A Mountain Masterpiece – Serrabone (Dennis Aubrey)

On an arid hilltop 2000 feet up in the region of the sacred Mont Canigou, there was a small 11th century parish church dedicated to Our Lady that served what could only have been the tiniest of communities. It was in the region of the eastern Pyrénées known as Aspres, derived from the Catalan word for “arid”, but was known by the name Serrabona, or “beautiful mountain”. Serrabona could only lend itself to the harshest life for the residents, and was indeed known as the desert. The hard life could only have been relieved by the trickle of pilgrims who came through on their way to Santiago Compostela. Things changed in 1082, however. Notre Dame de Serrabona was granted to a community of canons from the Order of Saint Augustine, who immediately began work expanding the church and creating a monastic community. Their new priory church was consecrated in 1151 by the Bishop of Elne.

North exterior view, Prieuré de Serrabone, Boule-d’Amont (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Most of the monastic buildings are long gone, leaving only the church and austere bell-tower. There is a wonderful fragment of the cloister on the south side, but the main architectural feature of the church itself is the ornate tribune, carved from the beautiful pink marble of the region. The tribune divides the nave into two parts, conventionally explained as one for the canons who resided at the priory, and the second for the faithful who came to the church for worship. It is also speculated that a choir would sing atop the platform.

The tribune is three arcades wide and two bays deep. The arcades are topped by a large cornice that creates a façade facing west. The sculpting on the façade is done in low relief and is similar to most of the religious sculpture in the region. The capitals supporting the cornice, however, are carved fully in the round.

Tribune, Prieuré de Serrabone, Boule-d’Amont (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

There are some questions about this tribune, however, that I am going to address in this post, having to do with asking why this ornate marble structure was placed in the remote, unadorned collegiate church frequented by a mere handful of canons.

The first question is whether or not the tribune was brought to Serrabone from another location. The ill-fitting way it is wedged into the nave is pointed to as evidence of this (notice how the right side is truncated against the north wall of the church). One school of academic research has even proposed that the original came from the abbey of Saint Michel de Cuxa. Stylistically the sculpture is very similar and was probably executed by the same school, but the marble is different. Both are made of the beautiful local pink marble, but Cuxa’s marble comes from the Babebany quarry near Conflent, which is forty kilometers distant from Serrabone. The marble for Serrabone comes from Bouleternère, a quarry only a dozen kilometers from the priory itself. It makes no sense that if the tribune was originally carved at Cuxa that the workers would go to distant Bouleternère for their marble when the rest of their famous abbey was made from the Babebany marble just twelve kilometers distant. This provides strong evidence that the carving was done in situ at Serrabone, or at least at the Bouleternère quarry.

Tribune panel, Prieuré de Serrabone, Boule-d’Amont (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The second question is whether the tribune was originally installed in one place at Serrabone and then moved to the center of the nave. Some experts claim that the tribune was moved to the nave in the 17th or 19th century. However, I read an interesting mathematical analysis by Paul Lemonde that demonstrates that the church was modified in the 12th century to accommodate the large tribune and that it was designed to serve as an interior portal to the church.

Tribune capital, Prieuré de Serrabone, Boule-d’Amont (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The third question is whether or not the tribune was intended as a rood screen, or jubé, a symbolic barrier between the clergy and the lay worshipers. I am not convinced that this is the case. First, it is almost impossible to see the altar from any place other than the center of the nave beyond the tribune. Second, all of the carving on the cornice is on the west side, the “lay” side of the nave.

East view of tribune, Prieuré de Serrabone, Boule-d’Amont (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Taking a cue from Paul Lemonde’s theory that the tribune is an interior portal of the church, I believe that the structure divided the nave into two parts – a nave and a narthex. The western section served as a place to gather pilgrims during the times where the canons were celebrating their monastic offices. Like the narthex at Vézelay or Tournus or any number of other Romanesque churches, this narthex featured sculpted instruction in the mysteries of the faith for the pilgrims.

Whatever the reasons that this magnificent structure was placed in this remote church, the result is a superb ensemble, among the finest works of Romanesque sculpture remaining to us. Unlike most Romanesque work, however, the figures on the tribune are not narrative, but symbolic. Only one – Saint Michael contending with a demonic dragon – is an example of story-telling. Instead we see a profusion of angels, vegetation, and human faces. There are symbols from the text of the Apocalypse, symbols of the Evangelists and a fantastical bestiary consisting of birds, eagles, lions, centaurs, stags, bulls, griffins and monkeys.

Griffins and centaurs, Prieuré de Serrabone, Boule-d’Amont (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

A close-up of the bird capital contending with a snake shows the splendid sculptural technique that looks like nothing less than a jeweled mosaic.

Tribune detail, Prieuré de Serrabone, Boule-d’Amont (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In the end, the remote harshness of life defeated the canons and the priory was shut down amidst great scandal. Once again the priory became a parish church and was eventually abandoned altogether. By the early 1900’s it was in private hands. The owner, to our eternal appreciation, began the restoration and today the church is a glory of the French patrimony.

Location: 42.598, 2.6226

13 thoughts on “A Mountain Masterpiece – Serrabone (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Absolutely fantastic – one of your best pictorial posts – from the sharp silver crisp first exterior shot by PJ to the exotic final creature on the tribune. What a great record. Thank you.
    (Great to see you branching out in the New World… but ’tis a minor branch – here you’re nearer to the main trunk! I dare to say with Eurocentric bias.)

    1. It is but a minor branch, John, but it keeps us in practice for the major work in Europe. Funny, the smallest church in France can occupy us for half a day easily, no matter how modest. We have photographed Serrabone twice and still there is more to discover!

  2. Hi Dennis, Thank you for this great post. I really love the carvings! By the way, would you know why I no longer see the ratings stars in Mozilla/Firefox? I’ve had to open the page in Chrome in order to see them and rate the posts.

  3. Thank you Dennis – wonderful photographs! As you know this is one of my favourite places. I go there every time I am in the area. This summer must have been my 5th visit. I am always in awe of the stark beauty of the place not only the magnificent Tribune but also the very fine little cloister and the whole setting into the landscape. I strongly recommend a visit to anyone who has an opportunity to go there – it’s worth the journey hairpin bends and all!

  4. A great post, poetic pictures and a very inspiring place.

    As you say, “In the end, the remote harshness of life defeated the canons and the priory was shut down amidst great scandal…”.

    Apparently, you agree with the Catalan poet Jacint Verdaguer (1845-1902), who wrote a poem called “Els dos campanars” (the two bell towers) in which the towers of Saint Martin du Canigou and Saint Michel de Cuxa talked about their abandon and disgrace… He included Serrabona in the sad pack:

    Doncs, què us heu fet, superbes abadies,
    Marcèvol, Serrabona i Sant Miquel,
    i tu, decrèpit Sant Martí, que umplies
    aqueixes valls de salms i melodies,
    la terra d’àngels i de sants lo cel?                                

    Dels romànics altars no en queda rastre,                     
    del claustre bizantí no en queda res;
    caigueren les imatges d’alabastre
    i s’apagà sa llàntia, com un astre
    que en Canigó no s’encendrà mai més.
    Com dos gegants d’una legió sagrada
    sols encara hi ha drets dos campanars;
    són los monjos darrers de l’encontrada,
    que ans de partir, per última vegada,
    contemplen l’enderroc de sos altars…                                     

    (It is Catalan, and I lack the skills to to translate it poetically into English; but you, my French-speaking friend, will understand the words and sad feeling of Verdaguer about those magnifique places, no doubt)

    1. Ah, dear Covetotop, leave it to you to give the final requiem for these great Catalan churches – tucked away in “these valleys of psalms and melodies, The land of angels and saints of heaven.” Thank you.

  5. “Land of Angels and Saints of Heaven” – what a beautiful phrase! It does take a poet to capture the sense of place in words. Thanks for the translation Dennis.

  6. It was so good to see your wonderful post. I have missed them. I hope the reason for lack of post was that you were traveling or taking a while to settle into your new ‘digs.’
    I look forward to many more.
    Love and best wishes to you both.

    1. Kalli, we have been behind on the posts because of the new book on the Cross-Tipped Churches that we are preparing. We need to have the text ready for peer-review by spring. But we are preparing posts – just trying to have enough time! So nice to hear from you – just this morning I was thinking how much I miss contact with the Via Lucis community!

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