The Deathbed Donation of Moirax – Part 1 (Dennis Aubrey)


“In the fast race of this world, the condition of human life is to come to an end. If the man remains indifferent to the first and third hours, even to the sixth and ninth, at least when he approaches the eleventh hour, while the ax is already at the root of the tree, that he will reflect in the Lord … You will be saved if you can trample on the fragile goods of this world, those perishable goods that have no other perspective than the night of the tomb. Remember the precept of Tobias to his son: if you have a lot, give a lot, if you have little, give little, but always with joy.” Cartulary of the Donation of Guillaume-Arnaud, lord of Moyracho to the Abbot of Cluny (1049)

In the Middle Ages, the issue of personal redemption was crucial to life. It was imperative to atone for the sins in life so that one could obtain entrance to heaven. The entire concept of pilgrimage was based on this, as were end of life bequests. These gifts were a way to obtain forgiveness for sins and thereby avoid the flames of hell. The subject of this post is the result of such a gift.

In the early 11th century, there was a small hameau called Moyracho, known today at Moirax. It was set amidst the immense forest of Brulhois but was located on the old Roman road that became the medieval route from Bordeaux to Toulouse, and therefore part of the pilgrimage route to Santiago Compostela. In 1048 the Lord of Moyracho, Guillaume-Arnaud, a man who had spent his life in war, felt the cold hand of death and decided that he needed to do something for the salvation of his soul. He made an offer of bequest to the great Benedictine abbey of Cluny. Because Moyracho was on the pilgrimage route and because the offer also included a toll on the important ford of Lécussan, this made it interesting to the Benedictines and in 1049 the charter of donation was signed.

Exterior, Église Notre Dame, Moirax (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Guillaume-Arnaud took Holy Orders and his son Pierre was appointed the first prior of the new church of Sainte-Marie. The priory church was built between 1060 and 1140 on the site of a preexisting 9th century chapel. The establishment of the Benedictine priory completely changed the village. In the following centuries, the forest was cleared, watermills and windmills built, and vineyards planted (ancestors of today’s famous Brulhois wines).

The church that was built is pretty much what we see today. It is a long (49.4 meters) cruciform church with a remarkable extended choir and apse. There are two stubby transepts with apsidal chapels echeloned on either side of the choir.

Plan, Église Notre Dame, Moirax (Lot-et-Garonne)

The nave is quite large, six bays covered with a banded barrel vault. There are two groin-vaulted side aisles. Notice the structure of the supporting elements. The nave bays are defined by massive columns with delicate engaged columns supporting the various transverse arches. At the entrance to the crossing, two massive piers support what once must have been a clocher, now lost. The entire ensemble is remarkable for the excellence of the proportions.

Nave, Église Notre Dame, Moirax (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This next shot of PJ’s captures those perfect proportions. Looking west past the altar down the nave and down the northern side aisle, we see the profusion of well-ordered columns and arches. It is a stunning vista revealing all of the subtleties like the double arches over the side aisle passage, the windows enabled by the groin vaulted aisle with light streaming into the church interior, and the wonderful rhythm of the nave bays receding to the western wall.

View of nave and side aisle, Église Notre Dame, Moirax (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by PJ Aubrey

The side aisles are groin vaulted but interestingly enough are separated by wide round arcs doubleaux, or transverse arches. These are carried by engaged columns on each side, topped with large capitals. Notice the capital in the right foreground – it appears to be just a series of lines. This has resulted in quite a bit of speculation because it is usually assumed that capitals are carved on the ground and when complete, mounted into place atop their respective columns. But this one is incomplete. Was it mounted incomplete by accident or was the intent to finish it in place?

It is also interesting to note the continuous stereobate along the wall, serving as a footing for the engaged columns. Visually, this mass of masonry gives a sense of momentum as it leads the eye down the aisle.

North side aisle, Église Notre Dame, Moirax (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This next shot illustrates the complete mastery of vaulting shown by these builders. As we have discussed so many times, the principal issue in stone vaulting was how to mitigate against the enormous outward thrust of the vault on the supporting wall. In the case of this priory, we can see how the vaulting of the side aisles is at the exact height to counteract the downward/outward thrust of the central vault, serving as a buttress for the supporting wall. The width of the nave was over 17 meters, so there was an enormous weight of stone bearing down on the nave walls. These were confident and accomplished builders.

View from transept, Église Notre Dame, Moirax (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by PJ Aubrey

The apse and choir are the most intact sections of the original church. From the vaulted chancel crossing, the church opens onto a large choir, the width of the nave. This choir features a cupola unlike anything else in French architecture. The apse itself is illuminated by five arched windows framed in a semicircular blind arcade, and is topped with an oven vault.

Apse, Église Notre Dame, Moirax (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The choir dome is extraordinary. I know of no other church in France where there is a dome in the choir like this. The cupola is mounted on squinches and the dome rises in three levels. The first has two three-windowed arcades with ornamented capitals. The second level has a single oculus on each side. The third level is the arch itself, carried by the squinches. The ensemble was altered in the 16th century, I believe, with the addition of the top-level cone.

Cupola, Église Notre Dame, Moirax (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The exterior of the church deserves an examination far more detailed that one photograph, but we can see that the western facade demonstrates the same balance and harmony as the interior. The width of the central panel matches the width of the nave within and is dominated by the projecting portal and the fine arched window in the ogive arched frame. The actual portal is simple but elegant and is flanked by two mammoth columns topped by large decorated capitals. On either side, the double blind arches are topped with a large window that floods the corresponding side aisle, with a smaller window at the top. This echoes the rhythms that we see inside the church.

Western Facade, Église Notre Dame, Moirax (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The Église Notre Dame was given a thorough and excellent restoration in the 19th century. The south side of the structure was badly damaged as can be seen in this engraving. We can see that the side aisle is completely missing on the south although the north side appears intact. Fortunately, it was possible to almost completely reconstruct the damaged section.

18th century engraving, Église Notre Dame, Moirax (Lot-et-Garonne)

This priory church in Moirax yielded more with every investigation of the photographs. This was built by Benedictine builders from Cluny but before the great Cluny III and before Vézelay. Cluny III was begun in 1088, almost three decades after Moirax, and Vézelay was not begun until 1096. Where were these skills developed? The style does not seem either Burgundian or Auvergnat since there is no ambulatory, no radiating chapels, and the transepts are truncated. In a way, the priory church almost seems to echo Poitivin hall churches. But wherever they were trained, these skillful the builders created a majestic building, solemn and sober but at the same time harmonious and beautiful.

Location: 44.1374, 0.6096

4 thoughts on “The Deathbed Donation of Moirax – Part 1 (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Was this incredible structure the deathbed “gift” that Guillaume-Arnaud gave to the Benedictines of Cluny, or was his bequest just a portion of what it cost to construct the church? How did this “Lord” amass this kind of wealth in such a remote place? Was it the spoils of war, and might those have been part of the sins that he was repenting for? As usual, wonderful photographs and commentary, especially involving the symmetry of the construction.

    1. Vann, the bequest was actually for the funds to build the church, not the church itself. As for the wealth, in his specific case I am not sure. But we have seen similar bequests in other remote areas and have identified many sources of wealth. Often there were customs duties for passages on rivers, roads and bridges to be collected from commercial travelers. There were also forestry rights, mining rights and other “franchises” that were used to collect revenues. In a world where there was not a lot of cash, these accumulations would rapidly create great wealth.

      As far as the symmetry of the construction, this was something that became more and more apparent as I worked on the photographs. In PJ’s shot of the nave and the side aisle, those harmonies just leapt out at me.

  2. Dear Dennis,
    This Notre-Dame Moirax is a pure gem! The interior organization of parts, proportioning of architectural members all are truly magnificent. It is a pleasure to see your post in the “classical” form. I have followed your podcasts, though did not post comments, but the post this morning inspires me pay my respect for all the beautiful photographs.

    Jong-Soung

    1. Jong-Soung, so glad to hear from you. You were such a great help when I was sick by writing such fine articles for us. Now that I am well-recovered, I have the energy and the inspiration to get back to work. The Moirax church was another that both PJ and I had almost forgotten until we reviewed the photos. The joy of rediscovery made it all worthwhile. Thank you again for all the wonderful things that you have done for us. We hope to see again soon.

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