Tradition has it that the first church in the Auvergnat town of Billom was a collégiale school founded by Charlemagne and was known as the “First Daughter of the Bishop of Clermont.” The first mention in church records was in the charter of the Abbey of Sauxillanges in 976. The Collégiale Saint-Cerneuf was built in the late 11th-early 12th century, expanded and covered with Gothic vaults in the 13th. The church is named for Saint Cerneuf, a follower of Saint Austremoine.
The care lavished on the church is indicative of the prestige of its relationship to the Bishopric of Clermont and for its reputation for learning. At the end of the 12th century, the Collégiale was transformed into the fourth university of France (after Paris, Toulouse, and Montpellier) and in 1556 became the first Jesuit college in France.
But there was a more important reason for the prosperity of Saint-Cerneuf. In the 11th century, at the end of the First Crusade, two canons from Saint-Cerneuf made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Durand Albanelli and Pierre Barbastra solicited the Patriarch of Palestine for relics and obtained several – a piece of the True Cross, and, most vitally, a vial of the Précieux sang de Jésus-Christ. The presence of this latter earned Billom the name Ville-Sainte, the “Holy Town” and made it an important pilgrimage site.
Sometime later after a period of violent regional conflicts, the Precious Blood of Christ disappeared from sight and was feared lost. Believing that perhaps the relic might have been hidden for protection, the brothers of the Chapter searched every inch of the church and prayed for inspiration. Finally, they received a vision to demolish the altar and there they found a casket filled with relics. Among them was a crystal vial with an inscription that read vase manet sanguis quo vincitur anguis (“In this vessel remains the blood that vanquished the snake”). This event took place in 1252 on Good Friday. The recovery of the relic rekindled a fervent pilgrimage to the site.
The Collégiale is what we expect of a pilgrimage church; it features a long nave with two side aisles, terminating in a rounded apse with an ambulatory. One remarkable aspect of the nave is the height of the arcades; the column clusters soar all the way to the springing of the vaulting. The Collégiale Saint-Cerneuf was built in two stages, the original Romanesque and a 13th century renovation that added the quadripartite vaulting and essentially took the church vertical.
The entire nave and side aisles were rebuilt, with the high columns to the vaulting. It was decided at the same time to vault the side aisles the same height as the nave – a very unusual feature, the church has a huge open feeling with large windows in the outer walls. This means that the church is very well-lit, far more so after the Gothic renovation than would have been the case in the Romanesque original.
The superb apse consists of three levels. The first is the hemicycle for the ambulatory with well-proportioned columns topped with historiated capitals. The second is a blind arcade consisting of five statues in arched niches with a twin-arched arcade between each pair. The third level has five pairs of high stained glass windows in the clerestory. The entire apse is covered with a ribbed oven vault.
The light coming from under the stairs to the altar originates in the large crypt below the church.
In the choir elevation, we see the transition from Romanesque to the Gothic. The hemicycle and arcades have rounded arches, familiar to us from Romanesque churches. But the clerestory windows and the vaults are Gothic. Indeed, the large windows were only possible because of the change in the vaulting.
The ambulatory shows the Romanesque character of the lower levels of the church completely. It feels dark and cool, sheltering instead of uplifting. This contrast between the open Gothic and the closed Romanesque is one of my favorite sensations at Saint-Cerneuf.
Like many Auvergnat churches, Saint-Cerneuf possesses a fine crypt. This crypt, like most of its regional brethren, is a complex and fully designed structure, as can be seen in this comparison with three other significant churches – the crypts of the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Clermont, Notre Dame-du-Port, and the Abbaye de Mozac.
Saint-Cerneuf’s crypt dates from the 11th century and is clearly an early part of the Romanesque church on the site. The grill in the center covers an ancient well that was uncovered in the excavations of 1903.
In this shot coming up the crypt stairs we can see the majesty of the nave columns soaring up to the high vaults. This construction was clearly a confident Gothic effort. The elegance and unity of the elements, the graceful ascent of the columns and the confident springing to both the nave and side aisle vaults, all show that this was the work of a master builder.
In one of the side chapels there is another masterwork, a remarkable 16th century mise en tombeau. This representation of the last stage of the Passion shows the entombment of Jesus’ body. In this version, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea are at the ends holding the shroud. In the center are the Virgin Mary, Mary, the mother of James, Mary Magdalene and three other women.
In the Collégiale Saint-Cerneuf de Billom we can see the importance of both learning and pilgrimage in the Middle Ages. The collegiate church was important enough to have enormous resources expended on its behalf, both as a university and as the home for the vial of the Précieux sang de Jésus-Christ.
But the story of the Holy Blood does not end well. The vial was destroyed on November 17, 1793 during the Revolution, a day that locals refer to as hidéuse memoir.
Location: 45.7224 3.3372