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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.