The department of the Dordogne in southwest France is my favorite region of this beautiful country. The limestone causses, rivers and valleys, and cliffs filled with prehistoric sites are compelling to my imagination. There is a very picturesque small village between Villefranche-du-Périgord and Prats-du-Périgord called Besse, perched on a small hill with a lovely little Romanesque church at its center. Seeing it today we cannot imagine anything more picturesque.
But in 1454 the town was in a state of complete desolation, remarked by a visitor that it was “infertile and destitute of residents … capable of exciting only sadness.” The Hundred Years War and the subsequent wars of religion devastated Besse as it had devastated so much of this region. The 11th century Benedictine priory church of Saint Martin de Besse survived, however, even if the suffering remains visible.
The nave of the church is the main remnant of the Romanesque original with it characteristic thick walls. There are no side aisles in the church. The first of the two bays, closest to the crossing, is the oldest, built in the 11th century. It is covered with a barrel vault.
The second bay is 12th century, but there is a later addition, indicated by the wooden roof and ladder to the west. A fortified chamber replaced the barrel vault and effectively doubled the height of the nave.
The choir, crossing and transepts are Gothic and date from the early 15th century. The choir is nicely restored with stained glass windows and a ribbed oven vault, but is otherwise unremarkable.
The south transept, on the other hand, contains the remains of 16th century frescoes, rediscovered in 1961. They have suffered a great deal of damage from an unauthorized recent restoration, but we can see in general the subject matter. The west wall (on the right) depicts the outrages of Christ by the Roman soldiers. To the right of the window on the south wall is the arrest of Jesus at the Garden of Gethsemane and the betrayal of Judas.
The glory of Saint Martin de Besse is the west portal. We can see in the long shot how it consists of three sculpted archivolts. Each of the first two are supported by fine columns topped with capitals. The third (outer) archivolt springs from the base of the columns supporting the cornice and triangular pediment. The first archivolt features mostly sculpted palms decorated with pearls and the third braided rope. The second archivolt, however, features an extraordinary sculpted hymn to the messianic Redemption. This is a complicated iconographic program that was most likely sculpted by the monks themselves for their own edification, and not for the general public.
I hope one day to do a post just on this single archivolt. But instead I will concentrate on one single unique element on the right hand side, the story of Saint Eustache hunting the stag. The story is of a Roman general named Placidus who served the emperor Trajan. While hunting a stag in Tivoli near Rome, Placidus saw a vision of a crucifix lodged between the stag’s antlers. He was converted and baptized, and changed his name to Eustache. His life was immediately beset by numerous torments, including his servants dying of plague, his wife kidnapped, his children taken by beasts. Like the story of Job, these were tests of his faith, which Eustache persisted in believing. Eventually his family was returned to him and he was restored to his previous eminence.
In this sculpture, we can see Eustache on his horse pursuing the stag with his bow and arrow.
But the most telling detail can be found in a closeup of the stag – we see the figure of Christ between his horns! The iconography suggests that Saint Eustache’s hunt for the stag symbolizes the quest for God.
The church of Saint Martin de Besse is typical of so many that we find scattered throughout France. One enters a small, picturesque village and discovers the marvels of the past at its heart. The monks of a small priory church carved the local limestone to tell stories that resonate down to us today, despite the years and the wear, and the efforts of humankind to eradicate its own history.
Location: 44.66837 1.106947