Burgundy has one of the greatest concentrations of Romanesque churches in France. At its historical epicenter was the Abbey of Cluny, now unfortunately almost completely destroyed, the seat of power of the Benedictine monastic world for centuries. At the height of that power, the black-robed monks could boast over a thousand dependencies, monastic institutions which were considered as an extension of the “mother” house.
One of those dependencies was a priory only 20 miles away and built on one of the highest points in the Saône-et-Loire, a granite outcropping 601 meters high that dominates the beautiful and rich Charolais countryside below. The church, built around 1100, was dedicated to Saint Vincent.
The town of Mont Saint Vincent (population 334) hosts the beautiful Église Mont Saint Vincent, a priory church for five centuries until the monks left in 1506. Because the church possessed an important relic, a fragment of the True Cross, it was an important pilgrimage site.
PJ and I liked the church very much because it is the epitome of the Romanesque monastic church. It is heavy and massive, built as a Latin cross with a nave of four bays with side aisles. And unlike many of the Cluniac churches and attesting to its age, the nave and side aisle arches are perfect semicircles, and not ogive.
The main reason that we visited the Église Mont Saint Vincent was that it is one of two churches that feature transverse barrel vaults built perpendicular to the axis of the nave and supported by semicircular diaphragm arches. With its Cluniac sister of Saint Philibert in Tournus, we have the only examples of this unique solution to the stresses imposed by a barrel vault. Instead of a single long vault running the length of the nave and transmitting the stress outwards to the side walls, the four vaults cross the nave and transfer those stresses to the adjacent barrel vault, canceling each other out.
One of the structural advantages of the transverse barrel vaults was that fairly large windows could be built in the walls of the nave at the clerestory level.
Because the side aisles are covered with groin vaults, windows could be placed all along these passages as well. The combination of the clerestory and side aisle windows allows a great deal of light to penetrate into the church.
Mont Saint Vincent is very large and tall structure but no longer has a crossing tower, which makes it seem truncated. After the collapse of the vault of the choir in 1773, the pillars of the crossing were reinforced but they weren’t capable of sustaining the weight of the tower. It was was razed twenty years later in 1793 during the French Revolution.
The west face of the church is sheltered by a porch which is the same height as the nave and consists of two floors. The bottom floor is an open narthex with large arches and features a remarkable sheltered portal with a tympanum showing Christ in majesty between Saint Peter and Saint Paul. The sculptural style is very archaic, indicating that this is probably one of the oldest tympana in the region.
All in all, the Église Mont Saint Vincent ended up as one of our favorite discoveries of the 2011 trip. The church was beautiful in the transition to the late afternoon light. While it has not been so well restored as Saint Philibert in Tournus, the purity and perfection of her lines make the church a masterpiece of Romanesque design and workmanship. We respond to this purity and perfection and it recalls in us the great reason that these churches were built with such love and attention to detail. They were built to last because the faith on which they were based was eternal, and because of all things of the earth, only stone could approach that eternity.
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