The town of Layrac is about ten kilometers south of Agen in the present day département of the Lot-et-Garonne. The small river Gers cuts through the center of town just before it merges with the Garonne to the north of town. The area has been settled since the Paleolithic era. The medieval town was founded on the small promontory on the site of an abandoned Roman villa. The town achieved a certain importance because of the river traffic on the Garonne. With the founding of the priory of Saint-Martin-de-Layrac, the town grew more important, so much so that it received a customs charter in 1273 allowing it to collect tolls from passing river traffic.
We know quite a bit about the founding of the priory from a charter that dates from December 16, 1064. The donation was made by Hugues, viscount of Brulhois, and his elder brother Hunald, of the house of Béarn for the construction and maintenance of a priory. The name Brulhois (a Gallic word meaning “embankment, border”, “edge of wooded river”) is still known in Layrac from the wine appellation of that name (which happens to be situated next to Buzet, one of my favorites of that region). At the time, Hunald of Béarn was a monk at the abbey of Moissac where he became abbot in 1072. Hunald was a disciple of the famed Hugh of Cluny and he was known for his extreme piety. He is also known as the builder of the priory church in Layrac from a mosaic inscription (since lost, but preserved by antiquarians) that read: HAS AEDES SACRAS FVNDAVIT HVNALDVS – “This temple was founded by Hunald.”
A second inscription (also lost) is even more interesting: ANNO DOMINI MXCVI A PAPA VRBANO II CONSECRATVM EST HOC TEMPLUM IN HONOREM BEATORVM APOSTOLORVM PETRI AND PAVLI ATQVE BEATI MARTINI. “In the year of God 1096 Pope Urban II consecrates this temple in honor of Saints Peter and Paul and the blessed Martin”
Chevet and south façade, Église Saint Martin, Layrac (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey
The date of the Urban inscription is interesting because the Pope preached the First Crusade on November 27, 1095 in Clermont about 400 kilometers to the northeast. I was a bit confused why he would leave Clermont, travel all that distance to such an insignificant site as Layrac on his way back to Rome far to the east. I discovered that after speaking at Clermont, Urban went on a long preaching tour, spreading the message of the Crusade through much of France . Urban preached the cross at Limoges in December 1095, at Le Mans in February 1096, and at Nîmes in July 1096. He did not return to Italy until August 1096 well after the first Crusaders were on their way to Jerusalem. Given the date of the Layrac inscription, we can speculate that Urban visited to consecrate the church sometime between Limoge (December 1095) and Le Mans (February 1096), but that is a short period of time for all that travel. It is more likely that he visited Layrac after Le Mans and on his way to Nimes (July 1096).
The nave of the Église Saint Martin is enormous – almost 38 feet wide – and without side aisles. It is reputed to be the widest Romanesque nave, but I am not so sure – the nave at Saint-Avit-Sénieur might challenge for that honor. The vault is also ogive, banded at each bay. Engaged columns topped by capitals with acanthus leaves support the vault bands.
Nave, Église Saint Martin, Layrac (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey
The flat walls of the seven bays are pierced on each side by large rounded windows that flood the interior with light.
Nave elevation, Église Saint Martin, Layrac (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by PJ Aubrey
There is a beautiful semi-circular apse with nine windows. Those windows and the colonettes that support them correspond to the lombard bands on the exterior chevet.
Apse, Église Saint Martin, Layrac (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey
There is also a fine 18th century canopy or baldaquin in the choir. It frames the new altar area under the cupola in the transept crossing, an area that is ringed in by a stone balustrade. That crossing is topped by a cupola almost 33 feet across. The transepts have chapels echeloned to the east. These chapels can be seen in the exterior view on the eastern side of the transept.
Baldaquin, Église Saint Martin, Layrac (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by PJ Aubrey
At the south side of the transept crossing there is a superb capital showing a grouping of fanciful lions. All of the details – from the well-coiffed heads and manes to the talon-like claws gripping the edge of the capital – are of the finest workmanship.
Capital, Église Saint Martin, Layrac (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey
On the floor of the choir are the remnants of an early mosaic featuring Samson slaying the lion, illustrating Judges 14:5-6. “Then went Samson down, and his father and his mother, to Timnath, and came to the vineyards of Timnath: and, behold, a young lion roared against him. And the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him, and he rent him as he would have rent a kid, and he had nothing in his hand: but he told not his father or his mother what he had done.” This mosaic was recovered only in 1966. There was apparently another mosaic, still visible in 1714, that featured the cycle of David and Goliath. This disappeared during the restorations of the 19th century when the baldaquin was installed.
Mosaic, Église Saint Martin, Layrac (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Saint Martin has an elegant western portal with finely worked archivolts springing from slender columns topped with historiated capitals. The two flanking columns are topped with capitals as well, and from the abacus on top of each appear to have once supported a substantial arched porch of some kind.
Interestingly enough, there is also a south portal sheltered by a shallow porch that opens into the transept. There is no sign of this in the 15th century plan even though the workmanship of the portal appears Romanesque.
West portal, Église Saint Martin, Layrac (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey
The priory church of Saint Martin was inhabited by monks from the noble class who sought to emulate Hunald’s piety. Because they were men of means, the priory was able to finance hospitals, schools, and other charities. We can see from this reconstruction what the 15th century priory complex looked like. All of this contributed to the growth of the town of Layrac, and certainly to this gem of 12th century Romanesque construction.
Nave from apse, Église Saint Martin, Layrac (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by PJ Aubrey
It is a wonderful fancy to imagine Urban II with his retinue at this smallish priory church in the Agenais … ““Thither came the Pope, Urban II, with a great retinue of bishops, priests, and cardinals .…” We can imagine the stamping horses, the flowing banners highlighting the new stone construction, and the blazes of color. I can almost see the blue of the sky. How this would have impressed the Layracais, both with the pageantry of the Pope and the honor paid to their founder, Hunald! Inevitably, Urban proceeds to his appointment at Nimes, the decorations are removed and the pageant clothing put away. The deserted parvis lapses into silence.
Note: After completing this post, I confirmed the supposition of the time of Urban’s visit to Layrac with the following confirmation of the Hughes/Hunald charter, dated May 1096: Privilegium Urbani Papæ II quo confirmat Hugoni, Abbati Cluniacensi, honorem cum Ecclesia Sancti Martini de Lairaco, quem Hunaldus dicto monasterio delegavit.
And to our surprise, we received further confirmation from one of our readers. Please take a look below at the comment from Jean-Luc Moreno.
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