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Romanesque Reflections - the amazing churches of the region

Romanesque Reflections - the amazing churches of the region

Without doubt, one of the delights of the region are the Romanesque churches that decorate even the smallest village. The thrill of turning a street corner and seeing artistry that dates back hundreds of years can stop you in your tracks and make you wonder at the history behind these gems. Martin Cole explains how for him and his wife Maggie, this wonder turned into a journey of discovery ...

Who’d have guessed that Maggie’s passing interest in ‘suspended domes on supporting pendentives’ (as opposed to those supported by squinches) would turn into her involvement in a major project on Romanesque churches.

Anyone walking regularly in Poitou-Charentes will stumble across Romanesque churches. And it was in the church at Conzac that I first spotted my wife gazing up at sculpted green men, who in turn gazed back at her. She felt sure they had a message for her if only she could decipher it.

Romanesque-church-CONZAC

And that’s where my wife and the team behind Romanesque Reflections come in because they’ve crossed the language barrier and through detailed photography have translated for readers this lost language of Romanesque architecture. Strangely enough, as the book explains, the best introduction for newcomers can be found at a service area, on the A10 Paris to Bordeaux motorway in the southbound ‘aire’ at Lozay. There’s an open air museum with perfect reproductions of Romanesque sculpture and architecture. No need to crane your neck or adjust your specs, you can amble amongst replica stonework for close-up inspection.

Beautiful sculpture’s all well and good, but there’s a bigger picture. To trace the evolution of Romanesque we had to think ourselves back to when France barely existed. Charlemagne had died in 814 AD and central power in Europe had crumbled. Towns and cities were raided by Vikings, Muslims and Magyars. Local noblemen had failed to protect the citizens and the church was their last resort. And given this vote of confidence and given that the church held more land than any local lord, it went from strength to strength. In fact it was the monasteries that were to lead France out of chaos.

Chaos, as Romanesque Reflections will tell you, drives people to seek stability and so it was in 910 AD, the Duke of Aquitaine bequeathed a vast tract of land near Macon in Burgundy to found the monastery at Cluny and re-establish the Benedictine Rule by brushing up some slovenly monastic practices. And like a breath of fresh air the Duke drew up a generous charter which meant that Cluny could follow its own ambitious agenda. When in Burgundy why not visit Cluny and look up at the remaining gigantic south transept of the Abbey to under stand the scale of those ambitions.

CATHEDRALE-ANGOULEME-romanesque

Benedictine Rule was based on peace, prayer and work - a winning formula that sparked massive monumental building works which had the rich digging ever deeper into their coffers. The newly funded Benedictines could now afford to spread their message across Western Europe constructing a sprawling network of churches, priories, monasteries and abbeys. This provided a burst of new employment for skilled stone masons, the latest in a long line of craftsmen who between 800 and 1,000 years ago radically transformed the European landscape.

Throughout the Dark Ages ancient Roman building traditions had been kept alive by Lombard masons.

Later, during the new flurry of architectural progress, the existing Roman round arch evolved with innovative barrel stone vaults supported by
heavy columns.

It was twenty years ago when touring France that we first noticed signposts to ‘église romane’ and, being me, I wondered how they fitted in with the Saxon, Norman and Gothic churches of England. In fact Cluny was founded at almost the same time as the Norman duchy of Normandy. Following a treaty of 911, the ‘Northmen’ settled along the River Seine, converted to Christianity, and adopted the French language. The Saxon King of England, Edward the Confessor, who had grown up in exile in Normandy, carried the style back home to England and of course, after the Norman Conquest in 1066 communities of monks were invited to settle too. Monumental churches sprang up everywhere: Lincoln (1072), Canterbury (1073), Old Sarum (Salisbury, 1076), St Alban’s Cathedral (1077), Winchester Cathedral (1079), Ely (1090) and Durham Cathedral (1093) and although Westminster Abbey has some Saxon elements it’s mainly Norman too. And as in France these monasteries became instruments of political policy.

RETAUD-romanesque-church-france

Most sacred monuments face east and represent the soul. The faithful enter by the west and it is here you find the finest sculptures and the essential message to the congregation. The capital, the upper part of the column, supports the stone vault. And the whole is an image of the cosmos with the columns as trees and the vaulted ceiling as the roof of heaven, the same theme as that created by the trees chosen by the Duke and the Duchess of Cambridge for their royal wedding. Generally the tops of the columns are lavishly decorated with both religious and profane images, many borrowed from 2nd century Greek manuscripts, but there’s no escaping it, the dominant theme is the conflict of the soul - up to heaven or down to the other place.
You can spot decorative bestiaries of real and imagined animals, exotic foliage, but it’s the struggle against evil that overwhelms. Virtues and vices personified battle over our feeble souls, backed up by nightmare monsters who seek out sin at every turn. And don’t underestimate the force of these messages for, without television and all the modern trappings, these were probably the only images that ordinary people ever saw. Add to these the stern sermons of the clergy and you can see why the whole system worked so well. Deviate at your peril!

In case you’re wondering what an archivolt is and what the difference is between a dome on squinches and one on pendentives - the question that got us going in the first place – take time to consult the church vocabulary. It’s worthwhile pondering some of these meticulously sculpted doorways.

Then you can impress your summer visitors with a bit of church lexicon when showing them around your local village church!

LESTERPS-romanesque-church-france

Once you’ve done Romanesque why not move on to Gothic?

Many medieval churches are composed of both Romanesque and Gothic elements – construction begun during the Romanesque period was completed during the Gothic period (12th century). These architectural variations are easy and fun to spot. The biggest difference in Gothic style was the use of buttresses. These support structures or columns were more slender and sometimes set off from the main walls and attached by arches, and acted to displace the pressure from the roof outwards. Essentially, this meant the buildings could be taller; with finer walls pierced with larger windows. Gothic churches often feature huge, ornate, round rose windows. The Gothic style, as a whole, was characterized by much pointier arches than their predecessors, with taller spires, instead of blunt towers.

AULNAY-romanesqu-church-france


Notable Romanesque examples in Charente and Charente-Maritime:

Angoulême Cathedral, Angoulême: stupendous western façade, example of a domed church

Aulnay-de-Saintonge: picturesque setting, intricately carved south porch doorway

Fenioux: Lantern of the dead (lanterne des morts) a rare survivor from the Romanesque period

Rioux and Rétaud: two very lavishly decorated churches, thought to be almost ‘baroque’ in style

Abbaye-aux-Dames, Saintes: magnificent western façade with ornate central portal

Saint-Eutrope, Saintes: wonderful crypt

Talmont-sur-Gironde: splendid setting

 

GENSAC-La-PALLUE-romanesque-church

 

Notable Romanesque examples in Vienne and Deux-Sèvres:

St Jouin-de-Marnes: very decorative, well-preserved western façade in the Poitevin style

Airvault: unusual church entrance through the narthex, wide range of carved subjects on nave capitals

St-Savin-sur-Gartempe: contains one of the best collections of Romanesque murals

Notre-Dame-la-Grande, Poitiers: outstanding decorative western façade

St-Hilaire-le-Grand, Poitiers: entirely Romanesque, frescoes, historiated capitals

St-Radegonde, Poitiers: beautiful Romanesque bell tower

The baptistery of St-Jean, Poitiers: a rare example dating back to the 4th century, featuring some interesting Romanesque murals

Chavigny: interesting carved capitals said to be the work of Gofridus, which combine a mixture of biblical and apocalyptic scenes

St-Hilaire, Melle: decorative western façade and north side, tall nave with high barrel vaulting

 

ABBAYE-DAMES-romanesque-frieze


Lumières romanes / Romanesque Reflections

Romanesque-book-coverBy Philippe Julien-Labruyère, Isabelle Oberson and Maggie Cole, le Croît Vif and Arléa 317pp €39

“Lumières romanes / Romanesque Reflections” is a sumptuous bi-lingual fine arts book that captures the beauty and presence of Romanesque churches in the Charente and the Charente-Maritime. The French publishers, le Croît Vif and Arléa, have lovingly reproduced two hundred and sixty colour photographs expertly taken by Philippe Julien-Labruyère to give a comprehensive picture of the finest examples of medieval churches in the region - the church of Saint-Eutrope and the Abbaye-aux-Dames in Saintes, Angoulême Cathedral and Saint Peter’s church in Aulnay and many more. The descriptions and historical anecdotes covered in the bi-lingual French/English text by Isabelle Oberson (Director of Heritage in the Saintonge) and Maggie Cole (author of the English text) penetrate the secrets of the master masons who created this “white mantle of churches” across the landscape. And there’s a detailed, easy to use glossary of architectural and religious terms to help you discover the enchanting world of the Romanesque.

“Romanesque Reflections” is available from most bookshops in the Charente and Charente-Maritime or can be ordered through amazon.fr or the publisher’s website - www.croitvif.com

EDITED BY: HELEN MILLAR PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF: PHILIPPE JULIEN-LABRUYÈRE

 © All rights reserved. Originally published in Living Poitou-Charentes April 2012