The Dordogne has always been one of my favorite places in France, an area that Henry Miller called “the cradle of poets.” Not only is it one of the most beautiful areas in the country, it also features the painted caves of Lascaux, Font de Gaume, Rouffignac and so many other painted paleolithic caves. On a more personal note, it is the center of French gastronomy and is the locale of our favorite hotel in the world, the Pont de l’Ouysse, run by Daniel and Marinette Chambon. Indeed, the spot from where this shot is taken is my personal omphalos, the center of my universe.
But in keeping with our passion for photographing French Romanesque churches, the region is also the home of the great Abbaye Sainte Marie de Souillac, which we have described in other posts. And a mere 40 kilometers to the west, on the banks of the same Dordogne River, is another marvelous abbey church, Saint Pierre de Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne.
The Abbaye Saint Pierre is an architectural masterpiece. Created as a Benedictine monastery in the 9th Century, it eventually became a dependency of the Abbey of Cluny in the 11th Century. Construction of the current church was begun in 1095 and completed about 50 years later.
I am particularly fascinated by the beautiful altar hemicycle and ambulatory, which reveal the importance of the church to the pilgrims of the Way of Saint Jacques de Compostelle. This shot of the chancel clearly shows the separation of the monastic from the pilgrimage functions of the church. The monks would perform their offices while seated in the chancel.
The pilgrims were funneled around the chancel to the radiating chapels of the apse via the ambulatory and side aisles. These chapels would contain the relics and other items of veneration that could be viewed without disturbing the monks at prayer.
Without a doubt the most exceptional remaining object of veneration from that time is the Virgin and Child that is exposed on the great altar during religious festivals. Notre Dame de Beaulieu, a work of sculpted wood covered in silver plate, is another of the Sedes Sapientiae, or Throne of Wisdom, madonnas. She was created in the 12th century and is 24 inches tall. The quality of the work makes this one of the treasures not only of Beaulieu but of the entire region, but it is the mystery conveyed by the image itself that moves me.
No mention of Beaulieu can be made without reference to the great South Portal and tympanum. I’ve explained the iconography of the tympanum, and in particular the line of figures on the level below Christ, in another post. But this representation of the Second Coming is a masterpiece of iconographic sculpture and surprises me how little attention it receives in the scholarly literature.
PJ is convinced that the sculptor is the same who created the magnificent sculpted works of both Souillac and the Abbaye Saint Pierre in Moissac. Compare this example with the photograph of the famous Isaiah in Souillac.
As if the proximity of Souillac and Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne is not enough, the town of Carennac lies just over halfway between the two. Of the Église Saint Pierre de Carennac and its own magnificent tympanum, we shall hear later. The tympana and sculptures of this trio of churches make this twenty-five mile journey one of the indispensable pilgrimage routes for anyone interested in Romanesque stonework.
Location: 44.979366 1.838713