In the valley of the Orb river in the mountainous Languedoc region of southern France is the crossroads of two ancient Celtic routes.
At this intersection the road from Nîmes to Toulouse meets the road traveling from Béziers to Cahors. Long the site of busy traffic, it had been the location of a temple surrounded by a protective network of fortified emplacements. By the late tenth century the temple had been replaced by a priory of monks dependent on the nearby abbey of Saint-Majan-de-Villemagne.
The priory of Saint-Pierre-de-Rhèdes was one of several monastic establishments along the route leading westwards from Nîmes towards Toulouse and used by pilgrims journeying to Santiago de Compostela along the Via Tolosana after having made the visit to Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, one of the stops indicated by the Pilgrim’s Guide.
From there, the road led via the abbeys of Joncels and Villemagne to the junction at Saint-Pierre-de-Rhèdes. It was then possible to take the northern route by adopting the Béziers-Cahors road to the abbey of Saint-Gervais-sur-Mare where another road turns westwards to Toulouse by way of Brassac and La Salvetat-sur-Agout. The southern route through the Languedoc mountains continued from Saint-Pierre along the Orb valley to the important abbey of Saint-Pons-de-Thomières and Castres before reaching Toulouse and the great shrine of Saint Saturninus.
The church’s singular appearance arises from the unusual combination of several stylistic strains which went into its creation and which may be an effect of the strategic position it occupied. One can detect a noticeable Lombard influence such as can be seen at the abbey of Saint-Guilhem-le Désert only short distance away. More surprising is an apparent similarity with churches from the Velay region around Notre-Dame-du-Puy.
Both western and southern porches feature tympana of a most original design. These feature a cross formed out of inlaid stone marquetry. By alternating black volcanic basalt and sandstone, two cruciform images are represented. Over the southern entrance, the crosses are surrounded by two circles of alternating stone and a sawtooth arch of triangular section of the dark stone. This form of stone inlay marquetry suggests the influence of the Auvergne and the churches at Le Puy.
Beneath the tympanum is a lintel featuring crudely carved hieroglyphic figures which have been identified as Arabic letters although crouched human and animal figures can be discerned. The columns are of antique origin, suggesting that they have been reemployed from the earlier pre-Christian sanctuary.
High up at the rear of the church, on the apse is a crudely sculpted human form of rather mysterious significance. It has been proposed that this figure, apparently equipped with a staff and gourd might be a pilgrim, a notion which gains credibility by virtue of the fact that we are on the pilgrimage road between Saint-Gilles and Saint-Sernin. To the left, this personage has the attributes of another staff similar to a bishop’s crosier and a square object with a handle which may be a key. These have led to suggestions of a representation of Saint Peter. With arms outstretched this figure is in the orant pose, the prayer position for intercession more commonly used in Byzantine depictions.