A Romanesque masterpiece in Chamalières-sur-Loire (Dennis Aubrey)


We had the kindest welcome to the Église Saint Gilles in the town of Chamalières-sur-Loire in the Haute-Loire department of the Auvergne. As we were unloading our equipment, we noticed a very nice woman cleaning bird droppings off of her car – Les oiseaux sont diabolique aujourd’hui, she said. When she saw the camera equipment, she approached and started chatting about the church, which is her local place of worship, calling our attention to the remains of the cloister and a portal on the north side of the church. She called out to someone and her husband came out to join us, wearing a tie under his natty sweater. As they were leaving us, he pulled out the tie and said, “Look, I’m wearing a nice tie today!” Ah, France.

The 12th century church of Saint Gilles is located in an enclave along the eponymous river at the edge of the small town. The structure is a fine example of Auvergnat Romanesque with its narrow nave and imposing clocher.

Exterior, Église Saint Gilles, Chamalières-sur-Loire (Haute-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Exterior, Église Saint Gilles, Chamalières-sur-Loire (Haute-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The chevet features radiating chapels and the blind arcades of above, with the clocher dominating the skyline.

Chevet, Église Saint Gilles, Chamalières-sur-Loire (Haute-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Chevet, Église Saint Gilles, Chamalières-sur-Loire (Haute-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Inside, we see the familiar cruciform structure, the nave and side aisles, the projecting transepts, and the apse with its radiating chapels. The narrow nave consists of three bays with a banded barrel vault.

Nave, Église Saint Gilles, Chamalières-sur-Loire (Haute-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Église Saint Gilles, Chamalières-sur-Loire (Haute-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In the nave elevation we can see large round arches of the arcade topped with large clerestory windows continuing without a break to the vault. There is no decorative segmentation of these three elements, but they flow into one another without interruption. The engaged columns rise to create the springing for the bands of the vault.

Nave elevation, Église Saint Gilles, Chamalières-sur-Loire (Haute-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave elevation, Église Saint Gilles, Chamalières-sur-Loire (Haute-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We can readily see how the groin-vaulted side aisles enable the placement of large windows to light the interior of the church, and we get an unimpeded view all the way to the open choir in the distance.

Side aisle, Église Saint Gilles, Chamalières-sur-Loire (Haute-Loire)  Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle, Église Saint Gilles, Chamalières-sur-Loire (Haute-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

The choir was built slightly later than the nave and the transepts and is stunning. There is an ambulatory that is marked by the metal grating and the radiating chapels extend directly from the open choir. The entire structure is covered with a large oven vault.

Choir, Église Saint Gilles, Chamalières-sur-Loire (Haute-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Choir, Église Saint Gilles, Chamalières-sur-Loire (Haute-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We can see in the next photo how the ambulatory is delineated with an ornate metal grate instead of the hemicycle that we would normally encounter. I suspect that this is because the priory church of Saint Gilles was not a major pilgrimage site.

Ambulatory grate, Ambulatory, Église Saint Gilles, Chamalières-sur-Loire (Haute-Loire)  Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory grate, Ambulatory, Église Saint Gilles, Chamalières-sur-Loire (Haute-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

The chapelles rayonnantes are quite lovely and alternate with large windows that present a great deal of natural light to the choir.

Ambulatory, Église Saint Gilles, Chamalières-sur-Loire (Haute-Loire)  Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Église Saint Gilles, Chamalières-sur-Loire (Haute-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

While the architecture is wonderful, the decoration of the church is unique and of the highest quality. There are interesting capitals in Saint Gilles, but the two finest sculptures are the bénitier, or font, and the tomb of the bishop.

The bénitier dates from the 12th century and features four figures under canopies, one on each side. There are two kings of Israel (David and Solomon) and two prophets. The photograph shows Jeremiah holding his banner. This font is quite large, over four feet tall, and was originally a gift from monks at the monastery of Cluny.

Benetier, Église Saint Gilles, Chamalières-sur-Loire (Haute-Loire)  Photo by PJ McKey

Benetier, Église Saint Gilles, Chamalières-sur-Loire (Haute-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

The tomb of the bishop dates from the 13th century and is believed to belong to Etienne de Chalencon, bishop of Puy, who died in 1231. The tomb now exists in several fragments. The main section shows the mitred bishop being laid into his ornate tomb with his arms crossed on his chest. The body is supported by two monks while the abbot holds the crozier on the left. Other figures are behind giving benediction and holding torches. The most interesting figure is on the right – he appears to be holding a relic, a human head.

Bishop's tomb, Église Saint Gilles, Chamalières-sur-Loire (Haute-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Bishop’s tomb, Église Saint Gilles, Chamalières-sur-Loire (Haute-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

One of the fragments shows the soul of the deceased represented as a naked child being received by a saint holding a crozier. Both figures are enclosed in a mandorla. We can see both in this detail and in the tombstone the traces of the original polychrome that decorated the tomb.

Detail, Bishop's tomb, Église Saint Gilles, Chamalières-sur-Loire (Haute-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Detail, Bishop’s tomb, Église Saint Gilles, Chamalières-sur-Loire (Haute-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

In the south side aisle, there is a 12th century wooden door suspended as a piece of artwork. It consists of two leaves with a smaller door in the right had side. The beautiful craftsmanship is accentuated by the traces of the red and green paint that once adorned the entire piece.

Wooden door, Église Saint Gilles, Chamalières-sur-Loire (Haute-Loire)  Photo by PJ McKey

Wooden door, Église Saint Gilles, Chamalières-sur-Loire (Haute-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

On the exterior, there is one small portion of the cloister and a finely sculpted portal. The acrobat on the left seems to be springing away from the mouth of an animal preparing to devour him. On the right is a lion next to a man carrying a lamb, most likely the Good Shepherd. There are no traces of the other figures that once adorned the archivolt.

North portal, Église Saint Gilles, Chamalières-sur-Loire (Haute-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

North portal, Église Saint Gilles, Chamalières-sur-Loire (Haute-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We have always found the Haute-Loire to be very fertile ground in our explorations of Romanesque churches. The Église Saint Gilles in Chamalières-sur-Loire is another masterpiece found in this remote region of the Auvergne. It is just one more example of how the Romanesque world was, in the words of Rodulfus Glaber, clad in a “white mantle of churches.”

Location: 45.201456° 3.984930°

3 responses to “A Romanesque masterpiece in Chamalières-sur-Loire (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Thank you for that very interesting article, Dennis. I haven’t managed to visit that church yet, but I know that worship of one kind or another has been going on at Chamalières for a very long time as pagan offerings found in a spring there fill an entire room in the museum at Clermont Ferrand – including a Madonna-like goddess.

  2. As I enjoyed your wonderful photography and descriptive prose I was instantly taken with the power of the church and for its period the lack of interior sculpture. Although in the church I felt the font and tomb to be separate. Thank you both.

  3. My kind of place!!!! Lovely in solitude, yet I can sense the congregation. I would worship here — sitting happily next to the woman and her husband with his “Sunday-go-to-meeting” tie!

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