On an arid hilltop 2000 feet up in the region of the sacred Mont Canigou, there was a small 11th century parish church dedicated to Our Lady that served what could only have been the tiniest of communities. It was in the region of the eastern Pyrénées known as Aspres, derived from the Catalan word for “arid”, but was known by the name Serrabona, or “beautiful mountain”. Serrabona could only lend itself to the harshest life for the residents, and was indeed known as the desert. The hard life could only have been relieved by the trickle of pilgrims who came through on their way to Santiago Compostela. Things changed in 1082, however. Notre Dame de Serrabona was granted to a community of canons from the Order of Saint Augustine, who immediately began work expanding the church and creating a monastic community. Their new priory church was consecrated in 1151 by the Bishop of Elne.
Most of the monastic buildings are long gone, leaving only the church and austere bell-tower. There is a wonderful fragment of the cloister on the south side, but the main architectural feature of the church itself is the ornate tribune, carved from the beautiful pink marble of the region. The tribune divides the nave into two parts, conventionally explained as one for the canons who resided at the priory, and the second for the faithful who came to the church for worship. It is also speculated that a choir would sing atop the platform.
The tribune is three arcades wide and two bays deep. The arcades are topped by a large cornice that creates a façade facing west. The sculpting on the façade is done in low relief and is similar to most of the religious sculpture in the region. The capitals supporting the cornice, however, are carved fully in the round.
There are some questions about this tribune, however, that I am going to address in this post, having to do with asking why this ornate marble structure was placed in the remote, unadorned collegiate church frequented by a mere handful of canons.
The first question is whether or not the tribune was brought to Serrabone from another location. The ill-fitting way it is wedged into the nave is pointed to as evidence of this (notice how the right side is truncated against the north wall of the church). One school of academic research has even proposed that the original came from the abbey of Saint Michel de Cuxa. Stylistically the sculpture is very similar and was probably executed by the same school, but the marble is different. Both are made of the beautiful local pink marble, but Cuxa’s marble comes from the Babebany quarry near Conflent, which is forty kilometers distant from Serrabone. The marble for Serrabone comes from Bouleternère, a quarry only a dozen kilometers from the priory itself. It makes no sense that if the tribune was originally carved at Cuxa that the workers would go to distant Bouleternère for their marble when the rest of their famous abbey was made from the Babebany marble just twelve kilometers distant. This provides strong evidence that the carving was done in situ at Serrabone, or at least at the Bouleternère quarry.
The second question is whether the tribune was originally installed in one place at Serrabone and then moved to the center of the nave. Some experts claim that the tribune was moved to the nave in the 17th or 19th century. However, I read an interesting mathematical analysis by Paul Lemonde that demonstrates that the church was modified in the 12th century to accommodate the large tribune and that it was designed to serve as an interior portal to the church.
The third question is whether or not the tribune was intended as a rood screen, or jubé, a symbolic barrier between the clergy and the lay worshipers. I am not convinced that this is the case. First, it is almost impossible to see the altar from any place other than the center of the nave beyond the tribune. Second, all of the carving on the cornice is on the west side, the “lay” side of the nave.
Taking a cue from Paul Lemonde’s theory that the tribune is an interior portal of the church, I believe that the structure divided the nave into two parts – a nave and a narthex. The western section served as a place to gather pilgrims during the times where the canons were celebrating their monastic offices. Like the narthex at Vézelay or Tournus or any number of other Romanesque churches, this narthex featured sculpted instruction in the mysteries of the faith for the pilgrims.
Whatever the reasons that this magnificent structure was placed in this remote church, the result is a superb ensemble, among the finest works of Romanesque sculpture remaining to us. Unlike most Romanesque work, however, the figures on the tribune are not narrative, but symbolic. Only one – Saint Michael contending with a demonic dragon – is an example of story-telling. Instead we see a profusion of angels, vegetation, and human faces. There are symbols from the text of the Apocalypse, symbols of the Evangelists and a fantastical bestiary consisting of birds, eagles, lions, centaurs, stags, bulls, griffins and monkeys.
A close-up of the bird capital contending with a snake shows the splendid sculptural technique that looks like nothing less than a jeweled mosaic.
In the end, the remote harshness of life defeated the canons and the priory was shut down amidst great scandal. Once again the priory became a parish church and was eventually abandoned altogether. By the early 1900’s it was in private hands. The owner, to our eternal appreciation, began the restoration and today the church is a glory of the French patrimony.
Location: 42.598, 2.6226