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

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