Momentous Events for a Secluded Priory (Dennis Aubrey)

Sometimes PJ and I forget some amazing places and scenes after we finish traveling. This church in Saint-Jean-de-Verges was one of those and is one of the most simple and beautiful Romanesque structures in the Ariège but it had slipped from my memory until looking through the library of our last trip. I am glad to correct the memory lapse!

The Priory Church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste is a 12th century structure built on the site of an older church, a Roman building, and a Visigothic structure. We don’t know if they were all religious sites but it seems likely. Saint-Jean-Baptiste was built in 1104 as a priory church dependent on the Abbey of Saint-Volusien in Foix. According to Esquerrier in “Chroniques Romanes“, the property for the church in Saint-Jean-de-Verges was donated to the abbey by Count Bernard VII of Comminges a decade earlier in 1095. But this date is certainly wrong – Bernard died in 1035. What is interesting, however, is that the Augustinians took over the abbey of Saint Volusien and its important relics in 1104 and began a building campaign on the abbey church. It may be that at the same time they decided to build the church in Saint-Jean-de-Verges.

The church is a beautifully proportioned structure built of brown sandstone. The barrel-vaulted nave is divided into three bays by powerful pilasters. There are no side aisles, of course, and the church appears to be nothing more than the nave terminating in the choir and the apse. But we shall see shortly that there is another feature to the church invisible from the first inspection.

Nave, Priorale Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Saint-Jean-de-Verges (Ariège) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

As seen in the nave elevation, each bay features a large arched window that penetrates the thick exterior walls. On the exterior of the church, there is buttressing at the same point where the pilasters rise. The vault that we see today is from a recent restoration but corresponds to the original covering.

Nave arcade, Priorale Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Saint-Jean-de-Verges (Ariège) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The apse is the most interesting part of the structure. It is topped with an oven vault . There are three windows ornamented both inside and out. Inside we see simple roman arches with carved decoration. They spring from narrow columns with the abacus shared by columns from two adjoining windows. The chancel arch is quite elegant with two slender engaged columns serving as the springing for the arches above. Between the columns, pilasters support the middle of the three chancel arches.

Apse, Priorale Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Saint-Jean-de-Verges (Ariège) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The structures that protrude on either side of the chancel cannot really be called transepts. From this rough plan we can see that they open only into the choir. These passages are the only way to enter the apsidal chapels which were originally intended to have been for the use of members of the religious community who wanted to isolate themselves from the faithful who would use the church.

Plan, Priorale Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Saint-Jean-de-Verges (Ariège)

The exterior shot of the chevet shows how the false transepts are really just part of the apsidal chapels as indicated in the plan. We can also admire the lovely exterior lines and colors of the sandstone chevet and the harmonious aspect of the church itself.

Chevet, Priorale Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Saint-Jean-de-Verges (Ariège) Photo by PJ Aubrey

The chapels can be seen clearly through the choir opening in this shot. Originally these passages were low doors but they have been enlarged at some time in the past to become arched portals. Like the choir, the false transepts are covered with barrel vaults that lead to the oven vaults of the chapels themselves.

View to north apsidal chapel, Priorale Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Saint-Jean-de-Verges (Ariège) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is an additional piece of decoration in the church. On the right side of the main western portal there is a fresco of John the Baptist, the patron saint of the church.

John the Baptist fresco, Priorale Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Saint-Jean-de-Verges (Ariège) Photo by PJ Aubrey

The Priorale Saint-Jean-Baptiste was always a modest site although there may have been plans to make it larger. But its modesty did not stop it from being the site of two momentous meetings during the 13th century Albigensian Crusade. In 1216, the Pope ordered representatives of Simon de Montfort and those of the Count of Foix to meet at the Priory to settle their disputes. The legate ordered de Montfort and the Count of Foix to observe the peace. Both parties agreed in letters dated September 14, 1216. The Count of Foix agreed not to aid the Cathars or to support any enemies of the Church of Rome.

On June 16, 1229, the Count of Foix Roger-Bernard submitted to the papal nuncio Pierre de Colmieu, Archbishop of Rouen, and the representative of King Louis XI, Mathieu de Marly, the King’s lieutenant in Languedoc. In return for a promise to purge his land of heresy and to work for restoration of peace, Roger-Bernard obtained absolution for supporting the Cathar heresy. It is easy to imagine how this meeting would have impressed the local population – a great Count, the representative of the French King, and in important French archbishop serving as the papal legate. There were many other notable and witnesses including the Archbishop of Narbonne, the bishops of Tournay, Couserans, Toulouse, and various abbots. Secular leaders included Guy I, Maréchal de Lévis-Mirepoix, and Lambert I de Thurey, one of Montfort’s allies. These notables with their retinues all gathered in the small town of Saint-Jean-de-Verges for this momentous attempt to end the Albigensian Crusade.

Location: 43.0144 1.6114

One thought on “Momentous Events for a Secluded Priory (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Well researched, Dennis. Fascinating that so much happened in this seemingly out-of-the-way place. Love the exterior elevation. I’ll bet those bells sound wonderful echoing across the rugged countryside.

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