The Saint, a Dragon, and Petrarch Too (Dennis Aubrey)


The waters speak of love, and the breeze, the oars,
the little birds, the fish, the flowers, and the grass
all together beg me to love forever.

Francesco Petrarca

PJ and I knew very little about Fontaine-de-Vaucluse when we arrived to photograph the 11th century Romanesque church. We entered the small town and were surprised to see it bustling, filled with crêpe stands, ice cream shops and souvenir vendors. Before we knew it, we were very efficiently guided by parking attendants into a large parking area at the edge of town.

We discovered that the success of the village is essentially due to the powerful resurgent spring that flows out from the base of a tall cliff. This spring is the source of the Sorgue and over 630 million cubic meters of water flow out every year. This spring has always been a holy spot – for the Celts it was the home of water deities. The waters were so salubrious and plentiful that the Romans built an aqueduct from the site to Arles, some forty miles distant.

Source of the Sorgue

The town and the source are also celebrated for the legend of Saint Véran, bishop of Cavaillon, who defeated a dragon-like creature known as Le Coulobre. Le Coulobre was a huge, winged snake that lived in the cave that marks the emergence of the river. She was described a having no legs but giant wings with sharp spines like the fins of a racasse. According to the legend, the Coulobre mated with a dragon and had offspring, black salamanders spotted with gold. She was deserted by her mate and in a combination of grief and rage, terrorized the surrounding countryside by devouring young children.

Saint Veran and the Coulobre, Église Notre Dame, Fontaine-de-Vaucluse (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ Aubrey

The villagers implored a local anchorite to help them. Veranus, known in French as Véran, confronted the Coulobre and abjured her as follows: “I order you, in the name of Jesus Christ, to leave this place on the field!” Hypnotized by the words of the holy man, the Coulobre allowed Véran to place a chain around her neck and lead her to the highest peak of the Luberon. Véran than told her, “I command you, by the living God, to do no harm to anyone, as I have not done to you personally.” La Coulobre flew away to the Alps and never reappeared.

To give thanks for this deliverance, Véran built a small chapel on the site of a pagan sanctuary. He named the chapel Notre Dame de Vaucluse. After Véran’s death, the chapel became a Benedictine monastery. In 1004 the monastery passed to the Abbaye de Saint Victor in Marseilles. The church we see today was built in the 11th century to replace the original Marian chapel. It is Provencal Romanesque in style and contains fragments of Carolingian friezes dating back to the eighth century and the sarcophagus of Saint-Véran in a small chapel on the south side of the apse. Scattered throughout the church are fragments from earlier churches and temples, including Roman artifacts.

Exterior, Église Notre Dame, Fontaine-de-Vaucluse (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ Aubrey

The nave is composed of two bays with a simple apse in the east and a flat western wall pierced by an arched window. There are no side aisles – instead the nave is served with deep blind arcade arches.

Nave, Église Notre Dame, Fontaine-de-Vaucluse (Vaucluse) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In the nave elevation we can see the depth of the arcade arches and the window above the south transept. Together with the window in the west front, this is the only natural light in the nave.

Nave elevation, Église Notre Dame, Fontaine-de-Vaucluse (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ Aubrey

The nave is covered with a barrel vault supported by two transverse arches that span the nave. The barrel vault covering the crossing is illuminated by a single window that lights the chancel crossing below.

Vault, Église Notre Dame, Fontaine-de-Vaucluse (Vaucluse) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The simple apse is semicircular and is covered with an oven vault. There is a single small window behind the altar that serves as the only natural light in the eastern part of the church.

Apse, Église Notre Dame, Fontaine-de-Vaucluse (Vaucluse) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In this different angle of the apse, we can see the two imposing Roman columns that were incorporated into the church, with their Roman capitals.

Apse from south, Église Notre Dame, Fontaine-de-Vaucluse (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ Aubrey

Fontaine-de-Vaucluse is also famous as the isolated retreat where the Renaissance poet and scholar Francesco Petrarca, known to us as Petrarch, wrote about his unrequited love for Laura de Noves. Petrarch took refuge at the Sorgue’s source, “beneath a big rock, in a closed valley, whence the Sorgue emerges,” accompanied only by ”Love, which will never abandon him”. A native Italian, Petrarch would have felt at home with the cypresses, fig trees, and olive trees that grow among the mossy rocks, in a silence broken only by the chirping of birds. Here he could indulge the love life of his imagination.

He called Fontaine-de-Vaucluse his locus aptissimus, his “most suitable place” on earth, perfect for meditation and poetical inspiration. After the death of Laura, he even described the river as manifesting his grief:

Valley, that is filled with my weeping,
River that often rises with my tears

Petrarch’s home still stands in Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, serving as the Museum and Library Petrarca.

West portal, Église Notre Dame, Fontaine-de-Vaucluse (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ Aubrey

I find it interesting that the town was made famous first by an early Christian saint whose combat against the dragon serves as a symbol of the religion’s struggle against the ancient cults of mountain and water. Then it was further made famous by a Christian poet and scholar who was inspired by the pagan Romans who venerated those same deities. Such is the power of the cold clear waters that emerge bubbling from deep within the earth.

Location: 43.921500, 5.126794

2 thoughts on “The Saint, a Dragon, and Petrarch Too (Dennis Aubrey)

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