The Church of Saint Peter in Chains (Dennis Aubrey)


Following our post on the newly restored Notre Dame du Port in Clermont-Ferrand, PJ and I decided to feature an unrestored church in Burgundy. The 12th century Église Saint-Pierre-aux-Liens in Varenne-l’Arconce is quite beautiful but is unfortunately in poor condition and in need of restoration.

The name of the church translates to “Saint Peter in Chains” and there appears to have been a parish church of that name at Varenne going back to the Merovingian period. In 1045, a certain Artaud de Briant and his sister Eldeburga gave to Cluny the existing church and a piece of the forest of Chassagne. The Abbot Odilon de Mercœur of Cluny founded a Benedictine priory church there, and his successor, Hugh de Semur, donated it to the Cluniac monastery for women in 1094 at Marcigny, about 15 kilometers distant. It is most likely that this second donation determined the reconstruction of Saint Pierre-aux-Liens as we see it today.

Door and font, Église Saint-Pierre-aux-Liens,  Varenne-l'Arconce (Saône-et-Loire)  Photo by PJ McKey
Door and font, Église Saint-Pierre-aux-Liens, Varenne-l’Arconce (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

The structure we see today is almost completely preserved in its original state. The church is built on a cruciform plan with short transept arms. The nave has three bays and side aisles. The nave arcades are supported by powerful cruciform piers with engaged columns carrying the transverse bands for the barrel vault. These columns are topped with twenty-four interesting – albeit somewhat crudely sculpted – capitals.

Nave, Église Saint-Pierre-aux-Liens,  Varenne-l'Arconce (Saône-et-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Nave, Église Saint-Pierre-aux-Liens, Varenne-l’Arconce (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We can see from the nave elevation that the barrel vault springs directly from the nave arcade, segmented by the transverse bands. The arcade arches are ogive, as we would expect from a Cluniac church. There are no tribunes or clerestory windows, so that the only natural light into the nave comes from the side aisle windows. These side aisles are covered with groin vaults.

Nave elevation, Église Saint-Pierre-aux-Liens,  Varenne-l'Arconce (Saône-et-Loire)  Photo by PJ McKey
Nave elevation, Église Saint-Pierre-aux-Liens, Varenne-l’Arconce (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

The semicircular apse is covered with an oven-vault. The circumference of the apse is decorated with a series of five semicircular arches falling on columns with carved capitals. Notice the fluted pilasters extending from the columns up to the cornice.

Apse from south, Église Saint-Pierre-aux-Liens,  Varenne-l'Arconce (Saône-et-Loire)  Photo by PJ McKey
Apse from south, Église Saint-Pierre-aux-Liens, Varenne-l’Arconce (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

In this next shot of the apse from the north we can see two items of interest. First, we see the squinch carrying cupola covering the chancel crossing. Second, we can see the groin vault spanning the oblong bay preceding the oven vault, certainly a Cluniac innovation. Groin vaults were usually confined to spanning square volumes because it is necessary for the intersecting arches to rise to the same height. I believe that this experiment confirms the date of construction because the same techniques were used in the nave at Vézelay, which was dedicated in 1104.

Apse from north, Église Saint-Pierre-aux-Liens,  Varenne-l'Arconce (Saône-et-Loire)  Photo by PJ McKey
Apse from north, Église Saint-Pierre-aux-Liens, Varenne-l’Arconce (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Each transept contains a small chapel framed by the ogive chancel arch. We can see the oculus in the wall above the arch. On top of the closer column, we see an example of the sculpture, the “Two-Lion” capital.

Transept chapel, Église Saint-Pierre-aux-Liens,  Varenne-l'Arconce (Saône-et-Loire)  Photo by PJ McKey
Transept chapel, Église Saint-Pierre-aux-Liens, Varenne-l’Arconce (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

The extremely hard sandstone used for this Romanesque church is not suitable for sculptures as sophisticated as those of the other nearby churches. This accounts for the more primitive carving.

Nave capital of two lions, Église Saint-Pierre-aux-Liens,  Varenne-l'Arconce (Saône-et-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Nave capital of two lions, Église Saint-Pierre-aux-Liens, Varenne-l’Arconce (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In the north chapel is a remarkable carving using a more tractable material – a wooden crucifix dating from the 13th century (although an academic case has been made for it dating from the same time as the construction in the 12th century). It is oldest of the large crucifixes found in Burgundy and is over five and a half feet tall.

Crucifix, Église Saint-Pierre-aux-Liens,  Varenne-l'Arconce (Saône-et-Loire)  Photo by Mihran Amtablian (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported)
Crucifix, Église Saint-Pierre-aux-Liens, Varenne-l’Arconce (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Mihran Amtablian (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported)

Saint-Pierre-aux-Liens is another of those treasures found throughout France – a pure Romanesque church that has survived centuries of war and revolution. But whether it can survive neglect is another matter. The church is not neglected for lack of care, but for lack of funds. The local communities must pay for a substantial part of any restoration as well as the bulk of the maintenance. Varenne l’Arconce with its population of 133 is hard-pressed to do so.

Door detail, Église Saint-Pierre-aux-Liens,  Varenne-l'Arconce (Saône-et-Loire)  Photo by PJ McKey
Door detail, Église Saint-Pierre-aux-Liens, Varenne-l’Arconce (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

We can see the signs of devotion from the people of Varenne – flowers, ex-votos, and above all, tidiness. All this shows that they love the church. We can only hope that they get help in preserving their remarkable Saint-Peter-in-Chains.

Location: 46.338319° 4.158573°

2 thoughts on “The Church of Saint Peter in Chains (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. A good point for that complete description of one of the most neglected churches of the “Brionnais roman”.
    What about the lamb on the tympanum, with an unexpectedly twisted back ? This sculpture, although clumsy, is very expressive.
    Go on, Dennis and P.J. with your fine job !

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