The Hunter of Saint Martin de Besse – Dennis Aubrey


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.

West facade, Église Saint-Martin, Besse (Dordogne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

West facade, Église Saint-Martin, Besse (Dordogne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Nave from transept, Église Saint-Martin, Besse (Dordogne) Photo by PJ McKey

Nave from transept, Église Saint-Martin, Besse (Dordogne) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Nave from choir, Église Saint-Martin, Besse (Dordogne) Photo by PJ McKey

Nave from choir, Église Saint-Martin, Besse (Dordogne) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Gothic choir, Église Saint-Martin, Besse (Dordogne) Photo by PJ McKey

Gothic choir, Église Saint-Martin, Besse (Dordogne) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Crossing and transept, Église Saint-Martin, Besse (Dordogne) Photo by PJ McKey

Crossing and transept, Église Saint-Martin, Besse (Dordogne) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

West portal, Église Saint-Martin, Besse (Dordogne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

West portal, Église Saint-Martin, Besse (Dordogne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Portal detail - Saint Eustache hunting the stag, Église Saint-Martin, Besse (Dordogne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Portal detail – Saint Eustache hunting the stag, Église Saint-Martin, Besse (Dordogne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Portal detail - stag, Église Saint-Martin, Besse (Dordogne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Portal detail – stag, Église Saint-Martin, Besse (Dordogne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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

14 responses to “The Hunter of Saint Martin de Besse – Dennis Aubrey

  1. What an interesting and lovely little church. Every time I am brought face to face with the wars of religionI am depressed to think how many people and what beautiful buildings were destroyed because of mans inhumanity to his fellow man. Another words “My way or no way!”

  2. It’s so good that you draw attention to these details that we would otherwise not notice, even if we were there. I wouldn’t have known that the little figure between the stag’s horns was Christ. To you and your excellent camera, thanks.

    • Trish, I was so enthralled with the portal that I hardly even entered the church for the three hours that we were there! There was a very good guide to the sculpture right there so I was able to have a guided study.

  3. It’s really difficult to get much sense, from your description and despite PJ ‘s fine photos, of the quality of this this church and its space. And yet it is easy to see why you love it and, as you close in on the portal, we too are enchanted.
    Mary and I are going to take a break from Cognoscenti Travel next year, and we will certainly be using your wonderful posts to plan pilgrimages for ourselves in France – and not miss Besse.

  4. ref the western doorway.
    The triangular pediment looks like the ‘stone applique’ decoration that appears on late empire/dark ages buildings; maybe like bits of pilasters stuck to the S.W. gable of Saint Jean de Poitiers.
    The slender classical columns supporting the pediment don’t seem to have the same source as the western doorway tympanum. Perhaps this is just a personal opinion though.

    ref the outer archivolt of the western doorway.
    The archivolt above the St. Eustache archivolt looks like a ‘dark ages’ rendition of classical guilloche ornament and I wonder that it might be earlier than the 11th century.
    These two observations suggest to me that the doorway is a a pastiche.

    ref interior photo”THe gothic choir, eglise Saint-Martin…”
    The semicircular vault seems to have been added after an earlier gable, traces of which are visible and there appears to be some small corbel in the N.E. corner of the nave below the vault and above the pulpit.
    There seem to have been some interesting accretions added to the church which invite closer scrutiny.

    • Peter, the door is definitely a pastiche, as you say. Only the portal itself seems to be of a unit. The entire western facade was rebuilt much later than the date that the portal was positioned. As you can imagine from the description in the 15th century, the church was a ruin for some substantial amount of time.

  5. Dennis, why do you say the monks carved the stone themselves? Were they trained as masons? Or is this a reference to the quality of the work you see?

  6. The hunt of the staga appears often in Christian art of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance (cf. Gentile’s central lunette in the Uffizi Epiphany Altarpiece and Benozzo Gozzoli’s frescoes in the Medici Palace Chapel. While the motif may be traced to allusions to the stag in the Old Testament. Another hunter is St. Julian Hospitaler (a parricide). If the monastery was part of the pilgrimmage trails through the Dordogne, the church could have served as a place where pilgrims could camp out on their way to other more noted sites. I would need to see all of the scenes carved on the portal to draw any conclusions about its intent and purpose.

    • Darrell, we will try to prepare a post with all of the images of the Besse portal. I can tell you that there is a double sequence of the Garden of Eden (pre- and post-apple), the sacrificial lamb, Isaiah and an angel. We have seen other hunters as well in various churches, but his is the only one that I can recall with the image of Christ in the horns of the stag.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s