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’

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