As a boy, my family lived in the town of Chauvigny when my father was stationed in Poitiers. The glorious year that we lived there lives brightly in my memory. My brother David and I used to take long bicycle rides throughout the countryside and I remember visiting a small town called Civaux on one of those peregrinations. I was re-introduced to Civaux in 1985 during a visit to our life-long friends Jean and Thérèse Gayet who lived in Vivonne, just south of Poitiers. The Gayet’s home is in what had been the family business, a linen factory on the Clain River. The house has its own lieu-dit, Danlot, and to get to the house one must cross an iron bridge built by Gustav Eiffel.
Jean always planned trips to the lesser known historical sites to satisfy my thirst for French history, places like Lussac-les-Chateaux, Angles-sur-Anglin, Charroux, and so many others. At Civaux I was introduced to my first Merovingian necropolis, a collection of thousands of stone burial caskets in a cemetery. Jean also took me by a small church whose apse he pointed out was also dated the same era, approximately the sixth century.
Last June, PJ and I returned to Civaux, which is just south of Chauvigny on the Vienne River. Chauvigny is one of our favorite towns and features two wonderful Romanesque churches, but this was the first time we had made the short journey to Civaux together. Everything was pretty much the same as it had been decades earlier with the exception of a large nuclear plant just a couple of miles away, a reminder of the inevitability of progress.
The interior of the Église Saint Gervais et Saint Protais is quite interesting. There is a narrow nave with four bays, the westernmost of which is topped with a choir loft. There are two side aisles about the same width as the nave itself but no transepts. A chancel arch leads to the 6th century apse in the east. In the plan we see the extreme inclination of the apse to the south. This caused PJ immense difficulty in properly aligning some of her shots.
The exterior walls of the nave were built in the 11th century and the interior structures in the 12th. The nave was vaulted in the same 12th century reconstruction, although it was probably originally framed in wood. The spectacular capitals are probably concurrent with this construction phase. PJ’s photo of the nave from the loft gives an excellent perspective of the church as a whole.
Each bay of the side aisle was covered with a groin vault about the same time as the nave was vaulted. The groin vaulting makes it possible for sizable windows to light the interior. Notice that the side aisles are almost as tall as the central nave.
The heptagonal apse is the oldest part of the church and dates from the Merovingian period but the Eternalis and Servilla vivatis in Deo inscription is evidence of Civaux being one of the oldest Christian centers in the Poitou. I haven’t been able to discover what the apse was originally, but I suspect it was a baptistère, or a baptistery.
Above the central window of the chevet there is a very interesting feature, a funerary stela that reads Eternalis and Servilla vivatis in Deo, and which has been dated on the evidence of the language to the 4th century. This tablet gives testament to a Christian presence from the Age of Constantine.
The 12th century capitals in Civaux are strikingly similar to those at Chauvigny, which are known to have been created by the famed “Gofridus”. It was this sculptor who signed one of the capitals at the Collégiale Saint Pierre with the words Gofridus me fecit. This photograph of the nave pillars from the loft shows the positions and relationships of the various capitals.
The Dragon capital is one of the most striking and is very similar to some of the capitals in Chauvigny. The wonderful decoration of the winged dragon seems to undercut the violence of the tearing of the human figure in its maw.
That savagery is underscored in a different angle on the capital. Even without the brutal paint of the teeth, we sense the imminent rending of the flesh of the human victim.
Saint Gervais et Saint Protais ended up being one of our favorite churches from the 2015 trip to France. We had experienced a wonderful day earlier – photographing at both the Collégiale Saint Pierre and the Église Notre Dame in Chauvigny. We had a lunch in a café on the main square of town and I reminisced ad nauseam, I am sure, about my childhood in town. In the late afternoon we drove south on D749 past the Carolingian church of Saint-Pierre-les-Églises (photographed in 2007), and then crossed the Vienne to Civaux. After three hours in Civaux, we felt that we had done a good days work – hundreds of photos of three fine churches.
It took a great deal of effort to get the shots that we wanted from such a small church as Saint Gervais et Saint Protais, packed as it was with interesting sculptural and architectural features. As we were preparing to leave, I noticed PJ standing in the doorway of the church, her back covered with dust from leaning against the walls of the church. I had to take the picture.
On a final note, during the visit to Civaux with Jean and Thérèse, I decided to scandalize them by laying in one of the burial caskets in the necropolis. I remember Jean seeing me and staring down at me. His words, later repeated many times, were simple. “Stupid boy.” On one of our last visits with Jean before he died, we sat outside talking in the shade of the trees at Danlot. While everyone was talking, he saw that I was taking a picture of him. He gave me that same look with the unspoken words, “Stupid boy.”
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