Chauvigny is a small market town in the Vienne. It is a business center for the region and its weekly outdoor marché fills the square in the center of town. I’ve visited the town four times and Dennis lived here as a boy and loves it like his home. What makes the town unique are its two Romanesque churches. On the hill dominating the town is the Collégiale Saint Pierre, a star in the Romanesque world. This church is one of the reasons that we have come here so often, famous for its capitals and interior. People come to photograph it and to enjoy the view of the surrounding town and countryside from its stately position on the highest point of the city in the charming medieval old town. It is beautiful, stunning.
But we recently discovered the second church in Chauvigny, hidden in plain sight at one end of the town square. Notre Dame de Chauvigny is the parish church, a place where the locals come to light candles, visit for prayers, attend mass on Sunday and have their life events. It is as much a part of the daily life of the people as the square filled with busy cafes across from the Hotel de Ville, shops, beauty parlors, and a driving school. The church is modest and time-worn, a place few tourists would visit.
The two churches are similar in structure; they are in the form of a Latin cross with a nave and side aisles, transepts, and an apse. In Notre Dame de Chauvigny we see the simple apse with the altar.
In Saint Pierre de Chauvigny we see the justly famous ambulatory and the capitals of Gofridus which are marvelous for their inventiveness and whimsy.
But their similarity masks enormous differences in the two churches. In the following shots, I tried to match at Saint Pierre the shots that I took at Notre Dame, just to see what the differences might be.
Each of the following pairs shows the modesty of Notre Dame compared to its more famous sibling, but we see also that Saint Pierre has fewer mementos of worship. The Collégiale is not a living church, but a museum.
I have always loved Chauvigny because of Dennis’ connection, the work of Gofridus; it has the beauty of architecture and the sculptural decoration is unique. Every time we go there is wonderful and we love to photograph it. But as a church it does not move me.
Notre Dame lacks the elegance and perfection of Saint Pierre, but there is another beauty at work here; time’s chapters are visible. We feel the history of the town and the people who have worshiped here for nine-hundred years. It is a tangible sensation.
While we were in France, Dennis wrote a light-hearted take on the capitals of the two churches and we have each written articles on Saint Pierre in the past. Dennis wrote about growing up in Chauvigny while I wrote about Gofridus, who created the inimitable capitals of Saint Pierre.
But I am always moved by the parish churches that are alive in the world of the parishioners; there is no attempt to doll the church up, they don’t need to keep up appearances. It is what it is and it is loved for what it represents, its age and its history. I am always moved by the candles and ex votos. People came in while we were there photographing and said a prayer and lit candles. This church belongs to the inhabitants of Chauvigny, not to tourists or scholars. That moves me. There is a certain humility to those places that has continued for almost a 1000 years.
Chauvigny is lucky to have two such churches. In a town with a population of only 7,000, this is an embarrassment of riches (and in fact there is a Carolingian church at Saint-Pierre-les-Eglises just a mile south of town on the Vienne River). They are fortunate to have them and that they are both in good condition.
So next time we visit Chauvigny, we will have lunch in the square, and Dennis will tell me about the barbershop with blue doors and shutters in the center of town where he learned to love the Asterix and Obelix comic books and I will act like I’ve never heard the story before. And then we will visit both churches, loving them equally for their different beauties, like parents who dote on their children.