The Hidden Cloister of Saint Aubin (Dennis Aubrey)


When Aubin, the bishop of Angers, died in 550 his body was entombed in a small funerary chapel on summit of the hill in the town where he served. A basilica was built on the site sometime prior to 576 and in 616, the basilica became part of a monastery. In the 9th century, this monastery became a college of canons, whose most famous member was Theodosius of Orleans, builder of the Église de la Très-Sainte-Trinité in Germigny-des-Prés, one of the oldest surviving churches in France. In 966 the collégiale was reinstated as an abbey when the Benedictines took up residence. The abbey came to an unfortunate end 845 years later as it was destroyed to make room for the place Michel-Debré in 1811, an early urban renewal project. The abbey was replaced by the préfecture.

In 1836, however, there was a remarkable stroke of luck. A mason who was making some repairs uncovered a beautiful sculpted Romanesque column decorated with a historiated capital barely covered in plaster. As the walls were probed, the workers discovered an entire gallery of the abbey cloister, the wall facing the chapter house.

Cloister, Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Cloister, Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

The precise position of the original cloister can be deduced from the fragment that exists. The gallery runs approximately north to south and looks to the east, which would have been the garth, the central enclosure of the cloister. This would have made it the western gallery of the original cloister. This is somewhat unusual because the center of the gallery features an extraordinary triple archivolt entrance to the garth (now the reception area). PJ and I cannot recall seeing anything like this ornate opening onto a cloister’s central enclosure in any other place. We were able to confirm these suppositions with the discovery of a map of the abbey dating from the 17th century.

In this selection from that map (oriented so that north is to the right), the cloister gallery is highlighted in green and the refectory (to be featured later) is in yellow.

Location of cloister and refectory in original abbey

Location of cloister and refectory in original abbey

This single gallery of the cloister has been incorporated into the offices of the Conseil Général of the Maine-et-Loire. To walk through a door from a modern (1975) reception hall to find this exquisitely-sculpted cloister is an extraordinary sensation.

Cloister in situ, Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Cloister in situ, Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

The gallery is composed of squat sets of columns, some bare and others carved ornately, and all topped with capitals. We can see in the surviving arcade arches that they were also elaborately illustrated with sculptures. The surviving portion of the tympanum pictured below features a panel of various scenes of the story of David and Goliath. It is believed that this story holds particular meaning for the region because of a heroic action on the part of the Count of Anjou Geoffroy I, that earned him the nickname Grisegonelle, “grey tunic”. In 978, Otto II, Emperor of the Germans, besieged Paris to revenge at attack on Aix-la-Chapelle (present day Aachen) by the French king Lothaire. Every day during the seige, a Dane of immense size and strength by the name of Haustuin, stood at the gate and challenged a French warrior to single combat, which inevitably proved fatal for his opponent.

Geoffroy heard of the danger and came with several of his knights to join in the defense of the city. For the last part of his journey he hired a humble miller from Germain-des-Prés to convey him by boat across to the right bank of the Seine.

Columns, Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Columns, Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Geoffroy answered Haustuin’s challenge and killed the Dane in single combat. When the French saw this stranger in French armor triumph, they descended from the walls to acclaim the victor, but Geoffroy got back in the boat and crossed the Seine again. The miller, when questioned, stated that he did not know the hero’s name but would never forget his face. Lothaire resolved to know the identity and assembled all of his vassals at his palace. He asked the miller to point out the man he ferried into battle. The miller looked at the faces of all the assembled knights and then pointed to one saying “That is he, in the grey tunic, who slayed the Giant.”

Cloister columns, Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire)  Photo by PJ McKey

Cloister columns, Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

I tell that story at length because it demonstrates how medieval iconography was more than just the Bible and its stories, or classical legends and their heroes. A sculpture on a capital might be beautifully wrought and filled with imaginative details like the figures shown on this next capital. Those figures may be mysterious and perplexing to us today, but we can only imagine that they had as much meaning as the David and Goliath tympanum to the Angevin mind in the 12th century.

Capital, Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital, Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The entire cloister ensemble is astonishing, filled with carved capitals and columns of the highest quality, but the masterpiece is something that we have not found anywhere else in our travels – a tympanum that combines sculpture with a fresco. The sculpted and painted elements actually interact in the iconographic narrative.

Tympanum, Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Tympanum, Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

The story being told is the Slaughter of the Innocents and the Magi kings. In the top right we can see the star that has led the Magi to the manger. To the left, we see the Magi meeting with King Herod on this throne, being counseled by shifty advisers.

Tympanum detail, Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Tympanum detail, Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

On the left of the next tympanum detail, we can see a painted representation of Herod’s soldiers slaughtering the innocents. Above we can see the familiar sculpted sedes sapientiae Madonna, the vierge romane with the enthroned with Christ on her knee, flanked by a pair of angels. Further examination shows that the Madonna is seated on her throne above the (painted) Heavenly City of Jerusalem.

Tympanum detail, Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Tympanum detail, Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But a closer look shows another telling detail – in the painted section to the right, we see a kneeling king offering a gift to the Virgin Mary and Child. It is clear that this prototype “multimedia” work was designed to work together. In addition, we can see from the remnants of the polychrome on the sculpture that the colors are complementary to the fresco.

Tympanum detail, Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Tympanum detail, Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We can only imagine what the entirety of the original cloister would have looked like, but certainly it would be classed among the finest in medieval Europe. It was this single gallery that we had come to Angers to see, and we were not disappointed. But there was a surprise in store. Our next article will describe the second remaining fragment of the Abbaye de Saint Aubin d’Angers that remains, also embedded in the offices of the Conseil Général.

Location: 47.468333° -0.553056°

This article is part of a series on the Romanesque wealth of the city of Angers. Located on the Loire River, this city was the seat of Angevin power during the Middle Ages. That power and prestige are visible in many of the monuments that remain here. We document three of them – the cloister and porte du réfectoire of the Abbaye Saint Aubin, the Cathédrale Saint Maurice d’Angers, and the Palais du Tau. There is nobody who better understands this power and prestige today than our guide from the office of the Conseil Général of the Maine-et-Loire, an intelligent and passionate advocate for the medieval arts of Angers and its surrounding areas. This man took a great deal of time to introduce us to the wealth of sumptuous Romanesque art in the region.

18 responses to “The Hidden Cloister of Saint Aubin (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. This is just remarkable! I’m impressed by the ornate detail of the stone carving, not to mention the painted tympanum integrated into it. I’m intrigued by the angels on either side of the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus. Having never studied the origin of the “angel” in Christian art, I wonder if this is one of the earliest representations of “beings” with feathered wings carved in stone? Also, were early angels represented as women? Sorry for my ignorance. Excellent photographs, Dennis and P.J. I found myself spending more time on each one than usual. Thank you again for your dedication to this history.

    • Vann, thanks for the high praise, and this cloister is just as remarkable in person as in our photographs. The whole purpose was to see the painted and the sculpted elements working together in the narrative. I don’t even remember where I had learned of this, but we made a special trip to Angers to see it and were fortunate to have as our guide the man responsible for the patrimony in Angers. As far as the angels, we are aware of these carvings throughout the medieval period, much earlier than the Angers work. Winged human forms have been found as early as the 15th century BCE in Mesopotamia and I’ve seen them in Egyptian, Greek, and Roman works. The Byzantines adopted the imagery in the 5th and 6th century – western Christian iconography probably adopted it from Byzantine sources. They would have been part of the common parlance of the age in France.

    • Thanks, Ann. We were so lucky first to get in and photograph uninterrupted – normally there are short tours once a week or so, but we were able to spend three hours working by ourselves. But wait till you see the next post, the refectory door. We are among the few who have been fortunate to see this, and especially to photograph.

  2. I am intrigued by your wonderful find. I think we often tend to forget how much early sculpture was painted. In this case the integration of the color between sculpture and painting gives a wonderful impression of the talent of the artist (or artists.) And how nice for you to have a tour guide. I have to admit I had never given much thought to the knowledge necessary to be a tour guide until I became one myself. Thank you both.

    • Kalli, as I am sure that you have figured out, we love research. The whole Geoffroy / Haustuin story came from a single four word reference in an old French text. That started the search on the thread which led to the wonderful legend of Geoffroy Grisegonelle. Glad you enjoyed this. And of course, the interaction between the painted and sculpted elements in the tympanum was our entire reason for going to Angers in the first place. We were so lucky to meet the gentleman who was in charge of the patrimony for the Conseil Général. The next two posts will continue the discoveries that he introduced us to.

    • Carol, we feel the same way. All the years we have been to France and still have missed so much. Now we are looking at Italy – and then there’s Spain, England, Germany … at least we know what we will be doing the rest of our lives.

  3. Every time I see your photographs I realize what a terrible job I did in photographing churches during my time in Europe.
    You are appreciated.

  4. That sculpted and frescoed tympanum is incredible. That it survived almost unbelievable. I will return to this post just to study it. Thank you, Dennis and P.J. I’m delighted you had that kind of access and they you have shared this with us.

    • Aquila, we were lucky to have the access, that is to be sure. The gentleman in charge of the Patrimony for the Conseil Général was extraordinarily generous with his time and introductions. The next post features the porte du réfectoire with an even more unique find. I think you’ll enjoy this as well.

    • WOB, a wonderful city, isn’t it. We only had two days and never made it out of Saint Aubin or the Palais du Tau, so we have to go back. There is a wealth of material there! Glad we could help you relive your visit. Hope you and HOB are well. BTW, Nathan comes to visit us in Cape Cod in three weeks!

  5. Spectacular is a word that comes to mind with respect to the photographs. I’ve not been to France or Europe and each passing year the chance of doing so diminishes. I deeply regret this but some of the sting is alleviated by your work and its public display. I encourage you to continue on as much as your time and resources will allow; the product is profoundly appreciated.

    • Thank you so much, Andrew. This project is a passion for both of us, and PJ and I are lucky to have gained access to some wonderful places and people. Glad to have you as part of the Via Lucis world.

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