He has liberated those sitting in darkness and shadow of death and chained in beggary and irons,
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them out of their distresses,
He brought them out of the path of iniquity,
For he hath broken the gates of brass, and cut the bars of iron in sunder,
He hath liberated those in bindings and many nobles in iron manacles.
Song of Saint Leonard, quoted by Aymeri Picaud, translated by Richard Hogarth
Aymeri Picaud’s famous Codex Calixtinus was a guide for pilgrims setting out on the Way of Saint James, filled with advice and background information on the great medieval pilgrimage path. The opening quote refers to the famous Saint Léonard of the town of Noblat in the Limousin, who was famed as the patron of the imprisoned. The story is told that Léonard was a 5th century devout who lived in the town of Nobiliac and that he wished to emulate the sanctity of Saint Remi, who was granted the right to release all prisoners when the king came to Reims. Clovis granted the request, that he would release every captive that Léonard visited. Soon, the miracles started accumulating; any prisoner, invoking his name, was freed from his chains and went free with nobody daring to oppose the release. The prisoner was required to go to Nobiliac and present the chains to his patron and many of them remained with him as fellow devouts.
By the time Picaud’s Codex was written in the 12th century, Léonard’s fame was almost universal. Picaud wrote,
“Now, divine mercy has spread the fame of St Léonard the Confessor of Limousin throughout the length and breath of the world; of how his powerful goodness led countless thousands of captives from prison. Their savage iron chains, more than one can describe, join together in their thousands, around and around his cathedral, to the right and the left, inside and outside, hanging testimony to all his miracles.
Often Christians were passed in chains into the hands of the pagans, like Bohemond, and were enslaved by those who hated them, and their enemies demanded payment, and humiliated them, but this man often liberated them. And he led them from the darkness and the shadow of death, and shattered their chains. He said to those in fetters, ‘Go forth to be revealed to those in darkness’.”
The shrine of such a famous saint deserved a great church and the college of canons responded with the magnificent structure we see today. Primarily constructed in the late 11th century, the Collégiale was laid out in the form of a Latin cross. It features four massive barrel-vaulted bays in the nave with thick exterior walls. There are partial side aisles in the easternmost bays leading to the transept, created to funnel pilgrims coming from the western entrance into the large ambulatory.
In the nave elevation we can see the formidable transept piers in the foreground, the side aisle receding to the west, and the tall arcade arches leading directly to the vault. There is no clerestory level in this early church – the only interior lighting comes from the side aisle windows. One of the most interesting features is the uneven width of the nave spans.
The transept piers are unusually wide and narrow but very elegantly formed. We can see here how well they carry the springing for the cupola dome in the crossing. I think that one of the reasons for the width of the transepts is that they also carry the arches that support domes over the transepts as well as the crossing dome.
The dome under the giant clocher over the crossing is supported by pendentives carried by these large piers. This dome is contemporary with the First Crusade and contains eight windows in the drum to illuminate the interior space below.
The choir and apse are later additions to the church, probably mid-12th century. The apse is covered with an oven vault and contains three windows for illumination. There was a partial collapse of the choir in the 16th century that necessitated some brutal buttressing of the exterior. This collapse also resulted in some of the hemicycle columns being subsumed by ungainly piers.
The apse features a large ambulatory with seven radiating chapels. It was most certainly constructed because of the demands of the popular pilgrimage. In this shot we can also see the square pier that replaced a hemicycle column in the 16th century reconstruction of the choir.
In the exterior view of the chevet, we see clearly the arrangements of the radiating chapels and can appreciate the magnificent staged clocher built by the community of canons responsible for the shrine. This tower is seven stories with the stone spire rising to a height of 52 meters. We can also see the unsightly choir buttressing that was added in the 16th century.
In the 13th century, the western portal was constructed and this was where many ex votos were displayed, the chains and irons from prisoners who had been liberated through the intercession of Saint Léonard. Again we have the testimony of Picaud; “It is beyond saying, how you would marvel if you could see the wooden racks weighed down with so many and such great barbarous irons. For hanging there are metal handcuffs, neck yokes, chains, shackles, fetters, crowbars, yokes, helmets, sickles, and so on, from which the most powerful Confessor of Christ has liberated his captives through his powerful goodness.”
The fame of the shrine of Saint Léonard the Confessor is demonstrated by the open narthex on the north side of the church. The narthex served as a place of shelter for large numbers of pilgrims waiting to enter the church and venerate the relics. As can be seen in the groundplan, the narthex abutted an interesting circular chapel.
The narthex opens directly onto both the church and the rotunda chapel, seen in the distance in this shot. The large engaged columns that support the groin vault are topped with rough granite capitals including some interesting tableaux of contending animals and warriors.
The rotunda building now known now as the baptistery has been used for this purpose since the major restorations performed in the the 1880’s. But this was originally known as the Chapel of the Sepulchre and features a central altar surrounded by an ambulatory with four chapels. I have read that this chapel was built in honor of the many Crusaders who invoked the aid of Saint Léonard during their captivity. The most famous of these was Bohemond I of Antioch. He was taken captive by the commander of the Turks, Kumushtakin, after an ambush on the way to relieve the siege of Malatia. In 1103, Bohemond made his way to Saint Léonard de Noblat to make his offering to the saint who effected his release. It is said that he gifted the church with silver fetters as a remembrance.
Picaud’s description of “Noblat” also includes a violent diatribe against the church in Corbigny in the Nièvre near the town of Clamency. Corbigny was one of the first stops on the Via Lemovicensis from Vézelay. The church there, it seems, claimed to shelter the relics of Saint Leonard which Picaud described as being “immovable” from Noblat and went on to excoriate the deception.
“First they made St Leonard of Limousin the patron of their basilica, then they put another man in his place, like jealous slaves who take their master’s inheritance by force and grant it shamefully to his enemy. They’re like a wicked father who snatches his daughter from her legitimate bridegroom and gives her to another. They have changed his glory, says the psalmist, to the similitude of an ox. A wise man rebukes such behaviour, saying, ‘Give not your honour away to strangers‘.”
Picaud’s words had some effect, I imagine, since Corbigny has passed into history while Saint Leonard-de-Noblat is celebrated even today on the pilgrimage to Santiago Compostella.
Location: 45.837104° 1.489751°