A Mountain Masterpiece – Serrabone (Dennis Aubrey)


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.

North exterior view, Prieuré de Serrabone, Boule-d’Amont (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Tribune, Prieuré de Serrabone, Boule-d’Amont (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Tribune panel, Prieuré de Serrabone, Boule-d’Amont (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Tribune capital, Prieuré de Serrabone, Boule-d’Amont (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

East view of tribune, Prieuré de Serrabone, Boule-d’Amont (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Griffins and centaurs, Prieuré de Serrabone, Boule-d’Amont (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Tribune detail, Prieuré de Serrabone, Boule-d’Amont (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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

The Mountain Cathedral of Embrun (Dennis Aubrey)


The cathedral town of Embrun has long been a strategic site. It marks the start of the ascent to the Alpine passes and runs along the swift rushing waters of the Durance River. This was likely the route that Hannibal took when he invaded Italy in 218 BC. After the Roman conquest of Gaul, Eburodunum was a strategic trans-Alpine link from Spain and Gaul to Rome, being the key stop on the road from Arles to Briançon.

Embrun was a very early Christian site as well. Marcellinus of Gaul was named the first bishop of Embrun in 354. He built the first cathedral there, but it was destroyed in the invasion of 575 by the Lombards who came through the Montgenèvre Pass and debouched into the Durance Valley (now filled with the Lac de Serre-Ponçon just below Embrun). A new cathedral was built from 810 to 826 with help from Charlemagne, but in 916 the Saracens ransacked and destroyed the city and cathedral, and killed both the archbishop of Embrun and the bishop of Maurienne. The ruined cathedral was restored in the early 11th century and was finally rebuilt in its current form between 1170 and 1251. The Notre Dame du Réal that we see today is a transitional church alternating between Romanesque and Gothic forms.

Transitional though it may be, the cathedral is magnificent. The high vaulting and arches are composed of alternating white limestone and black shale. The vaulting is Gothic, but the nave arches are pure ogive Romanesque. The nave is large, about 170 feet long and 75 feet wide including the two sizeable side aisles. The western wall has a large Gothic-style rose window illuminating this open space. On the left we can see the large organ built in 1464 by Pierre Marchand. This was likely the gift of the Dauphin, the future Louis XI, and is the oldest working organ in France.

Nave, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Réal, Embrun (Hautes-Alpes) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The superb open choir has a large iron grate protecting it, a gift from Louis XI, the “Universal Spider”. The name was derived from the words of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, who contended with Louis until his death at the Battle of Nancy. During that fatal battle he is reported to have cried out, “I struggle against a spider who is everywhere at once”. Louis was very devout, and on one occasion when he was very sick, he promised to gift a silver altar grate to the famous Virgin of Embrun. When he recovered, he changed it to an iron grate so that it would not tempt thieves to profane her altar with a mortal sin!

Apse from side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Réal, Embrun (Hautes-Alpes) Photo by PJ McKey

The south side aisle terminates in an ornate chapel. But of special interest are the four windows rising up toward the choir. These are stairs within the wall rising up to the stone choir loft visible behind the altar.

South side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Réal, Embrun (Hautes-Alpes) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The north side aisle columns show the remnants of 16th century frescoes on the massive nave piers.

North side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Réal, Embrun (Hautes-Alpes) Photo by PJ McKey

Of interest to antiquarians is the north portal, called the Réal. Until 1585 there was a 13th century fresco painted on the stone tympanum representing Notre Dame d’Embrun, also known as La Vierge des Trois Rois because Mary was receiving homage from the Magi. This black madonna was the object of a celebrated pilgrimage until it was destroyed by the Huguenots under Lesdiguières. It is said that Louis XI, who had been the Dauphin and ruler of the province, venerated the Madonna especially and wore a leaden image of her in his hat.

The north portal itself is the finest decoration of the cathedral. The fine columns supporting the archivolts are composed of marbles of different colors. The Lombardic porch features the same alternating limestone and shale stonework as the interior, while the rose and white columns of the porch are supported by a pair of stone lions. Years ago, there was a horseshoe nailed to this great wooden door, supposedly thrown by Lesdiguières’ horse as he was preparing to ride it into the church. The loss of this shoe is reputed by local legend to have saved the church from desecration, although it could not save the fresco of La Vierge des Trois Rois.

North porch, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Réal, Embrun (Hautes-Alpes) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Against the portal wall are a pair of interesting (and exhausted) atalantes supporting the rear porch columns.

Atlante on north portal, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Réal, Embrun (Hautes-Alpes) Photo by PJ McKey

In the south side aisle the Chapelle Notre Dame features a mosaic recalling this famous fresco, but the Virgin is no longer represented as black.

Chapelle Notre Dame, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Réal, Embrun (Hautes-Alpes) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The cathedral of Embrun was our last major shoot for the 2017 trip and it was worth every hour. Louis XI, who has dominated our short history of the cathedral, has the last word. On his deathbed, his final words were to the Virgin of Embrun, Nôtre Dame d’Embrun, ma bonne maîtress, ayez pitié de moi.

Location: 44.562322° 6.495066°

The Monk in the Morvan Forest (Dennis Aubrey)


We are finally home again after two months photographing in France, Spain, and even a little bit of Italy. We drove 6,960 kilometers during that time at an arrive speed of 51 kilometers an hour, which translates to 4,344 miles and a dazzling 32 miles per hour. This demonstrates the narrowness of the country roads where we drive and the amount of time we spent in the Pyrénées and Alps. Until we hit the highway returning to Paris, the average speed was 48 kilometers per hour!

The trip ended in Vézelay at the Crispol hotel, which is almost like home to us. The Schori family is always so welcoming and the addition of the two children Max and Clémence makes it even brighter. It is always bittersweet leaving France. We love it there but we are always anxious to return home, this time to our new house amidst the Amish in Ohio. But this year was even harder because on our last full day, we went to visit Angelico Surchamp again at the monastery at La Pierre Qui Vire. Surchamp is our inspiration and our master, whose two hundred volumes of work documenting the Romanesque religious architecture of Europe is the bedrock on which we build. We arrived knowing that he resides in the infirmerie these days.

He was brought to the parloir in a wheelchair and we could see how feeble his 94 year-old frame is now, how much thinner. But when he recognized us, he lit up like a child and we had the most wonderful hour visit with him. Continually he would look out the window and smile at the blue sky with the great white clouds and remark at them, as if seeing them for the first time. C’est le don du Seigneur pour cette visite.

Teresa of Avila chapel, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

He tired easily but I thought he might want to go outside. He immediately agreed – to PJ’s horror. It was quite chilly outside and she was not sure that the nurse would appreciate us absconding with him. Surchamp rose as if to walk but agreed to let us wheel him out. We took the back way through the refectory and down the service elevator and out into the lower courtyard. We only stayed a few minutes because of the cold, but his eyes glowed brighter and he was transfixed by the site of the forest beyond.

When it was time for us to leave, we told him that we would see him next year. I asked if he would like us to take him to Vézelay to see the Basilique Sainte Madeleine, the church that started his great adventure almost seventy years ago, the first that he ever photographed. His eyes opened wide and he said almost rapturously, oh, oui, si Dieu le veut with a smile. And then he added that he would have to ask the abbot. I told him we would write the abbot about the plans and he repeated that he would have to get the permission of the abbot.

Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

And then he said, À mon âge, tout ce que je dois donner c’est ma mort – “At my age, all I have left to give is my death.” I told him that he had more to give than that, just the joy of our visit with him was a greater gift. He took my arm, looked at me with that old, wise look and said Nous sommes séparés par des milliers de kilomètres et un grand océan, mais nos coeurs sont proches.

Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vezelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

I think he was saying goodbye. We return to France again next year and I can only hope that we see our master at that time. Until that time, we can rest content that he is at peace in the forests of the Morvan.

PJ with Dom Angelico Surchamp in Le Villars

Anzy-le-Duc – the Great Survivor (Dennis Aubrey)


We have often remarked how astonishing it is that France still holds 5,000 Romanesque churches from the 11th and 12th centuries. They have survived war, accident, nature, religious strife, revolution, and age while standing proudly in the French countryside.

One of these survivors is the priory church in Anzy-le-Duc. The first church on this site was founded in Carolingian times, in 876, as a gift from the noble couple Letbald and Altaric. Their purpose was to establish a monastic institution dedicated to the revived Rule of Saint Benedict. The first prior was Saint Hugues of Poitiers, whose fame brought the priory into great repute. Hugues “died in great veneration” in 930 and was buried in the crypt of the church. His relics attracted many pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. This influx of pilgrims resulted in the construction of the Prieuré de la Sainte Trinité in the late 11th and early 12th Century.

This great priory church announces its presence from a distance with a stunning octagonal bell tower, one of the finest in Burgundy.

Église Notre-Dame de l’Assomption, Anzy-le-Duc (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

However, the pious motivations behind the construction of the church have not protected it during the years. In the “calamitious 14th Century” (thank you, Ms. Tuchman) the furies unleashed by the Hundred Years War reached deep into southern Burgundy. In 1368 the troops of the Black Prince attacked and sacked the church.

In 1576, the religious wars that divided France made their mark when the Protestants desecrated the tomb of Saint Hugues and mutilated sculptures of the western portal. In 1594 the Catholics of the League, set the church on fire.

Crypt, Église Notre-Dame de l’Assomption, Anzy-le-Duc (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Not to be outdone, nature lent a hand. In 1652 lightning damaged the signature bell tower.

Mankind returned to its destructive ways during the Revolution when great scars were inflicted on the sculptures on the west portal. In 1789, almost out of exhaustion, the priory was dissolved and the church abandoned. About 20 years later, the citizens of Anzy-le-Duc bought the structure and converted it to the parish church, dedicating it to Notre-Dame de l’Assomption.

The church survived, and what remains is quite interesting. The nave is narrow, with three bays and rounded arches. Each bay is separated by a thick rounded diaphragm arch that helps support a groin vault above. The two side aisles are also groin vaulted. This is the same vaulting schema that occurs at the Basilique Sainte Madeleine in Vézelay.

Nave, Église Notre-Dame de l’Assomption, Anzy-le-Duc (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The chancel crossing features a fine painted dome resting on squinches.

Crossing vault, Église Notre-Dame de l’Assomption, Anzy-le-Duc (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The west portal’s richly sculpted tympanum has, unfortunately, suffered greatly over the years. As previously mentioned, the Protestants mutilated some of the figures in 1576, but the greatest damage was done during the French Revolution. One of the citizens of Anzy-le-Duc, in his revolutionary fervor, invited his fellows to fire guns at the statuary.

The figures on the lintel, representing the Elders of the Apocalypse, various figures carved onto the archivolt, and the Christ and the angels of the tympanum were all mutilated by gunfire, which was rewarded by “a modest premium of three sous for each head shot.”

West portal, Église Notre-Dame de l’Assomption, Anzy-le-Duc (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The statuary inside, especially the fine historiated capitals, have survived much more successfully.

Nave capital, Église Notre-Dame de l’Assomption, Anzy-le-Duc (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Somehow, the Église Notre-Dame de l’Assomption has withstood the assaults of history and changing currents of religion. It stands today as a monument to the faith of Hugues of Poitiers and the pious Benedictine monks who followed his footsteps.

Altar, Église Notre-Dame de l’Assomption, Anzy-le-Duc (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Location: 46.319335° 4.059574°°

✜If you are interested in seeing more of these Romanesque churches, select this link to see a list of those that we have featured in this Via Lucis blog.✜

La Iglesia del Crucifijo, Puente la Reina (Navarra) – A Guest Post by Jong-Soung Kimm


The small town of Puente la Reina is located less than an hour’s drive southwest from Pamplona. It is near the junction where the old French route (Camino Frances) from the historical Roncesvalles of the Chanson de Roland legend, and the Jaca route (Camino Aragones)  merged for the pilgrims headed toward Santiago de Compostela in the Middle Ages. Tradition has it variously  that either Dona Mayor, the queen to King Sancho el Mayor or his daughter Dona Estefania had the five-arched  bridge constructed over the Arga river for the pilgrims in the 11th century.

Bridge over the Arga, Puente la Reina (Navarra) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Hence the name, the Bridge (of) the Queen. At the entry to the town stands the 12th century La Iglesia del Crucifijo (The Church of the Crucifix), which was originally built by the Knights Templar as a single nave church with an apse starting in 1146 during the reign of Alfonso I el Batallador who founded the town on the Arga river bank. The original Church was expanded with a second Nave in the 14th century, also with an Apse, by the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, who took over the Church after the disbandment of the Templars in the early 14th century. The name of the Church derives from a 14th century wooden Crucifix now in the northern Apse of the Church whose origin is shrouded in mystery. During the time of the pilgrimage, sanjuanistas (the Order of St. John) operated lodging and a hospital for the pilgrims.

Chevet, La Iglesia del Crucifijo, Puente la Reina (Navarra) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The covered passage on the south side of the Church, a gateway to the town, also serves as  Narthex to the Church itself. The east elevation of the Church presents an unusual double Apse composition. The bell tower was built mostly in the 14th century, but crowned in the 17th century with apparently Baroque ornamentation.

South Portal, La Iglesia del Crucifijo, Puente la Reina (Navarra) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The South Portal, added during the 14th century expansion, has a slightly pointed arch with three layers of archivolts carved with beading, vegetal scrolls, as well as the human and beast figures, while the corresponding supports are arranged in three columns with capitals and three straight jambs.

12th Century nave, La Iglesia del Crucifijo, Puente la Reina (Navarra) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The Nave has five bays of barrel vaults reinforced by the slightly pointed arches. The Chancel at the Apse has a modest Altar. The light source right at the Apse window basically makes it difficult to see what icon is placed at the center.  (It is made worse by not having been processed for HDR!)

View from the North Nave toward the South Nave, La Iglesia del Crucifijo, Puente la Reina (Navarra) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The builders used octagon-shaped pillars with projecting brackets for springing of the arches, somewhat unusual regional style, not indebted to the classical architecture. At the time of the visit, the South Nave was being readied for a wedding with a red runner down the aisle.

View of the wooden Crucifix, La Iglesia del Crucifijo, Puente la Reina (Navarra) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

On the Chancel wall of the North Nave is enshrined the mysterious wooden Crucifix laden with legends, which gave the Church its name. The sculpture is first referred to in a 1325  document, and is thought to be linked to the models of the German Rhineland through its Y that resembles a tree, although scholars also detect an Italian influence in the facial features of the Christ and the disposition of the feet. For our enjoyment of the magnificent Gothic work, a more charming legend comes down to us: a German pilgrim returning from Santiago de Compostela presented the Crucifix which had been in tow during his pilgrimage to the Church in appreciation for the hospitality and care he and his entourage received in Puente la Reina on the way to Santiago.

Detail of the wooden Crucifix, La Iglesia del Crucifijo, Puente la Reina (Navarra) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Only a modest bracket on the curving Apse wall in the  northern Nave of the Church supports the Crucifix. In looking at the stone work for the Apse vaulting, one can almost feel the dedication of the masons in trying to build a true and smooth curvature.

Photographic note: all pictures taken with Leica 28mm PC Super-Angulon on Canon 5D with an adapter.

✜ We are delighted to have another post from Jong-Soung Kimm on our Via Lucis site. For more information on Mr. Kimm, please see this link. ✜

A Home for the Vierge – Dennis Aubrey


A couple of months ago we posted an article about the magnificent vierge romane Notre Dame de Courpière that we photographed last May. What we didn’t know at the time was that this work had only recently returned to her home, having been stolen in 2008. She was found in the possession of a Japanese collector via Belgium and it took three years of legal proceedings to recover her. Returned to France, the statue was sent to the Paris workshops in the Louvre for restoration and was returned to the church of Saint Martin of Courpière in February 2015.

Vierge Romane, Église Saint-Martin, Courpière (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Vierge Romane, Église Saint-Martin, Courpière (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The Église Saint-Martin de Courpière is an interesting structure in its own right. The church is laid out as a modified latin cross with very short transepts. The 11th century nave has three bays and a narthex, and there are side aisles on the north and south sides. The nave is covered with a barrel vault.

Nave, Église Saint-Martin, Courpière (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Église Saint-Martin, Courpière (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The side aisles are narrow and dark, covered with half-barrel vaults. The individual bays of the aisles are separated by transverse arches. At some time in the past, most likely the 15th or 16th century, the exterior walls of the north side aisle was expanded to accommodate two chapels, clearly seen on the left. In the far distance we can see the apsidal chapel. There is another matching chapel on the south side of the apse as well.

North side aisle, Église Saint-Martin, Courpière (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by PJ McKey

North side aisle, Église Saint-Martin, Courpière (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Looking across the side aisle we see the nave and, on the south side, another late modification to the church. The Galerie Saint Martin is an upper structure that was built in the 17th century. In this shot we can also see the formidable nave piers with their attached columns, and the fine capitals that proliferate throughout the church.

Nave piers, Église Saint-Martin, Courpière (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave piers, Église Saint-Martin, Courpière (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

In this nave elevation, we can clearly see the barrel vault springing directly from the nave arcades. Somehow, despite the jumble of elements visible in this shot – the chandeliers, paintings, side chapels, and pulpit – the visual effect of the Église Saint-Martin is pleasing.

Nave, Église Saint-Martin, Courpière (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave, Église Saint-Martin, Courpière (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

In the shot of the chancel crossing, we can see left and right the very short transept vaults. The transepts give the impression of stubbiness and are unusual for that. Notice again the capitals topping the attached columns that give rise to the squinches supporting the cupola.

Chancel crossing, Nave, Église Saint-Martin, Courpière (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Chancel crossing, Nave, Église Saint-Martin, Courpière (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The finest feature of the church has to be the harmonious apsidal ensemble. Two echeloned side chapels flank the apse itself, which is composed of a short barrel-vaulted choir and a small apse covered with an oven vault. The choir is pierced by a large upper window in the transverse arch, but it is clear that it is not in proper relationship with the vault above and the arch below. I would suspect that the window was most likely a later, rather unfortunate, addition. The apse is pierced by three altogether more pleasing windows. We can also see clearly the 19th century painting that was added, common to many of the regional churches. We don’t know if these were based on existing medieval fragments.

Apse, Nave, Église Saint-Martin, Courpière (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse, Nave, Église Saint-Martin, Courpière (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We should not omit a sample of the capitals that adorn the church. This particular version shows two double-bulls, but there are others featuring Adam and Eve, sirens, atalantes, and acrobats.

Capital, Nave, Église Saint-Martin, Courpière (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital, Nave, Église Saint-Martin, Courpière (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Much of the Église Saint Martin is in an état vétuste, a dilapidated state, and subscriptions are underway for restoration. For those who are interested, here is a French television clip about the Vierge de Courpière and her return home.

Location: 45.754634 3.538881

In the Shadow of Le Puy (Dennis Aubrey)


The medieval fortress town of Polignac sits on a marvelous defensive site just five miles to the northwest of Le Puy-en-Velay. Polignac is home to one of the great noble families of France, and from the volcanic bluff that held their castle, they controlled the roads located to the north and west of Le Puy. This control was used for a profitable purpose – the viscounts of Polignac levied tolls on the streams of pilgrims that passed to and from Le Puy on the pilgrimage route to Santiago Compostella.

Chateau de Polignac

Chateau de Polignac

Crest of Polignac family

Crest of Polignac family

For two centuries, the viscounts of Polignac contended against the bishops of Le Puy – who also happened to be the Counts of Auvergne, allied with the French King – over these levies. They fought pitched battles against each other throughout the 11th and 12th centuries, and in 1073 when the see of Le Puy was vacant, Stephen Taillefer “The Ravager”, viscount of Polignac and Bishop of Clermont, installed himself as Bishop of Le Puy. It took a pope to sort out that mess and King Louis VII of France to adjudicate the issue of the tolls. This haughty and ruthless family was one of the most reviled in France at the time of the Revolution and their history shows why. Looking at their donjon on the bluff gives us a good idea why they felt invincible.

Today the town is still dominated by the fortress above, but in the town itself is a lovely Romanesque church. The church is a simple rectangle with no protruding transepts. There are five bays to the nave with side aisles leading to echeloned chapels on either side of the simple apse. The church is built with a dark volcanic stone. The apse was built in the 10th and 11th centuries and the nave in the 12th century, although the upper portions were rebuilt in the 17th.

Nave, Église Saint Martin, Polignac (Haute-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Église Saint Martin, Polignac (Haute-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The nave elevation reveals a barrel vault springing directly from the nave arcades with no clerestory windows. The round arcade arches are supported by heavy piers.

Nave elevation, Église Saint Martin, Polignac (Haute-Loire)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave elevation, Église Saint Martin, Polignac (Haute-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

The side aisles are narrow and covered with groin vaults. We can see the fine capitals topping the arcade pillars, which are carved from a softer white rock from Blavozy about ten miles to the east. There is an active market for the local stone in Blavozy even today. The capitals depict a mixture of acanthus leaves, animals and human heads.

North side aisle, Église Saint Martin, Polignac (Haute-Loire)  Photo by PJ McKey

North side aisle, Église Saint Martin, Polignac (Haute-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

At the end of each side aisle is an echeloned chapel flanking the apse. The chapel of Saint Anne on the north contains an interesting statue, a 14th century polychrome work known as the “Trinitarian” Saint Anne with Anne, Mary, and the child Jesus. In this shot of the south side aisle we can see some fine 15th century frescoes depicting the Nativity and the Annunciation.

Echeloned chapel, Église Saint Martin, Polignac (Haute-Loire)  Photo by PJ McKey

Echeloned chapel, Église Saint Martin, Polignac (Haute-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

The octagonal chancel crossing supports a squat clocher with a short spire. The dome rests on squinches.

Chancel crossing, Église Saint Martin, Polignac (Haute-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Chancel crossing, Église Saint Martin, Polignac (Haute-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The apse is the oldest part of the church, with construction beginning in the late 10th century. In the apsidal chapel on the right (south) side, we can see the 15th century frescoes.

Apse, Église Saint Martin, Polignac (Haute-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse, Église Saint Martin, Polignac (Haute-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

A highlight of the apse is the oven vault with its fine 12th century frescoes depicting the Last Judgment. On the south wall (right) we see Heaven and the angels on the south side and on the north, Hell with demons carrying the bodies of the damned.

Oven vault, Église Saint Martin, Polignac (Haute-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Oven vault, Église Saint Martin, Polignac (Haute-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The first time I ever saw Polignac was on the road leaving Le Puy and heading to the west for a visit to the Dordogne. Stunned by the sight of the powerful fortifications on top of the bluff overlooking the valley below, I was surprised that I had never even heard of the town. Research corrected that state of ignorance but it was not until PJ and I stayed three days in the town last Spring that we explored both the town and the Église Saint Martin de Polignac.

Location: 45.071137 3.860240