Anzy-le-Duc – the Great Survivor (Dennis Aubrey)


We have often remarked how astonishing it is that France still holds 5,000 Romanesque churches from the 11th and 12th centuries. They have survived war, accident, nature, religious strife, revolution, and age while standing proudly in the French countryside.

One of these survivors is the priory church in Anzy-le-Duc. The first church on this site was founded in Carolingian times, in 876, as a gift from the noble couple Letbald and Altaric. Their purpose was to establish a monastic institution dedicated to the revived Rule of Saint Benedict. The first prior was Saint Hugues of Poitiers, whose fame brought the priory into great repute. Hugues “died in great veneration” in 930 and was buried in the crypt of the church. His relics attracted many pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. This influx of pilgrims resulted in the construction of the Prieuré de la Sainte Trinité in the late 11th and early 12th Century.

This great priory church announces its presence from a distance with a stunning octagonal bell tower, one of the finest in Burgundy.

Église Notre-Dame de l’Assomption, Anzy-le-Duc (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

However, the pious motivations behind the construction of the church have not protected it during the years. In the “calamitious 14th Century” (thank you, Ms. Tuchman) the furies unleashed by the Hundred Years War reached deep into southern Burgundy. In 1368 the troops of the Black Prince attacked and sacked the church.

In 1576, the religious wars that divided France made their mark when the Protestants desecrated the tomb of Saint Hugues and mutilated sculptures of the western portal. In 1594 the Catholics of the League, set the church on fire.

Crypt, Église Notre-Dame de l’Assomption, Anzy-le-Duc (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Not to be outdone, nature lent a hand. In 1652 lightning damaged the signature bell tower.

Mankind returned to its destructive ways during the Revolution when great scars were inflicted on the sculptures on the west portal. In 1789, almost out of exhaustion, the priory was dissolved and the church abandoned. About 20 years later, the citizens of Anzy-le-Duc bought the structure and converted it to the parish church, dedicating it to Notre-Dame de l’Assomption.

The church survived, and what remains is quite interesting. The nave is narrow, with three bays and rounded arches. Each bay is separated by a thick rounded diaphragm arch that helps support a groin vault above. The two side aisles are also groin vaulted. This is the same vaulting schema that occurs at the Basilique Sainte Madeleine in Vézelay.

Nave, Église Notre-Dame de l’Assomption, Anzy-le-Duc (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The chancel crossing features a fine painted dome resting on squinches.

Crossing vault, Église Notre-Dame de l’Assomption, Anzy-le-Duc (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The west portal’s richly sculpted tympanum has, unfortunately, suffered greatly over the years. As previously mentioned, the Protestants mutilated some of the figures in 1576, but the greatest damage was done during the French Revolution. One of the citizens of Anzy-le-Duc, in his revolutionary fervor, invited his fellows to fire guns at the statuary.

The figures on the lintel, representing the Elders of the Apocalypse, various figures carved onto the archivolt, and the Christ and the angels of the tympanum were all mutilated by gunfire, which was rewarded by “a modest premium of three sous for each head shot.”

West portal, Église Notre-Dame de l’Assomption, Anzy-le-Duc (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The statuary inside, especially the fine historiated capitals, have survived much more successfully.

Nave capital, Église Notre-Dame de l’Assomption, Anzy-le-Duc (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Somehow, the Église Notre-Dame de l’Assomption has withstood the assaults of history and changing currents of religion. It stands today as a monument to the faith of Hugues of Poitiers and the pious Benedictine monks who followed his footsteps.

Altar, Église Notre-Dame de l’Assomption, Anzy-le-Duc (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Location: 46.319335° 4.059574°°

✜If you are interested in seeing more of these Romanesque churches, select this link to see a list of those that we have featured in this Via Lucis blog.✜

11 responses to “Anzy-le-Duc – the Great Survivor (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Extraordinary photography and choices of what to photograph. Each one that arrives gives pleasure, deep contentment. Thank you, Lucy Tittmann

  2. I am admiring this churches from far away, thank you for brining them back to life via your amazing pictures.
    Julia

  3. Amazing survival considering the amount of damage caused by man’s inhumanity to man. It seems from my large amount of medieval reading that through these ‘mid-years France took more hits than any of the other European countries. This was helped of course, by the English line of kings laying claim to the throne of France.

  4. One question, one comment for you and your other loving admirers.
    We visited Anzy le duc in 2013 in late May. Unfortunately, that was the Spring with the lowest temperatures and most rain since 1400; sorta like January or February on the Norman coast. But we still were impressed with A-l- d. We felt it represented in some ways the origin of the tradition that led to Cluny and Bourges.

    (1) What can you tell us about the paintings in the Apse. They look 11th century. Copying old styles, as in neo-Gothic, neo-Greek, etc is a Romanesque thing. If someone had painted the apse in the sixteenth century, he would have used a sixteenth-century style.

    (2) Recently was reading a scholarly multi-author conference report. One participant had been an engineer before he felt he needed an intellectual challenge and thus switched to history. He explained to the other guys that it is very dangerous to take down an ancient stone or cement building. The stresses controlled by the pillars can change and shift over so many centauries. One really does not know what will happen when one takes down one end of the church; the rest of the church might fall on the workers.

    If true, this would help explain why churches like Anzy-le-duc survived so many attacks: No one had the courage to take it down, even after the Revolution. And it would explain why taking down Cluny had to be done slowly, over decades. It would also explain why ancient and medieval buildings have survived while ancient amphitheaters have virtually all disappeared: No roof, no risk .

  5. One question, one comment for you and your other loving admirers.
    We visited Anzy le duc in 2013 in late May. Unfortunately, that was the Spring with the lowest temperatures and most rain since 1400; sorta like January or February on the Norman coast. But we still were impressed with A-l- d. We felt it represented in some ways the origin of the tradition that led to Chartres and Bourges.
    (1) What can you tell us about the paintings in the Apse. They look 11th century. Copying old styles, as in neo-Gothic, neo-Greek, etc is a Romanesque thing. If someone had painted the apse in the sixteenth century, he would have used a sixteenth-century style.
    (2) Recently was reading a scholarly multi-author conference report. One participant had been an engineer before he felt he needed an intellectual challenge and thus switched to history. He explained to the other guys that it is very dangerous to take down an ancient stone or cement building. The stresses controlled by the pillars can change and shift over so many centauries. One really does not know what will happen when one takes down one end of the church; the rest of the church might fall on the workers.
    If true, this would help explain why churches like Anzy-le-duc survived so many attack: No one had the courage to take it down, even after the Revolution. And it would explain why taking down Cluny had to be done slowly, over decades. It would also explain why ancient and medieval buildings have survived while ancient amphitheaters have virtually all disappeared: No roof, no risk .

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