One of our main objectives for the 2015 trip to France was to photograph the Romanesque churches of the Limousin, a region through which we pass almost every year but have never photographed despite its well-known riches. We planned to do so two years ago but it didn’t work out. Last year it was scheduled but my illness prevented us from shooting there. So finally we decided to make it the centerpiece of our work in France this last June. We spent six days there, staying in a farmhouse in a hameau called Vedrenne, seven miles north of Limoges. We identified eleven “must photograph” churches for those six days, but top of the list was the 12th century Collégiale Saint-Pierre-ès-Liens in Le Dorat, built on the site of one of the oldest Christian monuments in France, gifted by Clovis I in 507. After the Battle of Vouillé near Poitiers where he defeated the Visigoths under Alaric II, Clovis, the first Christian king of France and founder of the Merovingian dynasty, stopped at the town of Scotoriac to give thanks. An oratory was founded in remembrance of his victory.
I had studied the church in photographs and in descriptions, but nothing prepared us for what we found when we stepped inside. Saint-Pierre-ès-Liens is one of the most imposing churches we have seen in France, 77 meters long, almost 40 meters across the transepts. The fact that it was fortified in the 14th century lends to its massive appearance, but the interior itself is gigantic. When we first walked into the church, PJ remarked that it was easy to understand how the massively constructed church had survived the centuries of turmoil in the region.
The shot from the raised narthex (a feature shared with the nearby Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul in Solignac) shows the extreme length of the church. Made of grey granite and laid out as a latin cross, the church is classic Romanesque – a vaulted nave with two side aisles, large transepts and crossing, and a raised apse with an ambulatory and three radiating chapels. The barrel vault in the nave is slightly ogive with bands springing from engaged columns on the arcade piers. These columns are topped with decorative capitals. In the foreground we can see the large Carolingian baptismal font, although “font” is probably the wrong word. This is a large pink granite tank that was used for baptism by immersion.
The narthex at street level opens on the nave below. In this case, the narthex is quite high – twelve steps in a monumental staircase from the western portal down to the nave.
The length of the church is emphasized in the narrow side aisles, seen here from above in the narthex. These aisles are covered with groin vaults and lit by windows in each bay. These side aisle windows provide the only light in the long nave since there are no clerestory openings.
The crossing supports a dome below Le Dorat’s signature octagonal staged lantern tower. The dome is supported by pendentives that spring from the cluster of pillars at each corner of the crossing.
The apse is covered with an oven vault and features a fine ambulatory with a hemicycle of three large arches and two smaller ones separating the altar from the radiating chapels. The altar is currently in the center of the crossing and not in the apse as would have been the case originally. The large 19th century organ can be seen on the south side.
In the ambulatory we see the radiating chapels that project from the apse. We can also see the fine capitals that decorate the hemicycle columns. The curved groin vaulting that tops the ambulatory was apparently one of the most difficult feats of engineering in Romanesque times and was the result of intuition and approximation rather than following a formal pattern of construction. The example we see here at Le Dorat is one of the most elegant, eschewing the clumsy vault intersections that flaw so many others of this style.
PJ’s photo from the center of the ambulatory looking west to the transept and nave gives a wonderful sense of scale and precision that are hallmarks of this fine church. It also gives a good view of the windows in the drum of the crossing dome that flood that section of the church with natural light. This natural light is a feature that we as photographers treasure – there is little that we detest more that gigantic modern lighting fixtures that dominate the visuals in other churches, as our next post of Saint-Leonard-de-Noblat will amply demonstrate. In Le Dorat, there are almost no modern fixtures at all – only the small unobtrusive speakers on the pillars.
There is some fine sculpture in the church as well. The capitals are carved in a mix of white limestone, granite and green serpentine (a volcanic stone from the region). One of the granite capitals features beasts and snakes devouring a man who is suspended upside down.
This capital with the leafed mask shows how the sculptors were successful in working the hard granite stone. There are no fine details but instead there is a bold repeating design.
In this shot of the ambulatory looking back at the north side aisle, we can see the steps that lead down from the raised choir to the side aisles and nave. Notice the superb stonework in the walls and windows, further indications of the great care taken in building the church.
The Collégiale Saint-Pierre-ès-Liens was all that we had hoped for and more. It would have been nice if we could have photographed the exterior with some success,but there was a flat grey sky with some drizzling rain and we had no luck. We were also not able to gain entrance to the interesting 11th century crypt with its own ambulatory giving access to a central altar. This just means that we have another reason to return to Le Dorat and photograph this magnificent structure once again.
Location: 46.214124° 1.082369°