Thursday, 5 July 2012

A Romanesque graphic novel

Last month we went and visited the church in the village of Tavant. You can read about it here. On our way home, as we entered the town of l'Ile-Bouchard, we spotted a slightly wonky sign with the logo for an historical monument and the name 'Prieuré de Saint Leonard'. There was no indication as to how far away it was but, as we had some time to spare, we decided to follow the signs and see what we'd find.
remains of the apsidal choir
What we found was the remains of a romanesque priory. Originally built in the 1060's, the Prieuré de Saint Leonard seems also to have served as a parish church from the 13th century. Hardly anything remains; just the choir, ambulatory and two of the three apsidal chapels.

It is a small site and it's free to enter. Typical longere style houses ring the area. Fortunately, there's an informative panel at the entrance, sketching a brief outline of what's known about the priory. At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking it's not much and perhaps wonder why the whole of what remains has been covered with a protective roof.

That is until you walk in through the small gate, stand in front of the remains, and look up at the apsidal choir with its 2 tiers of rounded blind arcading and see the early Romanesque capitals on top of the pillars which support the curve. 

They were 're-discovered' in 1997, having been blocked up and are stunning: the mediaeval equivalent of a superb graphic novel. In an age where many were not literate the Bible was told through pictures in stained glass, frescos and/or carvings. There are six of these pillars, the capitals of four depict scenes from the Gospels; the other two are decorated with mythical beasts and serpents.

The capitals are deeply carved, more like tableaux you would find carved into a flat-sided wall. Each side of the four captials shows a scene from the life of Christ. The figures are slightly dumpy and are certainly naive, but the expressions,  the drapery of the clothes, and above all, the amount of detail makes the figures have character.
first capital of the four **
Looking from left to right the first of the four captials shows the Annunciation and the Adoration.

On the front side the angel Gabriel, who is looking very pleased with himself, is on the left with beautifully carved wings showing the overlay of feathers. He's barefoot with little fat toes which hang over the edge. He also has the words "Anges Gabriel" carved on the edge above him, just in case you were in any doubt! In the middle is Mary, shod, with her hands facing palms outward. On the right are Mary & Joseph embracing face to face.

The left side of the capital shows the Adoration of the Magi. Mary is seated on the extreme corner and her chair has maned lion-heads as armrests. She's wearing a crown of fleur de lys -- as are all three kings -- and is holding the baby Jesus on her knee. Above them is the nativity star looking more like a daisy. All three kings are bearing gifts and have very prominent cheekbones and slanted eyes to make them seem exotic and foreign.
second capital of the four**
The front of the second capital shows the baptism. The figure of Jesus is standing in a barrel above which are wavy lines representing water. He's being supported by St John the Baptist whose wearing a halo which looks like a pierced wheel. On the right is a female figure, and between her and Jesus is a badly damaged representation of the holy spirit as a rather enormous dove.

On the left corner is an angel, again barefoot, whose hand is pointing to the right [as we view it]. He's come to warn Joseph to fly [flight into Egypt]. You can just see a mustachioed and bearded Joseph next to the angel holding a rope halter of a donkey.

Just past the corner on the right is a soldier--you can see his booted and spurred foot. He's part of the depiction of the massacre of the Innocents which is on right side.
third capital of the four**
The third capital shows the Crucifixtion at the front. The two headless figures are the two traditional witnesses: St John the Evangelist and the Virgin Mary; she's on the left, he's on the right. Above the scene is flanked by two angels leaning down from clouds in the heavens, again with wheel-like haloes.

On the right you can just see the Last Supper with the disciples sat at the table. One or two of them have the most excellent mustaches and the perspective of the figures seated at the table, given the limitations of carving on a capital, really showcases the skill of the carver.
fourth capital of the four**
The last capital shows the entry into Jerusalem at the front. Christ is seated on a donkey -- although he seems to be walking his legs are so long compared to the aminal's. The palms being waved look rather like ferns.

On the right side you can just see a bit of a scene from the Temptation of Christ. Satan is tempting Jesus with a round stone; taunting him that if he's hungry he should turn the stone into bread.

We didn't photograph every side of each capital, hope that these four photos give a good impression of how amazing the carvings were.

It just goes to show that if you follow a battered old sign you never know what you'll find! During our visit there wasn't a soul there, and we spent an enjoyable time 'reading' the capitals and imagining that if the service was especially boring and attention was wandering, the images would certainly entertain!!


** all photos can be enlarged so you can see the detail more clearly.

22 comments:

Susan said...

What a fabulous place! and your commentary really brought it to life.

the fly in the web said...

This is stunning....won't you think of doing guided tours and preferably a specialist guide book - online, even.

GaynorB said...

The carvings are intricate and stunning. Thanks for telling the story.

Food, Fun and Life in the Charente said...

Thanks for this interesting post with the lovely photos. I agree it pays to follow odd signs you never know what you may find. Bonne journée Diane

Niall & Antoinette said...

@Susan - thanks. It's definitely one for anyone who likes Romanesque art.

Niall & Antoinette said...

@Fly - thank you- you're very kind.
To be honest we have wondered if there would be 'mileage' in writing a guide book etc.... perhaps to be explored further

Niall & Antoinette said...

@Gaynor - it's just so nice that they were uncovered in 1997 so now we are able to see them in [relatively] good order.

Niall & Antoinette said...

@Diane - it's one of the joys of France isn't it?
Although, sadly, we've also been faced by 'interdit au public' when we've reached a signposted monument because it is in private hands and not open to the public. Why they then signpost it is a slight mystery.

Pollygarter said...

Pauline and I are with "Fly" on the book... there are just too many miss-translated / machine-translated bits of information around... as Susan says "your commentary really brought it to life"... that is what is needed... Go back through your blog and see what you have... initially, try an index page that 'gathers' the 'articles' you've written. I'm going to suggest that to Jim Craig too, for his "Walks Around" and "Church on Sunday" postings.

Tim [from the biblio]

Niall & Antoinette said...

@Tim - thanks for the encouragement.:-) Know what you mean about poor info or mis-translated info [or even downright wrong info!] which is to be found and even the most high profile of sites.

ladybird said...

Like you we found this place almost by accident during our first Loire Valley trip way back in 1999. There wasn't a panel though, but we got the whole story 'straight from the horse's mouth' so to say. We had hardly parked the car, when the door of the house across the street opened and a buxom woman came walking out, carrying a small cardboard box. She gave us the full tour in exchange for 10 French Francs, for which we also received a pins (from the afore mentioned cardboard box) of the abbey. She explained that she was one of the volunteers who wanted to preserve the site. Our 10 FF would be used for just that. I imagine that the roof was built with 'our' money because it wasn't there in 1999 :)

Niall & Antoinette said...

@Martine - Doubt it's changed much except for the protective roof which I'm very glad they put up!! Nice to know your money did make a difference :-)
It's still very simple now. The panel isn't brilliant--ok-ish in French but poor in Ger & Eng; and no buxom lady to be seen--with or without pins.

Pollygarter said...

It's absolutely fascinating! The carvings are fabulous. I'd be interested to know who blocked them in, and why. A godsend they did it, anyway. Pauline

Niall & Antoinette said...

@Pauline - they are quite sepcial aren't they: very crisp. The thinking is [so said panel] that it was done at some time to fix support issues.
But then when?.... no info on that as far as we know.

The Broad said...

What a discovery! Those capitals are just so beautiful -- and I agree with all those encouraging you to write a book about the many splendid places you have written about. You have an ability to impart your enthusiasm about these places and their history that is very special.

Niall & Antoinette said...

@Broad - thanks :-) Just pleased people enjoy our enthusiasm, but we have been given food for thought.

Riet said...

What an interesting place. GReat discovery

Niall & Antoinette said...

@Riet - Het is altijd leuk als je ergens zomaar 'tegenaan' loopt.

Leon and Sue Sims said...

We have often become "Lost" in our travels around France and been thru I'Ile Bouchard on many occasions now. Yo bet we won't miss this little gem next time.
Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

Niall & Antoinette said...

@Leon & Sue - you're welcome! They are well worth a stop.

Perpetua said...

A fascinating post with wonderful photos. Thanks so much - I love Romanesque art and architecture and can never have too much of it. :-)
I've been back and read your previous posts on the subject and the others are right - they are too good to languish in your blog archive.

Niall & Antoinette said...

@Perpetua - thank you kindly! Totally agree you can never have too much -- of any kind of mediaeval art :-)
We are seriously thinking about what you, Fly and others have said.... :-)