Vierge Romane, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

To find even a single vierge in a church is a remarkable find, but to find three is extraordinary. Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent is often closed but we were fortunate enough to find her open, empty, and available for us to photograph for hours unimpeded.

South side aisle, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

South side aisle, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

While we were able to shoot for some hours at Corneilla-de-Conflent, we did not do justice to the magnificent exterior with its clocher, its beautiful chevet with its Lombard bands, or the sculpture, including the tympanum. The exterior capitals are exquisite and well-preserved because they are made with the local marble instead of regular stone. We had hoped to return last year, but will have to wait for another trip in the future to continue photographing this magnificent Romanesque church.

Location: 42.566928° 2.381777°

7 responses to “The Three Virgins of Corneilla-de-Conflent (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. I’m very grateful for the highlighting! I read all this with great interest. The 3 vierges became more and more interesting as I looked at the differences. The faces are so individual that they must have been modelled off real women. The second one is my favourite, Notre Dame de la Crèche. If there was an imitation available, I’d buy it even though I’m not Catholic. Seeing a small adult Jesus sitting on Mary’s knee is amusing, but I know it wouldn’t have been when the statues were new. Thanks for everything you teach us.

    • Trish, you really should read the linked article about the vierge, which discusses the unique features of these statues. Jesus is always a small adult, Mary is not a young mother but fully adult … also, the article recounts the story that Joseph Raaymakers, a sculptor-priest in the Pyrénées who believed completely that they were carved from life.

  2. The final Mary – the 13th century Catalan donation from Barcelona – is my favorite. The eyes so wide, so open, so lovely and big (the prominent feature of mother and son) are the eyes of Wisdom itself. Seeing with the eyes of God. The Christ in Christian tradition is the manifestation of the Divine Wisdom (Sophia – feminine) through which the cosmos was created and is sustained. This madonna captures the relation between eternal Wisdom and Wisdom’s manifestation in human form. Do you know more about the origins of this piece or who that artist might have been?

    It also occurred to me that there are THREE Marys in this church, and that the Gospels’ crucifixion and resurrection narratives focus on the three Marys – the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalen, and another Mary (perhaps Mary of Bethany, or another Mary). The fact that there are 3 Mary figures led me down the path of wondering whether, in some way, the various madonnas were suggesting that the other two Marys were/are also the mothers of God.

  3. Pingback: Prieuré de Marcevol, Pyrénées-Orientales | Sounds like wish

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