The unwitting visitor today will register a sense of some surprise as they pass through the narrow non-descript streets of the town of Saint-Gilles-du-Gard into a small square and suddenly find themselves in the presence of a massive, ornately carved church façade of a rare grandeur, all the more imposing for the banality of its surroundings.
Closer inspection will reveal that the faces of the stone carved figures have been systematically and most efficiently removed by some violent means. It can be reasonably said that no other standing religious edifice bears such severe scars from the turmoil which its presence apparently incited.
This is the abbey church of Saint-Gilles, great bastion of Cluny and it has been said, the fourth greatest pilgrimage destination of the medieval world after Jerusalem, Rome and Compostela. Here were kept the relics of a hermit confessor saint who had lived some time in the eighth or ninth century, and whose cult had developed into one of real eminence in the medieval world.
Originally a monastery established in the seventh century dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, it was well located on a small defensible hill in the flat region of the Rhône delta on the banks of the Petit-Rhône equidistant between Nîmes and Arles. In the ninth century the monks arranged for the relics of Saint Gilles to be translated to the monastery and for the dedication to be changed to the new saint.
In 1066 the monastery was given over to Cluny by the local suzerain, the Countess of Nîmes, however this was greatly resented by the monks who only came to fully accept the authority of the Burgundian abbey after the intervention in 1077 of Pope Gregory VII.
So began the rise of Saint-Gilles into the most important monastic centre of Provence. Alongside Moissac and Vézelay it was one of only three Cluniac dependencies given the privilege of electing its own abbot.
Around the monastery a flourishing town of nine parishes grew up and its port became a great commercial hub. Genoans and Pisans competed for trade and the town boasted one hundred and thirty-five Italian and Jewish moneychangers.
Saint-Gilles was a veritable pilgrimage crossroads. As well as being a major destination in its own right, pilgrims used it as a point of departure for the sea journey to Rome and Jerusalem. In addition it was a rallying and embarcation point for Crusaders to the Holy Land. Perhaps most significantly, the abbey also benefited from the traffic to Spain and Compostela as a major station on the road between Arles and Toulouse. Twelfth century chroniclers recorded the immense crowds that flocked there at times of festival. Benjamin of Tudela wrote “This town is a place of pilgrimage, visited by the inhabitants of distant countries and islands”
This prestigious position meant that the abbey and its town were the subject of continual dispute, between its own monks and the parent abbey of Cluny and the Counts of Toulouse all competing for control to the extent that the period of Saint-Gilles greatest success was one marked by a good deal of turbulence. The great building campaign inaugurated by Abbot Hugues of Cluny and consecrated by Pope Urban II in July 1096, was marked by long periods of disruption all through the twelfth century.
An eventful history saw the execution of heretics, the assassinations of Papal envoys and the ritual humiliation of one of the most powerful feudal lords of the day, all on the steps of the church. It culminated in 1562 with the capture and sacking of the abbey by Huguenots and the mutilation of the façade’s sculpture, the largest ensemble of Romanesque art in Languedoc, by means of precisely aimed musket fire.