A Catalan Masterpiece in Corneilla-de-Conflent (Dennis Aubrey)


I need to preface this post with a note: I am grateful for Wikipedia, but it can be unreliable in our work with Romanesque churches. The information is so often incomplete, or even worse, wrong. That is the case with today’s piece on the Église Sainte Marie in Corneilla-de-Conflent. The French Wikipedia article – the most complete version – states that the church was built prior to 1014, at which time the Église Sainte Marie was mentioned for the first time as the property of the Bishop of Elne and that in 1025 the church was exchanged with the Counts of Cerdagne for their church the Église Saint-Martin in nearby Escaro.

In trying to confirm this, I found that the ecclesiastical records of the Bishops of Elne (and other scholarly sources) state that the actual transfer took place in 1006 between the Bishop of Elne and Guifré, Comte de Cerdagne, otherwise known as Guifred II de Cerdagne. Sainte-Marie de Conflent is actually named but the other church is referred to as Escaro de Conflent. So there was a church on this site at least by this time.

It seems that the exchange between the two parties was made because it was to be exploited as the Palau d’estiu, or summer palace, of the counts. The palace was built so close the church that in subsequent years it was ceded to the canon and the Gothic cloister built there. Because of this proximity, the church was amply provisioned for the initial construction, the subsequent renovations, and gifts from benefactors. The church we see today has a great deal of the 11th century version that was swapped with the Bishop – in the plan below the area in black represents that portion.

Plan, Église Sainte-Marie, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales)

In 1095, Guillaume-Raymond de Cerdagne left bequests on his death. His son, Guillaume-Jordain, executed his father’s wishes and established a college of a dozen canons from the Augustinian order. The community was administered by a prior who was appointed by the count as the hereditary patron. We must assume that he took care of the bequests prior to leaving on the First Crusade in April of 1096. Parts of the bequest were the funds to expand the church. In the 12th century, the apse and chevet were completely rebuilt, the nave vaulted, and the western portal added. These changes are shown in the blue areas on the plan.

The church features a large nave with four bays, quite ambitious for so small a town. There are side aisles which are separated from the nave by massive rectangular piers. The upper part of the church was reworked in the 12th century when the church was provided with the long uninterrupted barrel vault. There is no provision for lighting in the upper levels except for some small oculi, so the church is sober and dark.

Nave, Église Sainte-Marie, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The nave elevation shows the wonderful round arches springing from the massive piers and separating the nave from the side aisles. We can also see that the vault is separated from the supporting structures by a small undecorated cornice. It is also clear that the vault springs almost directly from the level of the top of the side arches.

Nave elevation, Église Sainte-Marie, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

What we cannot see from the nave elevation is the elegant half-barrel vault of the side aisle. The half-barrel vault is designed to relieve the outward stresses from the central nave vault. This vault serves as a continuous buttress reinforcing the nave wall. This shows the amazing sophistication of the builders in the early 12th century and is common in this area of Cerdanya.

Side aisle, Église Sainte-Marie, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ Aubrey

The 12th century raised apse features three window narrow windows with small, decorative supporting columns in the back window. We can sense the thickness of the exterior walls because only a small amount of light comes through to illuminate the apse. The space is covered with an oven vault, separated from the choir barrel vault by a single unadorned band that springs from pilasters on either side of the space. Notice the two 12th century vierges romanes on the side walls.

Apse, Église Sainte-Marie, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ Aubrey

These two fine vierges romanes flank the altar on the apse walls. The first is known as the Vierge a l’Enfant de Corneille. Despite the condition problems, this is still a fine example of the Catalan variety of a sedes sapientiae madonna. It is a bit unusual because the seated Christ child is actually more detailed than the figure of Mary.

Vierge a l’Enfant de Corneille, Église Sainte-Marie, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The second vierge was donated by the family Marti de la Penya from Barcelona. They relocated in Corneilla around 1835 and donated this vierge romane to the church. The statue is dated from the end of the 12th century. Mary’s headdress seems quite unique and I have not seen anything similar on any of the madonnas that we have photographed over the years.

12th Century vierge romane, Église Sainte-Marie, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The 12th century portal is graced with a small tympanum depicting a Madonna presenting the Christ-child in a mandorla, surrounded by angels. There are two sets of three graceful columns with capitals that feature lions, griffins, eagles, and leaves, all created from the pink Conflent marble. The paired opposite columns carry the elegant carved arches that frame the tympanum.

West portal, Église Sainte-Marie, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ Aubrey

One of the great glories of the church is the 11th century clocher, a 22 meter quadrangular marvel of four levels. The loopholes in the first two levels testify to the defensive mission that was given to the bell-tower. The third has double bays and the fourth level has a single large bay to accommodate the church bells. The Lombard bands on the second, third and fourth levels are striking additions.

Bell tower, Église Sainte-Marie, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The importance of the Église Sainte-Marie can be shown by the fact that it was an early addition to the official registry of French historic sites, selected in 1840. As discussed in previous posts, the French government established the Commission des Monuments Historiques in 1837. The French poet and writer Prosper Mérimée, author of Carmen and other works, was appointed the first Inspector General of Monuments. We, like Mérimée and his team, found the priory church of Corneilla-de-Conflent a masterful work of early Catalan Romanesque builders.

Location: 42.566928° 2.381777°

9 thoughts on “A Catalan Masterpiece in Corneilla-de-Conflent (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Thanks a lot, Dennis ! I love this place, and the Tet valley. Apart of Corneilla, you know probably St Michel de Cuxa, St Martin du Canigou, and over all my beloved Priorate of Serrabona ! Without speaking, not far from there, of Elne’s cathedral and cloister, and of St Génis des Fontaines ! On both sides of the present political boundary, Catalunya is a wonderful province, particularly in Romanesque architecture !

    1. Michel, we have done posts on all of the above, including two of Serrabone and its magnificent tribune. We have gotten amazing access to Saint Martin du Canigou because one of the community is a friend. This is one of our favorite sites for Romanesque architecture. Thank you for your commentary!

    1. We always shoot with the smallest aperture we can at 100 ISO. This necessitates long exposures, sometimes over 30 seconds, so this is not really a challenge. Especially when, like Corneilla on our last visit, the church is empty.

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