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.
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
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 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 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
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
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
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