So often we find glorious Romanesque churches in the smallest villages of France, often remnants of a remote abbey with a village that grew up around it. Sometimes we see modest parish churches that have survived a thousand years. And other times we find something a little more surprising, a small village that once had a more distinguished past, and a church that gives testimony to that past.
The town of Bois-Sainte-Marie in the Brionnais is one of those. Today there are only 199 residents, but there has been a settlement here at least since Roman times and in the Middle Ages Sancta Maria de Bosco was an important town, important enough as a royal property to be walled and fortified. Evidence of that can be seen from a contemporary satellite photo.
The Brionnais region in Burgundy is rich in Romanesque churches, and the 12th century Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité is among the finest. There is evidence that the church was begun around 1050 and finished in the 11th century, but there was also a major restoration in the 19th century, mostly because of destruction by the Armagnacs in 1420 and the Calvinists in 1567. By 1678 the church was in miserable condition and much of the vaulting had collapsed. Finally, in 1845 the Monuments Historique assigned the architect Eugène Millet, pupil of Viollet le Duc, to begin a six-year campaign of restoration. During this extensive restoration, the vaults and upper levels of the church were almost completely reconstructed.
Like most of the other churches in the region, the 12th century has four bays and is covered with a banded barrel vault rising from the clerestory level. The clerestory is pierced by fairly large windows which allow a great deal of natural light into the central passage. But Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité differs significantly from most of the other churches in the region. There are two transepts flanking the crossing, but they don’t project outwards, so the church does not have the conventional cruciform plan common to most medieval churches.
In the nave elevation, we can see the massive cruciform pillars with the engaged columns to carry the arcade arches and the fine capitals on all of the nave columns.
The side aisles are covered with groin vaults, intersect with the non-protruding transept, and terminate in the apse in a much lower ambulatory. This variation in the height is another significant point of differentiation from most of the other churches in the region.
The entire apse is raised up two steps from the nave, but there is a singular feature in the ambulatory – there are no radiating chapels. The passage continues around the choir uninterrupted, not even separated by a low retaining wall. The entire raised apse is one single level. The ambulatory is defined architecturally by the sets of triple columns for each arcade of the hemicycle.
By the way, the red image over the central window is a Coca-Cola sign on the outside. There was an orange Fanta sign on another window. We think that they were in place because the windows had been either broken or removed for restoration and these signs were strong and waterproof. It made for an interesting contrast with the church interior.
The ambulatory is covered with groin vaults, supported on the outside wall by engaged double columns, which is also a unique feature in Burgundian churches. We can also clearly see the triple columns of the hemicycle.
Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité has an extensive and important set of capitals featuring allegorical biblical themes, the conflicts between virtue and vice, good and evil. Many of these were rebuilt during the 19th century restoration, but the work was done so well that it is almost impossible to tell them from the originals that remain in place. In the crossing, there are pairs of capitals facing each other across the open space, including this one featuring the mask of a cow between human heads.
One of the most moving of the capitals shows two people weeping, holding their heads in their hands, representing despair.
Perhaps the most famous capital represents the punishment of the talkative, presumably by excising the tongue with tongs. I don’t know if this condemns lying, calumny, or verbal abuse, or if it is a more generalized censure of chattiness or language in general. While this punishment somehow seems fitting for the slanderers who fill our public lives, I would prefer these thoughts of Voltaire, … les anges m’ont tué par leur silence. Le silence est le just chatiment des bavard. Je meurs, je suis mort. “The angels have killed me with their silence. Silence is the just punishment for the talkative. I’m dying. I’m dead.”
There is much to admire at this lovely church, including the sculpture, but I am most fascinated by the unique architectural features, certainly the non-protruding transept, but most of all the ambulatory – the change in heights between the side aisles and ambulatory, the engaged columns supporting the groin vaults, and the lack of radiating chapels. As far as I can find, none of these features occur anywhere else in a region brimming with Romanesque churches.
Today, the town’s small population supports the church through the very active Association pour la restauration de l’église du Bois Sainte Marie. The chief occupation of the town is agricultural, raising of the famed Charolais cattle, but the glories of the Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité remind the residents of their former position as a royal demesne, protected by stout walls and gates.
Location: 46.329614° 4.355039°