Sculpted facades in the Aquitaine (Dennis Aubrey)


We have written many times about the devastation experienced by so many churches in this region. Three great convulsions did most of the damage – the Hundred Years War, the Wars of Religion, and the French Revolution. Sometimes it seems miraculous that anything survived, but survive these churches did. The architectural glories of the Charente-Maritime, part of the great province of the Aquitaine, are the sculpted facades that are almost unique to this region. It seems that every church was graced with these beautiful west fronts, like that we showed at Biron.

The church at Chadenac is a fine example of a fully carved facade.

Église Saint Martin, Chadenac (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The detail shows the quality of the sculpture where it has survived erosion and damage at the hand of man.

Portal detail, Église Saint Martin, Chadenac (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Notre Dame d’Echillais has a facade with a beautiful central portal with three archivolts with a blind portal on each side. The second story features one open arch and eight blind arches. The effect is altogether charming.

West facade, Notre Dame de Echillais, Echillais (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Those who read this blog regularly know of our affection for the figures known as “column swallowers.” These fanciful creatures are very popular in this region but Echillais possesses one that is unique in our experience – an inverted column swallower at the base of a column!

Column swallower, Notre Dame de Echillais, Echillais (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The Église Saint Fortunat in Saint Fort-sur-Gironde is unusual because the facade carvings are almost all geometrical with no human, animal, or monstrous figures at all. But it does feature superb three-dimensional decorations.

West facade, Église Saint Fortunat, Saint Fort-sur-Gironde (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is one single feature of the Saint Fortunat facade that is not geometrical – and that is the third archivolt of the central portal – it is composed of a repeating motif of horse heads!

Portal detail, Église Saint Fortunat, Saint Fort-sur-Gironde (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The Église Notre Dame de Surgères is a most elegant facade, almost classical in its approach. The blind portal arches all feature alcoves with carvings and all of the portal archivolts are carved with geometric figures. The stately horses of the second level on either side of the central arch and even the capitals reinforce the feeling of classicism.

West facade, Église Notre Dame, Surgères (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The classical influence on this church is not a surprise, because there were many physical remnants of the Roman province of Gallia Aquitania from which the sculptors might take inspiriation. But one element of the ensemble betrays the completely medieval mind of the builders – the corbels that are so imaginative and dynamic in their expression.

Corbel, Église Notre Dame, Surgères (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We found the damage done to the churches in this region meant that we were often disappointed in the restorations. The purity of the original conceptions were distorted and often lost completely. But the work of the medieval sculptors redeemed everything. The west facades of the Charente-Maritime are a reminder of the energy and passion of Romanesque art.

6 thoughts on “Sculpted facades in the Aquitaine (Dennis Aubrey)

    1. Mark, could not agree more. We are opening an exhibition of 30 photographs of Romanesque capitals in two weeks and it is truly wonderful to see them all printed and framed. We can see from the ensemble the incredibly fertile imagination of these artists.

  1. The overall symmetry of the facades is the most interesting to me, revealing a grand design that is carried out in the detail. I like to imagine the scene when the whimsical elements of inverted “column swallowers” or inverted man supporting angle were first viewed. Did the church overseer and the monetary benefactor look with pleasure upon these elements and grin or did they smirk and say, “O well, what can you expect from those free spirited sculptors masons?”

    1. The question of whether the sponsors of the church knew exactly what they were getting is something that PJ speculate on quite frequently. At churches like Saint Pierre de Chauvigny and others, we can see them taken by surprise when the finished capitals were mounted on the columns. But, on the other hand, this was not a time of graphic and artistic plenty … they may have been delighted to get what they received! I love the reversed column swallower, too. One of my favorites!

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