The Auvergne region of France has such enormous riches of Romanesque churches that we sometimes overlook the smaller gems. In the town of Glaine-Montaigut, about twenty miles due east of Clermont-Ferrand, we found the Église Saint-Jean. More important, perhaps, it was just five miles from Billom, with whose church the leading family of the town, the Aycelin de Montaigut, were strongly associated.
Saint Jean was constructed as a priory church in the late 11th and early 12th centuries and was built with yellow arkose, a form of sandstone that gives the church its warm tones.
The two bays of the nave and the side aisles appear to be the earliest part of the church. The massive cruciform pillars separate the nave from the side aisles and lead up to a clerestory level that supports the barrel vault covering the space. The color scheme of the painted decoration (modern based on original remnants) is yellow and red with blue-black and white accents on arches.
The side aisles have the same color scheme and are covered with demi-berceaux, half-barrel vaults. Despite the half-barrel vaults, there are large windows in each bay of the aisle.
The crossing has some interesting features; the each of the four arches are pierced with double-arched openings
The apse is a small, narrow space, but elegantly composed. Each of the three windows is framed with a pair of slender columns topped with a historiated capital. The oven vault features the remnants of a Christ in Majesty fresco.
The fresco – and the rest of the church – suffered a great deal of damage from a a catastrophic renovation in 1886 when a local parishioner funded the restoration himself. The choice was made to cover the walls and pillars with a thick layer of gray cement. This not only obscured the paintings that had survived, but introduced a great deal of humidity to the church, which damaged what had not already been destroyed.
In an attempt to give some artistic form to the brutal covering treatment of the Église Saint-Jean, the oven vault with the painting had been covered with a sky-blue cement layer. What has been recovered of the oven vault painting is the image of Christ enthroned, flanked by unidentified saints. It was recently pointed out to me by Claire Dane, one of our readers, that this is a representation of the Deësis; Christ flanked by the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, Saint Peter, and John the Evangelist.
The latest restoration in 1992 started with the task of removing the cement. This in itself was a huge and difficult task. When the process was completed, there was a layer of rubble three feet deep on the floor of the church. The work was, most fortunately for all of us, successful and one of the benefits was to discover the traces of colors were found throughout the church. These remnants were used to guide the more fitting task of restoring Saint-Jean to her Romanesque origins.
Even the capitals, which are located mostly in the choir and the crossing, show traces of the original polychrome on the sculpture.
Église Saint-Jean in Glaine-Montaigut bears witness to the difficulties inherent in restoration, or even historic preservation. Good intentions, as evidenced by the good burgher of the town, are not enough. Fortunately, this church survived those intentions and we are able to appreciate the medieval splendor of a small priory church.
Location: 45.755626° 3.389159°