The medieval fortress town of Polignac sits on a marvelous defensive site just five miles to the northwest of Le Puy-en-Velay. Polignac is home to one of the great noble families of France, and from the volcanic bluff that held their castle, they controlled the roads located to the north and west of Le Puy. This control was used for a profitable purpose – the viscounts of Polignac levied tolls on the streams of pilgrims that passed to and from Le Puy on the pilgrimage route to Santiago Compostella.
For two centuries, the viscounts of Polignac contended against the bishops of Le Puy – who also happened to be the Counts of Auvergne, allied with the French King – over these levies. They fought pitched battles against each other throughout the 11th and 12th centuries, and in 1073 when the see of Le Puy was vacant, Stephen Taillefer “The Ravager”, viscount of Polignac and Bishop of Clermont, installed himself as Bishop of Le Puy. It took a pope to sort out that mess and King Louis VII of France to adjudicate the issue of the tolls. This haughty and ruthless family was one of the most reviled in France at the time of the Revolution and their history shows why. Looking at their donjon on the bluff gives us a good idea why they felt invincible.
Today the town is still dominated by the fortress above, but in the town itself is a lovely Romanesque church. The church is a simple rectangle with no protruding transepts. There are five bays to the nave with side aisles leading to echeloned chapels on either side of the simple apse. The church is built with a dark volcanic stone. The apse was built in the 10th and 11th centuries and the nave in the 12th century, although the upper portions were rebuilt in the 17th.
The nave elevation reveals a barrel vault springing directly from the nave arcades with no clerestory windows. The round arcade arches are supported by heavy piers.
The side aisles are narrow and covered with groin vaults. We can see the fine capitals topping the arcade pillars, which are carved from a softer white rock from Blavozy about ten miles to the east. There is an active market for the local stone in Blavozy even today. The capitals depict a mixture of acanthus leaves, animals and human heads.
At the end of each side aisle is an echeloned chapel flanking the apse. The chapel of Saint Anne on the north contains an interesting statue, a 14th century polychrome work known as the “Trinitarian” Saint Anne with Anne, Mary, and the child Jesus. In this shot of the south side aisle we can see some fine 15th century frescoes depicting the Nativity and the Annunciation.
The octagonal chancel crossing supports a squat clocher with a short spire. The dome rests on squinches.
The apse is the oldest part of the church, with construction beginning in the late 10th century. In the apsidal chapel on the right (south) side, we can see the 15th century frescoes.
A highlight of the apse is the oven vault with its fine 12th century frescoes depicting the Last Judgment. On the south wall (right) we see Heaven and the angels on the south side and on the north, Hell with demons carrying the bodies of the damned.
The first time I ever saw Polignac was on the road leaving Le Puy and heading to the west for a visit to the Dordogne. Stunned by the sight of the powerful fortifications on top of the bluff overlooking the valley below, I was surprised that I had never even heard of the town. Research corrected that state of ignorance but it was not until PJ and I stayed three days in the town last Spring that we explored both the town and the Église Saint Martin de Polignac.
Location: 45.071137 3.860240