A couple of months ago we posted an article about the magnificent vierge romane Notre Dame de Courpière that we photographed last May. What we didn’t know at the time was that this work had only recently returned to her home, having been stolen in 2008. She was found in the possession of a Japanese collector via Belgium and it took three years of legal proceedings to recover her. Returned to France, the statue was sent to the Paris workshops in the Louvre for restoration and was returned to the church of Saint Martin of Courpière in February 2015.
The Église Saint-Martin de Courpière is an interesting structure in its own right. The church is laid out as a modified latin cross with very short transepts. The 11th century nave has three bays and a narthex, and there are side aisles on the north and south sides. The nave is covered with a barrel vault.
The side aisles are narrow and dark, covered with half-barrel vaults. The individual bays of the aisles are separated by transverse arches. At some time in the past, most likely the 15th or 16th century, the exterior walls of the north side aisle was expanded to accommodate two chapels, clearly seen on the left. In the far distance we can see the apsidal chapel. There is another matching chapel on the south side of the apse as well.
Looking across the side aisle we see the nave and, on the south side, another late modification to the church. The Galerie Saint Martin is an upper structure that was built in the 17th century. In this shot we can also see the formidable nave piers with their attached columns, and the fine capitals that proliferate throughout the church.
In this nave elevation, we can clearly see the barrel vault springing directly from the nave arcades. Somehow, despite the jumble of elements visible in this shot – the chandeliers, paintings, side chapels, and pulpit – the visual effect of the Église Saint-Martin is pleasing.
In the shot of the chancel crossing, we can see left and right the very short transept vaults. The transepts give the impression of stubbiness and are unusual for that. Notice again the capitals topping the attached columns that give rise to the squinches supporting the cupola.
The finest feature of the church has to be the harmonious apsidal ensemble. Two echeloned side chapels flank the apse itself, which is composed of a short barrel-vaulted choir and a small apse covered with an oven vault. The choir is pierced by a large upper window in the transverse arch, but it is clear that it is not in proper relationship with the vault above and the arch below. I would suspect that the window was most likely a later, rather unfortunate, addition. The apse is pierced by three altogether more pleasing windows. We can also see clearly the 19th century painting that was added, common to many of the regional churches. We don’t know if these were based on existing medieval fragments.
We should not omit a sample of the capitals that adorn the church. This particular version shows two double-bulls, but there are others featuring Adam and Eve, sirens, atalantes, and acrobats.
Much of the Église Saint Martin is in an état vétuste, a dilapidated state, and subscriptions are underway for restoration. For those who are interested, here is a French television clip about the Vierge de Courpière and her return home.
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