From the summit of the Alpilles hills of Provence, one can survey the broad delta of the Rhone river extending below. Just as one reaches level ground, one finds the chapel of Saint Gabriel, all that remains of a settlement whose history goes back to pre-Roman times and was known as Eragnium. To the west is the great river and a short distance upstream, the reliquary church of Sainte Martha at Tarascon.
Pilgrims travelling from Aix-en-Provence towards the great shrine of Saint Trophimus and the Alyscans would have stopped at the town of Saint Gabriel to embark on shallow boats which ferried them across the watery marshland which separated them from Arles.
Mentioned in a charter of the abbey of Saint Victor of Marseilles in 1030, the town had prospered since Roman times because of its strategic location at the western edge of the Alpilles hills where roads coming down the Durance valley and the Aurelian way met the natural obstacle of the delta marshland. This stretch was navigable only by the special rafts constructed with inflated floats to enable them to move over the very shallow water.
The surrounding marshland has long since been drained and the church, now the sole vestige of the medieval town, resembles some stranded sea vessel set on a rocky promontory among the olive groves and cypress trees.
The quality of workmanship of the single naved building and the extent of its sculptural decoration seem strangely disproportionate to the isolation of its surroundings but it is these very features which provide testimony to the once thriving community which existed there and whose remains are now barely in evidence save for the long flight of worn stone steps leading up to the church porch.
The singular impression is enhanced by the unusual design of the façade which takes some of its inspiration from the Roman amphitheatre at Arles and combines an elegant classicism with a rude sculptural style derived from paleo-Christian sarcophagi.
The façade is made up of three distinct elements. The entrance is set back in a deep porch and above the door is a small tympanum with an exceptional iconographic programme which combines Daniel in the Lion’s Den and Adam and Eve and the Serpent and the Tree of Knowledge.
Above the tympanum is a fronton surmounted by an Agnus Dei and featuring a bas-relief frieze divided by three arcades and depicting Saint Gabriel’s Annunciation to the Virgin and the Visitation.
The third element of the façade’s composition is an oculus surrounded by the tetramorphic symbols of the four evangelists.
Biblio: J-M Rouquette, Provence Romane