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