The Diary of One Who Disappeared is the title of a song cycle written by the Czech composer Leoš Janáček. One of the purposes of this site is to act as a diary where I can keep a record of some of the things that I have spent my time doing, as well as memories that I want to preserve. The tabs above also contain some essays that I have written on subjects that interest me.

Although I am English I have disappeared from my native land and for the past two decades I have split my life between the south-west of France and the north-east of Italy. This has given me the opportunity to pursue a range of activities and interests including completing a PhD in social history, teaching art history and English in Italy, going to art exhibitions throughout Europe, attending concerts and operas by favourite composers such as Janáček, Mahler, Shostakovich and others, and travelling and exploring as much as possible.

In Search of Romanesque Occitania

A tour of the Occitania region of southern France in search of Romanesque ecclesiastical architecture.

Romanesque architecture appeared in France at the end of the tenth century and was particularly associated with the spread of the monastic orders who built many abbeys and monasteries in the style. It was characterised by thick walls with vertical buttresses, small windows with semicircular arches, side aisles, barrel or groin vaults to support the roof, and often one or more large towers. The Romanesque style dominated religious architecture until the appearance of the Gothic in the Ile de France in the middle of the twelfth century.

Occitania is particularly rich in Romanesque ecclesiastical buildings and over the past few months I have travelled through the Aveyron, Lot, Tarn et Garonne, Haute Garonne and Aude departments to visit some of the most important examples, especially those with outstanding tympana.

This was the age of pilgrimages and churches were built on the main routes from France to Santiago da Compostela. Two of the most important are in the Occitania region, in Conques and Toulouse.

L’Abbaye Sainte-Foy de Conques, Aveyron, was an attraction for pilgrims because it held the relics of Sainte-Foy, a young woman from Agen who was martyred by being burned with a red-hot brazier during the persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire. It is said that her relics were taken to Conques in 866 after being stolen from Agen by a monk. A ninth-century golden reliquary in the church contains a piece of her skull.

Reliquary of Sainte-Foy, Abbaye Sainte-Foy de Conques

The construction of the church, which began in 1041, included the building of five radiating chapels, an ambulatory, choir and nave. Galleries were later added over the aisle and the roof was raised over the transept.

Abbaye Sainte-Foy de Conques

The tympanum is particularly impressive, with scenes from the Last Judgement. It depicts Christ in Majesty presiding over the judgment of the souls of the deceased as Archangel Michael and a demon weigh the souls on a scale. The righteous go to Christ’s right while the dammed go to His left where they are eaten by a Leviathan and excreted into Hell. The depictions of the tortures of Hell include poachers being roasted by the rabbit they poached from the monastery.

Tympanum, Abbaye Sainte-Foy de Conques

Gates of Heaven and Hell, Tympanum, Abbaye Sainte-Foy de Conques

Hell (detail) Tympanum, Abbaye Sainte-Foy de Conques

There are 212 columns in the church, the capitals of which are decorated with scenes from the life of Sainte-Foy, as well as floral and biblical motifs.

Capital detail – the arrest of Sainte Foy

Cloister, Abbaye Sainte-Foy de Conques

La Basilique Saint-Sernin de Toulouse, the largest Romanesque church in France, was built between 1080 and 1220 on the site of a fifth-century church which contained the body of Saint Sernin, also known as Saint Saturnin, the first bishop of Toulouse, who was put to death in 250. He was accused of being the cause of the silence of the oracles and was tied by the feet to a bull and then torn to pieces as he was dragged along the ground.

The original architectural plan of the church was inspired by that of Sainte-Foy in Conques, both being constructed to allow for the passage of crowds of pilgrims at the same time that the monks carried out their service.

Basilique Saint-Sernin de Toulouse, showing the nine chapels at the east end

The church was constructed mainly in brick and is particularly notable for its impressive bell tower (the two Gothic-style upper levels were added in the fourteenth century and the spire in the fifteenth century). The west façade has two entrances, as does the façade of the south transept, the double-doored Porte des Comtes, with columns depicting the salvation – damnation dichotomy, and the Porte Miègeville, with a remarkable tympanum depicting the ascending Christ surrounded by angels.

‘Soul of Lazarus taken to heaven’ and ‘Miser made to carry heavy purse forever’

Porte des Comtes

Tympanum above the Miègeville door, Basilique Saint-Sernin de Toulouse

Inside the church, the chapels and the ambulatory are rich in artwork. Particularly notable is a large-scale bas-relief of Christ in Majesty dating from 1096. It depicts Christ in a mandorla, his right hand raised in a gesture of blessing while his left hand holds a gospel with the words Pax Vobis inscribed. The attributes of the four Evangelists fill the four corners.

‘Christ in Majesty’ (bas-relief, c.1096) Basilique Saint-Sernin de Toulouse

The ambulatory has a total of nine chapels – five radiating chapels and four apsidioles – which are said to contain around two hundred relics, the largest collection in the world after the Vatican. They include a thorn said to have been take from the Holy Crown, given by Alphonse de Poitiers in 1251, the shrine of the True Cross, dating from the twelfth century, and the shrine of Saint Sernin, from the thirteenth century. The reliquary chests also contain the remains of Saints Lawrence, Boniface, Anthony the Abbott, Vincent of Saragossa, Etienne, Bernadette Soubirous and Therese of Lisieux.

L’Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Moissac, Tarn et Garonne, dating from 1115 – 30, is one of the most impressive Romanesque structures of the twelfth century. Not only does it have one of the most elaborate Romanesque portals but also one of the largest and best-preserved cloisters from the period.

Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Moissac

The southern portal of the church opens on the main square of the town of Moissac. The tympanum, inspired by the Book of Revelation, depicts Christ enthroned in majesty, blessing the world. He is surrounded by the symbols of the four Evangelists: the eagle of John, the bull of Luke, the lion of Mark and the man of Matthew. Along the bottom of the tympanum is a row of elders, all turning their heads towards the figure of Christ.

Tympanum, Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Moissac

The impressive Abbey cloister still contains most of the original sculptures, both the seventy-six historiated capitals and eight pillars. Forty-six of the cloister capitals have biblical themes, whilst others depict plants and animals.

Cloister, Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Moissac

Column capitals, Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Moissac

L’Abbaye Sainte-Marie de Souillac, Lot, was originally built by Benedictine monks from Aurillac who settled there. It was consecrated in 1140 and dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption. Whilst it suffered damaged during the Hundred Years War, under Henri de la Mothe Houdancourt it was rebuilt.

Abbaye Sainte-Marie de Souillac

It was built in the shape of a Latin cross with a large nave topped with three cupolas. The apse has three radiating chapels and two other smaller chapels. The porch tower houses a necropolis with sarcophagi closed by two plaques from the Carolingian period.

The Abbey contains a number of interesting sculptures, many of which were moved inside after the external portal suffered damage during the Huguenot wars. They include a tympanum, which dates from 1130, depicting scenes from the story of Theophilus. To its right there is an extremely curious sculpture known as the ‘pillar of Souillac’ with a strange tangle of monsters. Also on the inner west wall is a relief carving of the prophet Isaiah, again dating from around 1130.

Tympanum, Abbaye Sainte-Marie de Souillac

‘Pillar of Souillac’, Abbaye Sainte-Marie de Souillac

Relief carving of Isaiah, Abbaye Sainte-Marie de Souillac

L’Eglise Saint-Pierre de Carennac is located in the centre of Carennac village, near the Lot border with the Dordogne. Construction of the abbey church began towards the end of the eleventh century in the Romanesque style. Donations to the Abbey in the twelfth century made it quite wealthy and allowed embellishments to be added to the church, including a west porch and portal, constructed around 1150.

L’Eglise Saint-Pierre de Carennac

The tympanum above the portal is particularly splendid. It portrays Christ in majesty in a mandorla, holding a book and blessing the world. He is surrounded by the Tetramorph (the angel of Matthew, the eagle of John, the lion of Mark and bull of Luke) as well as the the apostles and prostrating angels. The base of the tympanum has a row of animals, including a dog, a peacock and a fish, whilst the arch above has flowers and fruits.

Tympanum, Eglise Saint-Pierre de Carennac

The cloister is part Flamboyant Gothic after being rebuilt in the fifteenth century due to damage sustained during the Hundred Years War. It contains a wonderful example of a fifteenth-century sculpture of the Mise au Tombeau.

Cloister, Eglise Saint-Pierre de Carennac

Mise au tombeau, Eglise Saint-Pierre de Carennac

L’Abbaye de Fontfroide, near Narbonne, Aude, has had a turbulent history. It was founded in 1093 by  Aimery I, Viscount of Narbonne. However, after poor beginnings it needed to be refounded by Ermengarde, Vicountess of Narbonne and it joined the Cistercian order in 1145. Grants of land from the Counts of Barcelona and Vicountess Ermengard secured the wealth and status of the abbey and for a while it became one of the most powerful Cistercian abbeys in Europe, playing a crucial role during the crusade against the Cathars.

L’Abbaye de Fontfroide

However, the Black Death, which reached Narbonne in 1348, decimated almost the entire community. Whilst it recovered for a while, by the sixteenth century the commendatory abbots were taking more and more of the Abbey’s income until the number of monks significantly decreased and the Abbey became incredibly poor. By the time of the French Revolution, it had been abandoned. The Abbey is now in private ownership and open to the public.

The cloister seen from the chapter house, Abbaye de Fontfroide

Cloister, Abbaye de Fontfroide

Tympanum above the monastery entrance, Abbaye de Fontfroide

Stained-glass window in the choir, Abbaye de Fontfroide

L’Eglise Saint-Hilarian-Sainte-Foy de Perse, Espalion, Aveyron, was originally dedicated to Saint Hilarian, Sainte Foy being added when, in 1060, Hugh de Calmont, gave the monastery of Perse to the Abbey of Conques.

Little is known of the history of the church. In 1312 there were only five monks and the abbot had to unite the priory with a neighbour. However, this obviously had little effect as a century later there were just two monks.

L’Eglise Saint-Hilarian-Sainte-Foy de Perse, Espalion

The western portal of the church is impressive, with columns and a well-sculpted tympanum. The upper part of the tympanum evokes Pentecost, with, below, the Virgin Mary, surrounded by ten Apostles, receiving the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. The lower part of the tympanum represents the Last Judgement with, in the centre, souls being weighed. On the right an angel takes a child to Heaven, whilst on the left the Leviathan is devouring a man head first.

Tympanum, Eglise Saint-Hilarian-Sainte-Foy de Perse

Inside the church, the vault of the transept has richly-painted decoration.

Cross ribs of the vault of the transept, Eglise Saint-Hilarian-Sainte-Foy de Perse

L’Eglise Saint Pierre de Bessuéjouls, near Espalion, Aveyron, owed its importance to being on the Chemin de St Jacques de Compostelle pilgrimage route. Whilst part of the church was rebuilt in the sixteenth century the Romanesque section under the bell tower is still intact.

L’Eglise Saint-Pierre de Bessuejouls

The unusual upper chapel in the bell tower section, dedicated to Saint Michael, dates from the eleventh century. Inside is a rare twelfth-century altar, lintels carved with tracery, and figured capitals including a twin-tailed siren flanked by two centaurs.

Saint Michael Chapel, Eglise Saint-Pierre de Bessuejouls

Column capital, depicting two fruit pickers

Column capital, depicting twin-tailed siren flanked by two centaurs

La Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Cahors, Lot, which has an austere, fortified appearance, was built by bishop Gerard de Cardaillac in the twelfth century, on the site of a seventh-century church which had been erected by Saint Didier of Cahors. Most of the building was completed around 1140; however, the cupolas were probably added at the end of the century.

La Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Cahors

The nave as well as the north and south portals were built in the Romanesque style, although later additions such as the apse with three chapels, which were built on the Romanesque base, are Gothic. Unusually, the church has no transept. The cloister was added in 1504 by bishop Anthony of Luzech and is in the Flamboyant Gothic style.

The north facade has an arched portal surmounted by a remarkable tympanum, dating from around 1140. Its theme is the Ascension of Christ and the life of Saint Stephen.

North portal, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Cahors

In the centre, Christ, surrounded by a mandorla, is standing with his right hand raised in a sign of blessing, a bible is in his left hand. Angels are depicted on either side. The Virgin is in the centre of the lower part of the tympanum, flanked by the figures of the apostles, who are limited to eleven after the betrayal of Judas. 

On either side of the angels, is the story of the martyrdom of Saint Stephen, patron saint of the cathedral, as it appears in the Acts of the Apostles. On the left is the profession of faith before the Sanhedrin and Stephen being expelled by the high priest, whilst on the right, is the vision of Saint Stephen and his stoning in the presence of Saul.

North portal tympanum, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Cahors

West and north galleries of the cloister

Cloister, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Cahors

Wall paintings were discovered in 1950 in the narthex of the CathedraL and they were restored in 1988 and 1989. They date from between 1316 and 1324 and illustrate the story of Creation through the original sin of Adam and Eve. 

‘Original Sin’ and ‘Adam and Eve expelled from Paradise’

R.I.P. Jeff Beck

Jeff Beck, who died on 10 January aged 78, was one of the most influential guitarists of all time. He first rose to fame as part of the Yardbirds, where he had replaced Eric Clapton. He then formed his own band, the Jeff Beck Group, which included Rod Stewart, before embarking on a solo career.

He was twice inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; firstly in 1992 as a member of the Yardbirds and again in 2009 as a solo artist.

Trio Zadig in Perigueux

Back in Perigueux for the continuing Sinfonia en Perigord season. The excellent Trio Zadig: Boris Borgolotto on violin, Marc Girard Garcia on cello and pianist Ian Barber, performed a remarkably diverse programme.

Trio Zadig

They began with Brahms ‘Trio no. 1 in B major’, which was completed in January 1854, when the composer was only twenty years old. It was a very lively performance, especially the second movement, the B minor scherzo, which alternates delicate passages with vigorous fortissimo outbursts.

Then followed a wonderful more recent piece, Benjamin Attahir’s ‘Asfar’, played in the presence of the composer, who took well-deserved applause from an appreciative audience. Attahir was born in Toulouse and writes music that explores the connections between east and west, as this piece very expressively does. It was a fascinating introduction to, for me, a new composer.

The highlight for me was the trio transcription of Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘Verklärte Nacht’ (‘Transfigured Night’), one of my favourite Schoenberg compositions. It was initially inspired by a mystical poem by Richard Dehmel, although Schoenberg later distanced the work from the poem, claiming that it was intended to express human emotion. I had never heard the trio arrangement, transcribed for by Eduard Steueurmann, one of the composer’s students, played live before. It was beautifully performed by all three musicians and brought a memorable evening to an extremely enjoyable close.

Johannes Brahms ‘Trio no. 1 in B major’, opus 8; Benjamin Attahir ‘Asfar’; Arnold Schoenberg (arranged ) ‘Verklärte Nacht’, opus 4.

Medieval wall paintings (and more) in the Dordogne

Église de Saint-Avit Sénieur

This imposing abbey church, in the village of Saint-Avit Sénieur, Dordogne, was built at the end of the eleventh – beginning of the twelfth century, replacing the original church, Notre-Dame-du-Val, which was destroyed in the ninth or tenth century. It had been built near the site of the retreat of Saint Avitus, who had converted to Christianity after being taken prisoner by the Franks at the Battle of Vouillé in 507. It is said that site of the present village contained a pagan temple which collapsed after Avitus prayed.

Église de Saint-Avit Sénieur

The vast size of the church can be explained by the fact that it is located on one of the routes from Vézelay to Santiago di Compostella and needed to accommodate the large numbers of pilgrims who wanted to visit the relics of Saint Avitus. An inscription in the church, dated 1118, confirms that the remains were interred in the church.

Engraved stone inside Saint-Avit Sénieur regarding the relics of Saint-Avitus

The interior decoration of the church is particularly impressive and much of it has survived intact. The vaults have virtually all of the original decoration of red tracery on a yellow background. On the south wall are fourteenth-century designs uncovered during restoration work.

Vault decoration, Saint-Avit Sénieur

Vault keystone with Lamb of God, Saint-Avit Sénieur

Wall paintings on the south wall, Saint-Avit Sénieur

Inside the entrance of the church is a holy water font or stoup, which dates from the ninth century, possible transferred from the original Church of Notre-Dame-du-Val.

Ninth-century holy water font, Saint-Avit-Sénieur

Only the external walls remain of the cloister adjoining the south wall of the church. The abbey building is also in ruins, although the chapter house, which now contains a small museum, and the dormitory still remain.

The ruins of the cloister, Saint-Avit Sénieur

The former dormitory and chapter house of the abbey

Église Saint-Christophe, Montferrand du Périgord

Saint-Christophe is now a small church located a kilometre outside the village of Montferrand du Périgord. Much of the original nave was destroyed because of its poor condition and the building abandoned when a new church was built in the village centre in the nineteenth century, but fortunately it has been maintained as it contains several unusual but well-preserved wall paintings.

Église Saint-Christophe, Montferrand du Périgord

The church was built in the late-eleventh century, as evidenced by the herringbone structure in what remains of the nave. The earliest of the wall paintings also date from that period, although some are later; however, they were only discovered in 1983 when several coats of whitewash were removed during restoration work.

On the vault, the universe is symbolised by the sun and the moon, both with human faces, surrounded by stars. In the centre sits Christ in Majesty making the sign of a blessing. He is surrounded by the symbols of the four Evangelists; the lion of Saint Mark, the eagle of Saint John, the bull of Saint Luke and a winged man represents Saint Matthew.

Sun, moon and stars vault decoration, Eglise Saint Christophe

Christ in Majesty with symbols of the Evangelists, Eglise Saint Christophe

On the south wall is what remains of a painting of the Last Supper. Unfortunately, the demolition of part of the nave means that only two of the twelve disciples remain, seated at a food-laden table.

Remains of ‘Last Supper’ painting, south wall, Eglise Saint Christophe

On the north wall is an unusual depiction, in a primitive style, of the miracle of Saint Leonard. It shows Leonard freeing prisoners and the prisoners then kneeling before him to give thanks. Finally, the angels above are blessing the proceedings.

The Miracle of Saint Leonard, Eglise Saint Christophe

Also on the north wall, nearer the entrance, is a scene of Hell, depicted as a Leviathan with mouth open wide to swallow the damned. Other images illustrate mortal sins that can lead to damnation, including a woman riding a lion, representing lust.

Scene of ‘Hell’, Eglise Saint-Christophe

At the other end of the church, on the eastern wall of the apse are two scenes either side of a small window. On the left is an ‘Annunciation’, with Mary, dressed in a blue cloak, kneeling, as the angel Gabriel, in a yellow cape, appears to announce her destiny. To the right of the window is a depiction of Saint Christopher carrying the infant Christ on his shoulders to cross the river.

‘Annunciation’ and ‘Saint Christopher’, Eglise Saint Christophe

Église Saint Martial de Soulaures

The Church of Saint-Martial in Soulaures, near Monpazier, dates from the twelfth century. It is a small church with a single nave and a bell tower, unremarkable from the outside but inside the apse is impressively decorated.

Église Saint Martial de Soulaures

The current decoration probably dates from the 1700s, although where the paint is peeling in places signs of earlier work can be seen, including what appears to be a ‘Christ in Majesty’. The paintings were uncovered, as is often the case, during restoration work when layers of whitewash were removed.

The apse of Église Saint Martial

Some of the paintings appear to have a definite Italian influence

‘Adoration of the Magi’, Église Saint Martial

Église Saint-Martin de Besse

L’Église Saint-Martin is located in the commune of Besse, near Villefranche du Périgord. It was built at the end of the eleventh century and became a Benedictine priory, although they were replaced by Augustinians in the thirteenth century.

L’Église Saint-Martin de Besse

The nave of the church is surmounted by a defensive chamber, with pierced holes to enable arrows to by fired at any English attackers during the Hundred Years War. In the fourteenth century Église Saint-Martin became the parish church and the transept and choir were rebuilt over the following two-hundred years by the lords of Besse

During restoration work in 1961, wall paintings, probably dating from the sixteenth century, were discovered in the south transept. On the west wall is a scene of martyrdom and a depiction of Christ being mocked by soldiers.

West wall, Église Saint-Martin de Besse

On the south wall, to the right of the window, is ‘The Kiss of Judas and the arrest of Christ’, whilst to the left is a depiction of ‘Mourning the Dead Christ’.

‘The Kiss of Judas and the Arrest of Christ’, Église Saint-Martin de Besse

‘Mourning the Dead Christ’, Église Saint-Martin de Besse

However, it is the portal that is the most impressive part of the church. It consists of three sculpted archivolts resting on columns topped with capitals. The outer arch has a design of intertwined rope with a figure at the centre, possibly Christ in Majesty, flanked by two angels. The inner arch is decorated with sculpted palms, representing the Passion, whilst its central keystone has the Lamb of God supported by an angel.

Portal, Église Saint-Martin de Besse

It is the middle arch which is the most remarkable. It is decorated with carvings illustrating the Messianic Redemption. In the centre are Adam and Eve (dressed, therefore after the Fall) either side of the Tree of Knowledge around which the serpent is entwined. They are flanked by two angels. To the left of this scene Adam and Eve appear again (this time naked, so before the Fall), with God extending his hand to Adam.

Adam and Eve, before the Fall

Adam and Eve, after the Fall

Amongst carvings surrounding Adam and Eve are the prophet Isaiah and a seraph, the legend of Saint Eustace and Saint Michael the Archangel defeating the dragon.

Prophet Isaiah and Seraph, Église Saint-Martin de Besse

Saint Eustace and the Stag, Église Saint-Martin de Besse

Saint Michael the Archangel defeating the Dragon

Quatuor Ardeo in Perigueux

In Perigueux for the opening concert of the Sinfonia en Perigord season. Quatuor Ardeo, with Carole Petitdemange and Mi-sa Yang on violins, Yuko Hara on viola and Matthijs Broersma replacing Joëlle Martinez on cello, played an extremely entertaining programme.

Quatuor Ardeo

It began with Beethoven’s ‘String Quartet no. 1 in F major’, written between 1798 and 1800. The second movement, which was inspired by the tomb scene from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, was particularly beautifully played. This was followed by a piece I had never heard before, Joaquin Turina’s single-movement ‘La Oración del torero’ (The Toreador’s Prayer), composed in 1924, which has an impressionistic, Iberian feel to it, reminiscent of Debussy and Ravel, which was most enjoyable.

The most impressive playing was reserved for Dvorak’s ‘String Quartet no. 12 in F major’, known as the ‘American’. Mi-sa Yang took over as first violin and played wonderfully, with great energy and rhythm. It was all followed by the most unusual of encores, without any instruments at all. A performance of Steve Reich’s ‘Clapping Music’ rounded off a very pleasant evening.

Matthijs Broersma

Ludwig van Beethoven: ‘String Quartet no. 1 in F major’, opus 18, no. 1; Joaquin Turina: ‘La Oración del torero’ (The Toreador’s Prayer), Op. 34; Antonin Dvořák: ‘String Quartet no. 12 in F major, ‘American’, opus 96; Steve Reich: ‘Clapping Music’.

Cadouin Abbey

Cadouin Abbey, in Le Buisson-de-Cadouin, Dordogne, was founded in 1115, becoming a Cistercian monastery in 1119. It became a magnet for pilgrims on the route to Santiago de Compostela after it claimed to have the shroud that had been wrapped around the head of Christ. Eleanor of Aquitaine and Richard the Lionheart were both visitors. However, when it was discovered that the cloth came from Egypt and dates from the eleventh century, pilgrim numbers unsuprisingly fell drastically.

Cadouin Abbey

The Abbey’s main attraction now is the cloister, which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage monument. It was rebuilt in the fifteenth century after the Abbey buildings were badly damaged during the Hundred Years War. It was built in the Flamboyant Gothic style, with very rich ornamentation and decorative sculptures.

Cadouin Abbey cloister

The Sanctuary of Rocamadour

In Rocamadour, in the Lot, another of ‘Les Plus Beaux Villages de France’, and it is easy to see why when looking at its setting – it clings precariously against a cliff overlooking the Alzou Valley. It has been an important pilgrim destination for over one thousand years and amongst those who have visited the site are Henry II of England, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Blanche of Castille and Kings Louis IX, Charles IV and Louis XI of France.


The village is built on three levels, the bottom level contains the houses and shops, the next level has the Sanctuary of Rocamadour, a remarkable group of seven chapels and a basilica. The top level is the site of the castle, built in the fourteenth century to protect the Sanctuary.

Between the lower town and the Sanctuary is the Grand Escalier, a steep climb of 216 steps. It is said that pilgrims once climbed these on their knees as an act of penance. At the centre of the Sanctuary is the Parvis des Eglises, a small square around which the religious buildings were constructed between the eleventh and the fourteenth centuries.

Basilique Saint-Sauveur

The Sanctuary began to be built and the pilgrims started to arrive following the discovery in 1166 of an intact body which the village presented as that of Saint Amadour. The relics of the saint were housed in the crypt below Saint-Sauveur church, which was constructed in limestone between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, at a time of transition between the Romanesque and Gothic styles. Unfortunately, the church later fell into a serious state of disrepair, the roof needed to be replaced and the southern face was badly bowed because of the downward thrust of the vaults. The bishops of Cahors decided to restore the building in 1842. 

Basilique Saint-Sauveur, Rocamadour

Chapelle Notre-Dame

Next to the basilica is the Chapel of Notre-Dame. The Chapel is home to the famous statue of Our Lady of Rocamadour, known as the Vierge Noire or Black Madonna. Carved from walnut in the twelfth century, she drew medieval worshippers from all across Europe.The statue is linked to numerous miracles, particularly to the saving of lives at sea. Overhead, the ninth-century iron bell is said to have mysteriously rung whenever the Virgin performed a miracle.

Chapelle Notre-Dame, Rocamadour

La Vierge Noire, Chapelle Notre-Dame, Rocamadour

Embedded in the rock above the chapel is a sword known as the Durandel sword. According to legend, when Roland, the nephew of Charlemagne, was badly injured in battle he begged the Archangel Michael to save his sword from the enemy. He threw it into the air and it miraculously landed in the rock face at Rocamadour three hundred kilometres away.

Alongside the entrance to the chapel are the remains of what would have been a bigger, thirteenth-century fresco of the dance macabre.

Dance macabre fresco, Chapelle Notre-Dame, Rocamadour

Chapelle Saint-Michel

Chapelle Saint-Michel is the highest of all the religious buildings in Rocamadour. It has no roof nor a western wall as the chapel was carved into the rock. However, medieval pilgrims did not have access to it as it was strictly for the use of the Benedictine monks.

Chapelle Saint-Michel, Rocamadour

The fact that it was built under a rock overhang has allowed the chapel’s thirteenth-century frescoes to survive in an exceptional condition. On the lower part of the wall is half of a now-faded fresco depicting Saint Christopher, whilst above is a representation of ‘The Annunciation and The Visitation’.

‘The Annunciation and The Visitation’ fresco, Chapelle Saint-Michel, Rocamadour

Inside, a thirteenth-century fresco decorates the semi-dome apse. It depicts Christ in glory, with the Evangelists on either side writing the Gospels. At the bottom left, Saint Michael is weighing the souls, whilst on the right, seraphim welcome the righteous into heaven.

Apse fresco, Chapelle Saint-Michel, Rocamadour

Chapelle Saint-Louis et Notre Dame de l’Ovalie

The chapel, which is built into the cliff, was originally dedicated to King Louis, who travelled to Rocamadour as a pilgrim in May 1244, accompanied by his mother, Queen Blanche, and his brothers. In 1297, Louis became the first layman to be canonized. However, interestingly, the chapel has more recently been rededicated to rugby players and prayers are now said there for those injured during a game. Consequently, the chapel has on display the shirts of many famous rugby players from all over the world.

Chapelle Saint-Louis et Notre Dame de l’Ovalie, complete with rugby shirts

Chapelle Saint-Jean-Baptiste

Chapelle Saint-Jean-Baptiste is a small octagonal chapel that initially served as a funeral chapel; however, it was transformed into a baptistery in the nineteenth century. The Gothic portal from the fifteenth century was kept, on which a tympanum was added depicting the Lamb of God.

Chapelle Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Rocamadour

Tympanum, Chapelle Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Rocamadour

The chapel still houses the tomb of Jean de Vallon, who was the Head Master of the Saint John of Jerusalem Knights in the fifteenth century.

Tomb of Jean de Valon, Chapelle Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Rocamadour

Chapelle Saint-Blaise

The chapel of Saint-Blaise or of the Divine Miséricorde is dedicated to the fourth-century physician who was martyred by being tortured and beheaded. It is a small chapel, but has particularly beautiful stained-glass windows.

Chapelle Saint-Blaise, Rocamadour

The Chapel is in a strategic position in the Sanctuary, as the west window is above the Grand Escalier. This enabled it to be used as a surveillance point during the Hundred Year’s War as part of the Sanctuary’s defensive system.

Stained-glass windows, Chapelle Saint-Blaise, Rocamadour

Chapelle Sainte-Anne

Sainte-Anne chapel was built in the thirteenth century. but many of its contents are from later periods. It contains a seventeenth-century altarpiece which was moved from Chapelle Notre-Dame. As it was the original site of the Black Virgin it still contains the message ‘Nigra sum sed formosa’ (I am black and yet beautiful).

A stained-glass window is from the nineteenth century and depicts the Virgin as a young maid with her parents, Sainte Anne and Saint Joachim and the dove of the Holy Spirit. On the walls of the chapel are photographs of engravings showing the ruins of the Sanctuary after the French Revolution.

Chapelle Sainte-Anne, Rocamadour

Crypte Saint-Amadour

The Saint Amadour crypt, which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is located beneath Saint-Sauveur Basilica. The chapel dates from the twelfth century and has a very simple design, with a single nave and no altar or transept.

The chapel and the relics were badly damaged by fire during the wars of religion when, in 1562, the Huguenots plundered and burned the sanctuary. Local inhabitants save a few bones from the flames which were placed in a small reliquary that was then hidden.

Crypte Saint Amadour


In Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne in the Corrèze department of France, one of the ‘Plus Beaux Villages de France’. The centre of the town is dominated by the Abbey Church of Saint-Pierre, which was completed in 1140.

Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne alongside the river Dordogne

Abbatiale Saint-Pierre de Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne

The portal on the south façade of the church has a magnificent tympanum which depicts the Parousia – the second coming of Christ on Earth. The tympanum is divided into three registers. The lower register contains depictions of exotic animals which symbolise the deadly sins of anger, pride and envy. The middle register depicts Hell, into which the characters on the upper register risk being thrown if they are not judged worthy of Paradise. The upper register is dominated by a two-metre carving of Christ, his arms spread in the form of a cross. He is flanked by the twelve Apostles, while angels above him carry the crown and nails. Meanwhile, other angels sound the trumpet to summon up the dead.

Tympanum, Abbatiale Saint-Pierre de Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne

There are further carvings either side of the entrance porch, with scenes from both the Old and New Testaments. On the left are episodes from the Life of Daniel, whilst on the right are Temptations of Christ.

Porch carvings, Abbatiale Saint-Pierre de Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne

Inside the church, its treasure is exhibited in the north transept. It consists of a statue of the Virgin and Child in wood covered with silver from the twelfth century, a reliquary lantern dating from the eleventh century, a thirteenth-century enamelled shrine depicting the journey of the Three Magi, and two silver reliquary arms from the thirteenthth century, those of Sainte-Félicité and Saint-Emilion.

Virgin and Child, Abbatiale Saint-Pierre, Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne

Enamelled shrine depicting the journey of the Three Magi (thirteenth century)

The abbey was the subject of attacks during both the Hundred Years War and the Wars of Religion, resulting in the monks eventually fleeing in 1574. In 1663 it was taken over by the French Benedictine community which restored it. However, it was definitively abandoned during the Revolution, when it became the parish church.

Beaulieu’s original parish church was built in the twelfth century, near the upper port where the river barges stopped. However, it was sold during the Revolution, when its function was transferred to the abbey church. It was purchased by the Brotherhood of Blue Penitents in 1820 and became the seat of the brotherhood until 1870.

Chapel of the Penitents, Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne

Pierre Soulages (1919 – 2022)

Whilst at the Fernand Leger exhibition at the Musée Soulages in Rodez, it was a perfect opportunity to see the works of the artist after whom the museum was named, Pierre Soulages, who was born in Rodez in 1919. The museum was opened in 2014, enabling the largest collection of his works in the world to be on permanent display. Soulages and Colette, his wife of eighty years, donated 900 works to the museum. However, just a few days after my visit, on 26 October, Soulages died in Nimes at the impressive age of 102.

Pierre Soulages, aged 100

There was an extreme contrast between the colourful works of Leger in one room and Soulages in the next. With Soulanges there were no bright, primary colours or cheerful subjects – instead, vast blocks of black and brown and minimalist works in Brous de noix. Temporary exhibitions at the museum are usually of artists with a connection with the works of Soulages, but on this occasion the paintings were so different that I wondered what possible connection there could be. Yet there were several – the two artists not only knew each other and admired each other’s work but they also worked together. For example, in 1952, at an event to commemorate the fifth centenary of Leonardo da Vinci at Chateau d’Amboise, Léger designed costumes and Soulages the sets for an evening performance.

Pierre Soulages ‘Brou de Noix, 65,7 x 50,1 cm’ (1947)

Whilst in many of Soulage’s paintings black dominated, he explained that “my instrument is not black but the light reflected from the black.” In other words, they were ‘beyond black’; in fact he called the technique ‘outrenoir’. He applied the paint in thick impasto layers and then worked on it with tools to achieve the complex textures he wanted. In earlier years he had also painted in walnut stain, applying bold brown strokes to the canvas to produce an effect which again provided a contrast to the bright colours of the neo-Fauvists of the period.

Pierre Soulages ‘Peinture 162 x 114 cm’ (1958)

In 1938 Soulages enrolled in the Ecole des beaux-arts in Paris, but did not stay as he disliked the traditional techniques taught there and he sought his own way, rejecting the trends in abstract painting of the time. This made him more noticeable and he was successful quite quickly. After military service in World War II, he exhibited at the Salon des Surindépendants in 1947, in Germany the following year and at the Venice Biennale in 1954. In 1954 he also exhibited in New York, gaining recognition in the United States during the time that Abstract Expressionism was being promoted. He would later be made an Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Pierre Soulages ‘Design for stained-glass windows’

The windows installed in Abbatiale Sainte-Foy de Conques

Between 1987 and 1994 he produced 104 stained-glass windows for the Abbey Church of Saint Foy in Conques, the preliminary designs for which are also on display in the Rodez museum. He was the first living artist to exhibit at the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. A retrospective of his work was also held at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2009 – 2010 and the Louvre held a major exhibition in 2019 – 20 to celebrate his one-hundredth birthday.

Hieroglyphics in Figeac

The Rosetta Stone, which contains three versions of a decree issued in Memphis, Egypt, in 196 BC, was discovered in 1799 being used as a building material in the construction of Fort Julien near the town of Rashid (or Rosetta) in the Nile Delta.

The first version was in Egyptian hieroglyphic, never before translated, and the last was in Ancient Greek. This enabled scholars to work on the interpretation of the hieroglyph symbols. Jean-François Champollion, who was born in Figeac, was the first to succeed and render hieroglyphics understandable.

Figeac now not only has a Champollion Museum but the town’s Place des écritures has a giant replica of the Rosetta Stone in his honour.

Rosetta Stone replica, Place des écritures, Figeac