Humans have inhabited Maubourguet continuously since neolithic times, attracted by its location on a small hill between the convergence of the Adour and the Echez rivers. But for our purposes, the history begins with a 6th century Paleo-Christian church with a single nave and a pentagonal apse built on the remains of a large Gallo-Roman building. This was replaced by a Carolingian church with a semicircular apse and transepts. This would have been a simple cruciform structure and there is evidence that there was a monastic community present at the time.
In the 11th century, the site became a Benedictine priory, the church rebuilt and named Saint-Martin de Celles after the neighborhood of Maubourguet where it stood. The original church had a single nave with transepts and a large apse with two flanking apsidal chapels. In the 12th century side aisles were added to the nave which had the effect of eliminating the transepts so that the church was no longer cruciform.
The church was devastated, as were so many in this region, by the wars of religion. The monastic life was no longer possible and the church was taken over by priests instead of monks. Eventually the church was rebuilt and in the 19th century the priory church of Saint-Martin de Celle became the Église de l’Assomption.
The nave with its three bays and two side aisles presents an elegant spectacle despite the wooden vault that now covers it. The nave is 22.2 meters long and 7.2 meters wide and would have originally been spanned with a banded barrel vault. The nave columns are original – notice the pilasters that would have carried the stone courses for the vault bands – but the upper portions including arches are clearly replacements.
The 11th century nave had no side aisles and opened to the transept crossing. In the 12th century the nave was rebuilt to accommodate two side aisles. At the end of the aisle, the wall of the transept was pierced to allow circulation through the church.
The side aisles were part of the 12th century addition to the church. Each has a wooden half barrel vault that probably simulates the stone vault that once covered this space. This vault would have added strength to the nave wall which was carrying the weight of the heavy barrel vault.
This picture of the south side aisle clearly shows where the transept wall was penetrated to allow access to the transept from the newly built side aisles. This was quite a task because those transept walls were built to support the weight of the clocher. We can see the apsidal chapel in the distance.
In this next shot, we see the south transept apsidal chapel illuminated. There is a simple niche with a statue of Madonna and Child, with a small altar below. The elegant arch leads to a small oven vault.
The apse is the most complete remnant of the 11th century church. After the chancel arch beneath the octagonal cupola, we find a barrel vaulted choir. This space is quite plain now, but probably carried decorations consistent with those in the apse beyond. The apse has a five bay hemicycle, three of which have windows. The other two are blind arches. Slender columns topped with capitals carry the arches that support the oven vault. It is a bit difficult to see but the columns are supported by a bench table that runs the perimeter of the hemicycle.
The clocher was rebuilt in modern times but the cupola is interesting nevertheless. It is octagonal and supported by four squinches. The barrel is decorated with incised arches and the cupola itself is covered with fan vaulting.
The old priory church of Saint-Martin de Celles remains today a compelling structure, despite the ruinous attacks and subsequent restorations. Even without the nave vaulting, we have a stunning example of Romanesque architecture, one that is – luckily for us – immensely photogenic.
Location: 43.470203 0.035083