Solignac – Ashes in the Wind (Dennis Aubrey)


L’abbaye est livrée aux flammes, les tombeaux profanés, et les cendres des grands, qui étaient venus y dormir leur dernier sommeil en compagnie des moines, sont jetées au vent.

“The abbey is given to the flames, the desecrated tombs, and the ashes of the old, who came to sleep their last sleep in the company of monks, are thrown to the wind.”

Notice Historique et Descriptive sur L’Abbaye de Solignac, L’Abbé Texier, 1860

The Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul in Solignac is lucky to have survived a turbulent history. It was part of an abbey originally founded in 632 by Saint Eloi who petitioned the Merovingian King Dagobert I for the town of Solemniacum as the site of a monastery. By the eighth century, Saint Ouen wrote that the abbey was so prosperous that it supported a community of 150 monks who subscribed to the rule of Columbanus. In 820, Abbe Aigulf imposed the rule of Saint Benedict.

But the monastery was not to have a peaceful existence; it was destroyed and rebuilt ten times. The monastery was sacked multiple times during the 8th century Arab incursions. After a series of repairs the church was sacked and burned by the Normans around 860 and perhaps again at the end of the 9th century. In 922, King Charles the Simple favored Solignac with a gift of sixteen daughter churches, a gift that ushered in a period of prosperity for the Benedictine community. The abbey was reconstructed in the 12th century and the current church was completed in the beginning of the 13th century.

View of Abbaye de Solignac, drawing by Jules de Verneilh (c. 1860)

View of Abbaye de Solignac, drawing by Jules de Verneilh (c. 1860)

But the abbey and the church were still not safe. The Hundred Years War resulted in damage to the church and in 1388 the choir was set ablaze by the English. In 1568 a Huguenot army pillaged and looted the abbey yet again. The site was used as a porcelain factory after the French Revolution for more than a century, from 1817 to 1932, and it was not until the 1950’s that the church was restored and became home to a monastic community again. The survival of the church that we see today is very likely due to its granite construction. Laid out as a Latin cross, Saint Pierre et Saint Paul de Solignac is covered with a series of domes instead of vaulting. The raised narthex at the street level in the west is distinctly out of plumb with the rest of the church.

Plan, Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne)

Plan, Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne)

The photograph from the narthex shows the great scale of the church and we can see the domes covering each of the two enormous bays of the nave. These domes are carried by pendentives on massive piers engaged directly to the side walls. The pendentive arches are slightly ogive. These domes place this Limousin church in the same framework as the famous domed churches further south in Perigueux, Cahors, Angoulême, and Souillac. As in these churches, Solignac possesses no side aisles, but the tradition is given token remembrance by the engaged arcades down either side of the nave. Notice that all of the arcade arches are round and not ogive.

Nave, Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Like the nave and north transept, the crossing is also covered with a dome while the apse is covered with an oven vault. Like the collégiale in Saint Paulien, the church at Solignac does not have an ambulatory but features three large radiating chapels. I would imagine that this lack of side aisles and an ambulatory meant that Solignac did not have an important presence in the pilgrimage route that passed directly through Limoges. It may be that the close presence of the great Basilique Saint Martial de Limoges was the focus on all the pilgrimage activity in the area. Saint Martial was one of the five major pilgrimage basilicas in France but was completely demolished in 1791.

Crossing and apse, Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Crossing and apse, Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

During the restorations of 1951, a large 15th century painting of Saint Christopher was uncovered on the south-west pillar of the transept crossing. It reminds me of the 14th century monumental 36-foot tall painting of Saint Christopher at another Abbatiale Saint Pierre-et-Saint Paul, this time in Wissembourg in the Alsace.

Transept pillar with painting of Saint Christopher, Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

Transept pillar with painting of Saint Christopher, Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

PJ’s shot of the transept crossing leading back to the nave shows the scale of the piers and pendentives that carry the domes. These massive works are the skeleton of the church and allow relatively thin walls for the nave. This resulted in the pairs of large windows in each arch of the nave and one in each arch of the transept. The result is a well-lighted interior space.

Transept crossing, Abbatiale Saint Pierre Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

Transept crossing, Abbatiale Saint Pierre Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

This shot of the south transept shows that the motif of the blind arcades continues from the nave along all of the exterior walls.

South transept through chancel crossing, Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

South transept through chancel crossing, Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

The entrance to the nave is from an elevated narthex which raises the church to the level of the street outside the west entrance.

Narthex entrance, Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

Narthex entrance, Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

There are a number of capitals in the church on the pillars of the blind arcades. Some appear more primitive than others but that is likely because they were carved in granite like the church itself, and granite is very hard to work. This example shows a highly stylized variation of the “green man” theme.

Capital, Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital, Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Other capitals are carved from softer stones and are more complex and sophisticated. This particular example features two men assailed by dragons and snakes, able to defend themselves only with their hands. I am not at all sure what this means, but they are having a difficult time of it.

Capital, Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital, Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

It is fitting to mention the 15th century wooden choir stalls with their evocative sculpted details and misericords. A misericord is a small wooden shelf under the folding seat of the choir stall which gave a degree of support and comfort during the long hours of prayer. Their apt name derives from misericordia, or “act of mercy”.

Choir stall details,  Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

Choir stall details, Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

The Abbey church of Saints Peter and Paul in Solignac is one of the marvels that we discovered in exploring the Romanesque churches of the Limousin. We identified fourteen “must-see” churches in the region and not one disappointed us. In Solignac we were able to see and photograph one of the most impressive of these, undisturbed and unhurried by crowds of visitors. We had the church and its echoes to ourselves.

Location: 45.75472° 1.27528°

9 responses to “Solignac – Ashes in the Wind (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Because of the design I feel the massiveness of this church, more that any to date that you have featured. Beautiful .

    • Yuri, the Saint Christopher painting was actually part of a wall treatment, I think, and the restorers left it when they took the rest of the church back to the stone. We are doing a series of posts one the wonderful churches of the Limousin – Le Dorat is up next.

  2. Magnificent photos, Dennis !. Special mention for P.J. ‘s angle-shots : I re-discover Solignac throughthese photos ( from Albert, Aix , with my greetings)

    • Albert, so nice to hear from you. I love PJ’s angle shots – working on a post today about nearby Saint-Leonard de Noblat and she has more of them, in a church very difficult to photograph because of the intrusive lighting fixtures. Best to you both.

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