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Monthly Archives: August 2009


The church of Saint-Pierre-de-la-Tour at Aulnay de Saintonge lies along the Tours route to Santiago de Compostela. The capital reliefs both on the exterior and the interior of the church feature a series of disembodied heads or masks.

Their meaning is obscure but similar heads can be found at other churches in the area. These images are particular to the region of the southern Poitou and Saintonge and one can therefore suppose that there was some intention behind their presence at strategic points in the church structure which was once intelligible to the inhabitants of this part of western France.

On the exterior of the north side of the building there is perhaps some clue to their significance. There one can see a head which appears to be that of some devouring, possibly androphagous or man-eating semi human creature. It notably lacks a lower jaw.

Aulnay-Masks-8Olivier Beigbeder has drawn attention to a possible connection between this image and that of an ancient Chinese motif commonly found on bronze vessels which were used for ritual purposes going back to the Neolithic period.

Having a head but no body it was said that the creature ate people but could not swallow them. It is notable that this image is presented on the north side of the church, the shadow side.

A connection can be drawn with the Leviathan as described in the Book of Job and which is featured on the porch sculptures at Conques and Espalion devouring the Damned. In Job the question is put, who can “draw out Leviathan with an hook” and  medieval exegetical writings interpreted the answer to this riddle  to be Christ. As Honorius of Autun declared, Christ’s hook destroys Leviathan’s jaw.

Within the church, three other capitals featuring dismebodied heads begin to assume progressively more human features, although stylistically ressembling that on the exterior of the north side. Aulnay-Masks-2There is evidence to suggest that the four heads allude to the four elements. The first on the outside signifying the earth and more particularly the subterranean.

Inside, on the columns which line the south side of the nave is another with sightless eyes and pointed ears.  The twelve partitions of the hair suggest the phases of the moon  and the lack of a beard implies the feminine which corresponds also with the lunar aspect. The tidal currents determined by the moon, connoting water.

Further along towards the eastern end of the church is another capital with two heads.Aulnay-Masks-7 This time the faces are strikingly bearded and the eyes with clearly defined pupils created the impression of a strong gaze.

Just above the decoration of the laurel leaves containing rosettes convey the impression of mandorlas and the promise of election to Paradise.

These masculine faces, eyes wide open and contemplating the choices to be made indicate the indeterminate element of air.

Aulnay-Masks-1On the north side of the nave is to be found a fourth mask whose features no longer have the zoomorphic qualities of the others.

Another striking  face this time with a piercing direct gaze. The beard is seperated into six strands, the number associated with power.

The flame like hair gives the impression of a solar deity and the element of fire.


In 1037 a new abbot was elected at Vézelay abbey in Burgundy. Abbot Geoffroy brought with him the Cluniac reform of the Benedictine order and the cult of Mary Magdalene. Miracles began to take place and soon large numbers of pilgrims began to attend. Within a short period of time it was declared that the actual relics of the saint existed in the crypt of the abbey.

Given that there was an established cult of Mary Magdalene’s relics at Ephesus and that there seemed no previously recorded account of how the relics had reached the Burgundian abbey, his claim was contentious.

Geoffroy himself, acknowledged this, writing that “Many have wondered how it was possible that the body of Saint Mary Magdalene, who was born in Judea, was brought to Gaul from such a distant region”. He justified his claim on the grounds that all things were possible for God and furthermore, sceptics had been punished while those who had confessed their doubt had been rewarded with salvation by Mary Magdalene’s intercession.Girart-Manusc. In 1058 the relics were given the Papal seal of authenticity.

With the claim to possession of her mortal remains beyond dispute, the abbey grew to become one of the major pilgrimage shrines of medieval Europe.

By the end of the century one of the largest churches in Christendom stood over the simple crypt.

There are a number of legendary narratives which tell of how the relics reached Vézelay. The stories overlap and the names of the protagonists vary, however two key figures emerge, a monk named Badilon and the original ninth century founder of the abbey, Count Girart de Roussillon.

The oldest account features Badilon, who in the ninth century had taken refuge at Vézelay from the nearby monastery of Saint Martin at Autun which had been raided by Visigoths from southern France. At some point he had travelled to the Holy Land and on his return had acquired the relics of the saint at Constantinople .

Girart-&-BertheThe secondary tradition names Girart de Roussillon and his wife Berthe as the principal figures  These were the founders of two abbeys in Burgundy at Vézelay and Pothières.

They acquired quasi-sanctification via a Latin hagiography entitled the Vita Girardi and were buried at Pothières.

The epic vernacular poem the Chanson de Girart de Roussillon  which deals with the rivalry between Girart and the emperor Charles the Bald, provided a variation on the legend.

According to this account, the relics of Mary Magdalene were passed to Girart by a pilgrim named Guintrant who had been incarcerated for fifteen years while in the Holy Land and miraculously released at which point God had placed the saintly relics in his care.

M-M-Chartres-ProvenceBoth of these traditions included variants which took account of the legend that held that Mary Magdalene had travelled by ship from the Holy Land to Marseille in the company of her brother and sister, Lazarus and Martha and a company of seventy-two disciples.

In Provence, she lived the life of a hermit and on her death had been buried at Aix by Maximinus one of those who had accompanied her from Palestine and had now become the city’s first bishop.

Unlike the rest of France, Provence had suffered from a continued Saracen presence during the eight and ninth centuries.

Alpilles-6This was therefore fertile ground for the epic poets of the Chansons de Geste of the twelfth century whose tales of heroic deeds by Frankish warriors against the Moors in Provence possessed the quality of proto-Crusades.

The relics of Mary-Magdalene were considered at risk and were rescued in clandestine operations in a number of seperate accounts.  In one  of these the two traditions come together when we learn that Girart  de Roussillon sent a monk named Badilon to retrieve the relics from Aix and bring them safely to Vézelay.

That the relics of Mary Magdalene’s brother Lazarus had been translated to Autun in 972 would certainly have lent the Provencal tradition a greater degree of substance.

Any doubts which abbot Geoffroy may have entertained would have been dispelled when one Saturday after Matins, as he placed the cover over the relics, a vision appeared to him of a woman who seemed to say to him ,“I am she who is thought by many to be here”.

On a lonely hilltop in Burgundy stands one of the most hallowed sites of the medieval world: the shrine of Mary Magdalene at Vézelay.

Vez-Ext9It was here that pilgrims came to venerate one of the greatest saints of the middle ages and it was the fountainhead of one of the four great pilgrimage roads to Santiago de Compostela.

Here also, Bernard of Clairvaux called for the Second Crusade before a massive assembly of the French aristocracy in 1145. In 1166 Thomas à Beckett used Vézelay as the place to deliver his sermon threatening the English king, Henry II with excommunication and later in 1190, Richard the Lionheart met his French counterpart Philip Augustus to plan the Third Crusade.

Vézelay’s role as a centre of pilgrimage goes back to prehistory and is associated with a salt water spring, known  today as Les Fontaines Salées. Funerary urns dating back to 900 BC have been found there as well as the ruins of a very substantial Gallo-Roman sanctuary which incorporated a large circular temple and thermal baths. Ex-votos of the grateful recipients of miracle cures abound and two adjacent necropolises indicate that this sacred fountain was an important religious site where Gallic deities such as Belisande and Taranis were worshipped alongside Roman ones.

Vez-Ext13In the ninth century one of the most eminent Carolingian vassals, Girart Count of Vienne, known also as Girart de Roussillon acquired the lands of of the villa known as Vercellacus by the banks of the river Cure, whose domains included the sacred spring of the Fontaines Salées.

There, Girart established a convent. The relics of two roman martyrs Eusebius and Pontius were donated by Pope Nicholas 1st. These were borne in triumphal procession from Lyon along with the relics of two more local saints Andeol and Ostian. The relics of Pontius and Andeol were taken to Vézelay, those of Eusebius and Ostian went to nearby Pothières where Girart had founded another monastery. With the destruction of the abbey buildings at Vézelay by Norman raiders, the establishment was moved to the summit of the hill which overlooked the river valley and converted into a monastery. The Pope personally dedicated the new abbey to Notre-Dame in 879.

Vez-Crypt-5By the eleventh century a cult of Mary Magdalene began to develop at Vézelay. Miracles occurred and her memory was venerated at an altar which stood over a modest burial chamber. The rumour began to grow that this small crypt actually contained Mary Magdalene’s relics. On 6th March 1058 abbot Hugh of Cluny declared recognition of the authenticity of the relics and at the same time, bringing Vézelay into the Cluniac order.

Mary Magdalene was the medieval world’s most emblematic saint. However it wasn’t  until the sixth century that the saint assumed a specific identity and subsequently an important role in Christian theology.San-Juan-DP-M-M

It was Pope Gregory the Great who consolidated under a single identity three seperate women of the Gospel texts. Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus he identified as the same woman named Mary Magdalene  discoverer of the empty tomb after the Crucifixion and first witness to the Resurrection.

Unifying these with the nameless woman condemned as a sinner by Simon the pharisee and redeemed by the act of washing the feet of Christ with her tears, an immensely potent figure was created.

“Noli me tangere – do not touch me for I am not yet ascended to my father”, these were the celebrated words ascribed to Jesus when Mary Magdalene came upon him after finding his tomb empty.

Mary Magdalene was both the archetypal sinner redeemed and through her devotion a symbol for nothing less than the Christian Church. She was known as the Apostle to the Apostles.

In the eleventh century the Benedictine abbey of Vézelay in Burgundy declared possession of her relics. This was a contentious claim since the legend of Mary Magdalene told of her journey after the Pentecost from Palestine to Provence, where she had ended her days as a hermit. In order to justify the presence of her relics at Vézelay the legend was  embellished further by the involvement of one of the heroes of the epic Chansons de Geste, Girart  Comte de Roussillon.

San-Juan-DP-M-M-2Girart had founded the abbey at Vézelay in the ninth century. The new account told of how he had brought with him Mary Magdalene’s mortal remains in order to preserve them from the hands of the Saracens who were then ravaging Provence..

The abbey’s claim to possess the relics was endorsed by papal confirmation in 1058. The massive size of the church at Vézelay is an indication of the large numbers of pilgrims who came to Vézelay in hope of miraculous cures and the remission of their sins.