Last June PJ and I had the opportunity to spend five days in the Limousin to record eleven fine Romanesque churches. We have already documented several; Collégiale Saint-Junien in Saint-Junien, the Collégiale de Saint-Léonard de Noblat, the Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul in Solignac, and the magnificent Collégiale Saint-Pierre-ès-Liens in Le Dorat. Today we show the results of another of those long productive days in the region, the Église Saint-Barthélémy de Bénévent-l’Abbaye.
In the first quarter of the 11th century, a pilgrim presented to a canon in Limoges named Dom Humbert a donation of relics of Saint-Bathélémy, one of the twelve apostles (known in English as Bartholomew). Bathélémy was martyred in Azerbaijan and his relics were moved to the island of Lipari off of Sicily in the 7th century, then to Benevento in Italy early in the 9th century. A century later, most of the relics were moved to Rome, but apparently some found their way to this cleric in Limoges. Dom Humbert placed them in the church he had built, consecrated in 1028. The name of the town at the time was Secondelas but it took took the name of Benevento. The relics attracted a great number of pilgrims and the larger church that we see today, constructed between 1120-1150, replaced the original.
Saint-Barthélémy has a conventional Romanesque cruciform plan. The nave is composed of five bays with narrow side aisles and is covered with a banded barrel vault. The vaulting at the time of construction was wooden; the present vault was added sometime later. The powerful nave piers support the arcade which features slightly ogive arches. Engaged columns run up the interior face of the piers to support the bands across the vault and are topped with wonderful figurative capitals.
In the nave elevation we can see a couple of important things; first, the vault springs directly from the nave arcade without the intervention of a clerestory level. Second, it is clear that the side aisles are extremely narrow and covered with barrel vaults.
Normally we would expect the side aisles to be covered by groin vaults, but that is the case when the volumes to be covered are square. Because of the narrowness of the aisles, however, the rectangular volumes were covered with barrel vaults. These side aisles serve primarily as buttresses to the arcade wall and only secondarily as passageways.
The dome covering the transept crossing is massive, over 20 meters in height, and supports the main tower that dominates the skyline of the town. There are eight windows in the drum that flood the interior with light.
The apse is covered with an oven vault and features a hemicycle of six columns topped with figurative capitals. There are three radiating chapels off of the ambulatory.
In PJ’s shot of the choir, we see how the chancel arch sets off the apse like a theatrical proscenium. The windows of the three chapels and the intervening windows of the ambulatory provide plenty of natural illumination.
The ambulatory columns outline a narrow walkway around the altar and are fitted with fanciful capitals. This would have been the path for pilgrims who flocked to visit the relics of one of Jesus’s companions.
There are thirty-eight capitals in the nave, transepts, and apse. From the rough lines of the sculptures, they look to be carved from a very hard stone like granite.
This roughness is used to great advantage in conveying the strength of the Atlante capital. The Atlante figure is a representation of the titan Atlas, carrying the weight of the sky on his shoulder for eternity. We can sense the enormity of the effort, forearms engaged to help support the crushing burden and the beard expressing the extreme age of the titan sentenced for fighting against the Olympians in the Battle of the Gods.
PJ and I found the church at Bénévent-l’Abbaye to be one of our favorites in this region filled with marvelous Romanesque churches. It tells the same story as so many others in medieval Europe, how relics brought visitors and visitors brought prosperity to small towns. For this reason we see in the present-day commune of Bénévent-l’Abbaye a magnificent church worthy of a city much larger than this small town with its population of 850.
Location: 46.11938° 1.629311°