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Category Archives: Limoges Road

Loire-@-La-ChariteFifty miles from Vézelay pilgrims reached the crossing of the mighty Loire river. Visible on the far shore stood the immense church and surrounding complex of the priory of Notre-Dame de la Charité-sur-Loire.

There, a semi-derelict eighth century monastery had been donated to Cluny in 1059. The new priory was established with the primary intention of being a major halt on the Compostelan pilgrimage. This objective was achieved with evident rapidity when the site, which had never fully recovered from being destroyed by Saracens in 743, quickly developed into one of the most important monastic centres in Western Europe.


By 1070 it was designated by the name Caritate which conveys the sense of the function it performed in receiving pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela.

The greater part of these pilgrims had come from the shrine of Mary Magdalene and were headed towards Spain by way of Limoges.

Two hundred monks performed the liturgy and La Charité had jurisdiction over fifty dependent priories across Europe, further extending the power and influence of the great abbey of Cluny over the region and generally over the Limoges Road to Spain. Over one hundred churches in Burgundy and the surrounding regions were also dependencies of La Charité.

La-Ch-Int-2The priory church was was the longest structure after Cluny itself and in its second building campaign during the first quarter of the twelfth century was intentionally modelled after the mother church at Cluny.

It had five radiating chapels and a nave measuring one hundred and fifteen metres in length.

A profusion of sculpture marked it out as one of the highest achievements of Romanesque stone carving.

Deep cut relief sculptures of apostles and prophets were set in niches which line the exterior of the nave, the crossing tower and the chevet.

La-Ch-Ext-4-WPThe western end of the church was flanked by two towers. The façade featured five porches each with a sculpted tympana, of which only two now survive. The central tympanum would most likely have been a depiction of Christ in Majesty.

La Charité was dedicated to the Virgin and in keeping with its status as a Marian shrine, each tympanum was paired with lintel scenes of the Incarnation.

Of the two remaining sculptures, one presents a singular Ascension scene with the Virgin gesturing towards Christ in a mandorla and the archangels Michael and Gabriel in attendance, an image of the Mother of God as intercessor. The lintel beneath shows the Annunciation and the Nativity.

La-Ch-Trans-5-WPThe other surviving tympanum relief is of the Transfiguration above a lintel of the Adoration of the Magi and the Presentation in the Temple.

In 1132, Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny had introduced the feast of the Transfiguration into the Cluniac monastic calendar and it was about this time that the porch sculpture at La Charité was done.

The subject of the Transfiguration for a large scale west porch relief was unique to La Charité with the exception of the Santiago de Compostela. It reflects on the pilgrimage to the shrine of the Apostle James since this Biblical episode wherein Jesus assumed His divine form in the presence of His three closest disciples, Peter, John and James, was also a commentary on the primal importance of the Galician saint.

N.B. This is a revised version of an earlier post

Biblio: A Propos du tympana de la Vierge à Notre-Dame de la Charité-sur-Loire, Yves Christe, Cahiers de Civilisation Medièvale 9. 34 1966

From Limoges, pilgrims traveling to Santiago de Compostela along the old Roman highway reached, after seventy miles, the old city of Perigeux. There, they made their way to the collegiate church which housed the relics of Saint Front, one of the shrines which the Pilgrim’s Guide recommends as an essential station. The church was vast and imposing surmounted by no less than five large domed cupolas.

Inside, the saint’s tomb was hugely impressive, set inside a replica of Constantine’s church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem, the stone structure was decorated with a wealth of carved figures. “His tomb does not resemble the tomb of any other saint”, the Guide tells us, “indeed, it was built with the greatest care in a round form as the sepulchre of the Lord, and it surpasses in beauty and its admirable workmanship the sepulchres of all other saints.”

The origins of Saint Front’s cult remain mysterious. His earliest hagiographers have him growing up in the Dordogne area and becoming a hermit but already by the very early medieval period his reputation began to exceed his regional surroundings and by the eleventh century Front was accounted to be one of Christ’s original seventy-two disciples.

On the façade a relief of Saint Peter handing Front a pastoral staff reminded visitors of the Apostolic status of this saint and his most famous miracle.

The legend of Saint Front informs us that he was ordained bishop of the city of Périgeux by Saint Peter himself. When one of his companions died en route from Rome to France, Front returned and was given Peter’s staff in order to bring his acolyte back to life.

As the Book of Saint James has it, “Thanks to the staff of the apostle, the Blessed Front restored his companion from death and converted the city of Périgeux, by his preaching, to Christ. Also, he rendered it illustrious through many miracles and died in it in all dignity.”

Today very little remains of the original twelfth century church largely because of the work carried out in the nineteenth century by architect Paul Abadie, whose restoration was so extensive as to rather warrant the term recreation. The octagonal edifice surrounding Front’s tomb was destroyed during the Wars of Religion in 1575.

At the point where the intersection of the roads from Lyon to Saintes and Bourges  to Bordeaux meet the Vienne river, Limoges was an inevitable point of passage. One of the abiding mysteries of the Pilgrim’s Guide is the absence of any mention of  its patron Saint Martial.

By the mid twelfth century the abbey at Limoges was one of the largest and most important pilgrimage sanctuaries in France. Its church was among the five great pilgrimage churches, each built to the same plan; Saint Martin of Tours, Sainte Foy of Conques, Saint Sernin of Toulouse, Santiago de Compostela and the Limousin abbey. All these buildings were constructed to manage a very large flow of pilgrims and all are promoted at length in the Guide, with the notable exception of Saint Martial de Limoges.

Notwithstanding, it would seem unlikely in the extreme that  travellers to Compostela would have missed the opportunity to venerate the relics of Saint Martial, passing as they did, within just twenty-five miles at Saint Léonard-de-Noblat, which could in no way compete for prestige.

Martial’s  tomb had been a site of worship since the fourth century when the first church was built over the crypt containing the relics and the cult of his mortal remains became widely known and established quite early on.

As Saint Martial’s prestige increased ever larger church buildings succeeded one another. In 994 a plague epidemic in the region drew vast numbers to his shrine seeking cure and the need for yet a bigger church became apparent.

The building programme culminated in the great Romanesque edifice of the late eleventh century  begun a short time after the abbey’s acquisition by Cluny in 1062.

The relics of the saint were transferred from the underground crypt and placed on one of the piers of the choir, in full view of the assembled crowds.

Gregory of Tours claimed Martial was one of the seven bishop sent out from Rome in the mid-third century during the time of the Consulate of Decius and Gratus. Each bishop was assigned a specific town and Limoges was the chosen destination for Martial.

Martials’ legend became so exaggerated during the medieval period that the true identity of the saint must remain a puzzle.

During the early eleventh century, the chronicler of the abbey of Saint Martial, Adhemar de Chabannes made claims that Martial was sent directly by Saint Peter and that he had been an original disciple of Christ, present at the Last Supper and the Crucifixion.

In 1031, the Pope elevated Saint Martial to Apostolic status. Many new miracles were reported, including one where Martial had resurrected a man using a rod given to him by Saint Peter.

The Romanesque abbey church of Saint Martial, dedicated to the Holy Saviour was thoroughly destroyed during the French Revolution.

Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat was home to the shrine of one of the Compostelan pilgrimage’s most popular saints, whose relics were kept in the collegiate church built over the original oratory this confessor saint had founded in the sixth century.

The origins of Léonard’s cult remain mysterious but by the twelfth century it had spread all over Europe and the saint was regarded as a special protector of prisoners and protector of Crusaders.

Léonard was born into a noble Frankish family in the early sixth century but he renounced his privileged background to become a follower of Saint Remigius, following him to Rheims and assisting him in his charitable work for prisoners. According to the saint’s legend he was donated an area of forest by the Frankish king Clodoveus. Léonard had come across the king’s wife in the midst of birth pangs alone in this forest and had delivered the king’s son. The king’s donation was a gesture of gratitude and Léonard lived there a “celibate and hermit-like life with frequent fasts and plentiful vigils amid cold, nudity and unspeakable labours”.

The site, it must be assumed existed as a minor local cult unknown, for four centuries,  beyond its immediate vicinity.

The small shrine at Nobiliacum, Léonard’s oratory, allegedly so named in deference to its donor, Clodoveus, remained unmentioned in any clerical text until a passing  reference by the chronicler of the abbey of Saint Martial of Limoges, Adhemar de Chabannes, in about 1020. Some time after that another cleric of Limoges wrote to abbot Fulbert of Chartres seeking his advice on whether any history of the saint existed. Apparently none did, however in 1030 a substantial hagiography was produced and this is the source for the extensive chapter on Saint Léonard which is included in the Pilgrim’s Guide.

As happened the length and breadth of the Compostelan pilgrimage roads, a saint acquired new status by virtue of the flow of pilgrims passing through their shrine.

This seems very much the case for Noblat, where in the twelfth century a large pilgrimage church was built with an ambulatory to allow visitors in numbers to pass by the relics.

The author of the Pilgrim’s Guide comments that, “Divine clemency has already spread to the length and breadth of the whole world the fame of the Blessed Leonard the confessor from the Limousin.”

The church at Noblat was filled with the many instruments of capitivity which had been left there by grateful pilgrims freed by Léonard’s intercession, “their iron chains, more barbarous than one can possibly recount, joined together by the thousands have been appended in testimony of such great miracles all around his basilica.”

On the way between La Souterraine and Saint-Léonard, pilgrims could venerate a relic of the Apostle Bartholomew.

In the early twelfth century an Augustinian priory founded in 1080 had received the donation of a relic of the skin of the Apostle from Bartholomew’s shrine at Benevento in southern Italy. Henceforth it became known as Bénévent l’Abbaye.

Most likely, Bénévent was already being used by Compostelan pilgrims travelling towards Limoges but the acquisition of Bartholomew’s relics turned the insignificant priory into a important halt on the road.

By the middle of the century a new much larger church was being constructed to accommodate the inflow of pilgrims.

The church is typical of the Limousin style, built out of the local granite and similar to the one at La Souterraine.

Likewise, the western entrance has a polylobed archway of Hispano-Moorish influence reflecting Bénévent’s position on the road to the Spanish shrine.

Saint Bartholomew had carried out his Apostolic Mission in Asia Minor and according to his legend, had received martyrdom by being flayed alive.

Gregory of Tours recounts how the skin and bones of the saint had been miraculously washed ashore on the island of Lipari off the Sicilian coast. They were subsequently transferred to Benevento and this tradition as well as the story of his martydom account for the relics at Bénévent being of the Apostle’s skin.

As pilgrims reached the Limousin region they arrived at the town of La Souterraine, an outpost of the abbey of Saint Martial of Limoges.

Enclosed by fortified walls, monks had built a church on land donated by the local lord.

The site they chose for the building of the church was  directly above an ancient underground chamber. Its origins and significance seem lost in the mists of time, however it appears to contain a well. This suggests an underground water source having curative powers.

It is this early subterranean structure which earned the site its name Sostereana and at some point it was adopted by Christians in the locality.

In 1017 the monks enlarged the original crypt into a substantial space over which the transept and choir of the twelfth century church were built.

The donor, Gérard de Crozant was buried there in 1022.

The polylobyed arch of the doorway at the entrance to the nave is a reminder of the Moorish influence that was carried back along the pilgrimage road to Compostela.

This can been seen at a number of Limousin churches, notably the one at Bénévent.

The one of the towers at the western end has a white stone placed high up. Tradition tells us that these were a feature of churches in the area, visible at a distance and intended as a guide to pilgrims.

The town of Gargilesse was situated at the junction of the Creuse and Gargilesse rivers.

A Cluniac priory which belonged to the abbey of Déols received pilgrims.

The church of Notre-Dame belonged to the castle stills stands today.

It is remarkable for the large number of finely carved historiated capitals depicting episodes from the Old and New Testaments.

From the Old Testament there are capitals representing the stories of Daniel in the Lion’s Den and Samson and Delilah.

New Testament images of the Annunciation, Nativity, Visitation and the Magi combine to make the relatively minor church of Notre-Dame into the finest remaining representative of Romanesque sculptural art in the Berry region.

Perhaps most notably the capitals of the Twenty-Four Elders of the Apocalypse. Arranged in groups of three, the Elders are the subjects most associated with others along the pilgrimage roads to Compostela such as at Moissac and Aulnay de Saintonge.

Those at Gargilesse have been noted for their particular resemblance to those which were to be seen on the reliquary of Saint Gilles-du-Gard.

In the crypt frescoes of the Book of revelation cover the ceiling.

An alternative route from Vézelay to Limoges passed through the city of Nevers at the crossing of the Loire River.

Thirty miles on from Saint Révérien, pilgrims found another important Cluniac priory, Saint Etienne de Nevers. The twelfth century priory church still stands today.

Pilgrims were able to venerate the relics of Saint Cyr and Saint Juliette in the crypt of the cathedral. It was the late fourth century bishop of Auxerre, Saint Amator who had brought the relics of Juliet and her son Cyr to Nevers from the Holy Land.

A child martyr, relics of Saint Cyr were particularly efficacious in the healing of sick children. His relics were discovered by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great and he appeared to Charlemagne in a dream.

Julietta was a Christian who had fled to Tarsus with Cyricus her three year old son in order to escape persecution. They were discovered and while Julietta was being tortured, the governor of the city held the boy. Cyricus scratched the governor’s face who in anger then threw him violently down the steps of his palace. Rather than weep over her son’s death, Julietta celebrated instead his crown of martyrdom. Further enraged by this attitude, the governor had her mutilated and decapitated. Their bodies were dumped outside the city walls in a heap with the corpses of common criminals. Two maids collected their bodies and buried them separately.

Cyricus’ cult was especially popular in medieval France in part due to his appearance in a dream of Charlemagne’s. In his dream, the Emperor’s life was threatened during a hunt by a dangerous boar. Cyricus promised to deliver Charlemagne in exchange for clothing to cover his naked body.

There were two routes in particular that pilgrims took to journey from Vézelay to Limoges. One passed through Nevers and the other went via La Charité-sur-Loire and Bourges.

Enclosed within substantial city walls, Bourges was a city of some historical consequence and an early centre of Christianity. Pilgrims were welcomed by a large number of monastic communities both within and outside the walls. The cathedral held relics of Saint Stephen the protomartyr and at the collegiate church of Saint Ursinus, pilgrims venerated the relics of the first bishop of Bourges in the crypt.

Ursinus was the evangeliser of the region of Bourges in the late third or early fourth century.

In legend, propagated by Gegory of Tours he would originally have been named Nathaniel, a disciple of Christ present at the Last Supper.

A follower of the Seven Bishops who had been sent, in some versions by Peter and Paul themselves, to evangelise Gaul, Ursinus was dispatched to convert the inhabitants of Bourges. In the story recounted by Gregory, it was Ursinus who went before the Senator Leocadius to obtain a church for the growing congregation which they then endowed with Saint Stephen’s relics.

It was said that Ursinus’ tomb lay outside the city walls and by the sixth century was forgotten and abandoned. In an account familiar from other legends of relic inventios, Ursinus appeared in a dream to Augustus an abbot of Bourges and then to Germanus of Paris, identifying the hidden site of his tomb. Augustus and Germanus located the relics and brought them to the church of Saint Symphorian at Bourges were they were kept in a crypt. The church was rededicated to Ursinus and rebuilt in the eleventh century.

A chronicle of 1055 gives some indication of the celebrity of Ursinus’ relics at the time. It tells of the plague which was sweeping through the town of Lisieux. The inhabitants, knowing of the reputation of the relics for miraculously bringing an end to such epidemics beseeched the notables of Bourges to allow the saint’s reliquary casket to be brought to them. The request granted, the plague stopped.

The tympanum of the church of Saint Ursinus is one of the most singular in all Romanesque sculpture in that there is no obvious Christian imagery whatever.

The light relief carvings on the side columns are of scrolling vines and bears, a reference possibly to the evangelising role of the saint, where the Latin word Ursus denotes a bear and the vine refers to Christ.

The tympanum itself is divided into three registers. The uppermost features images taken from medieval fables featuring the characters of Reynard the Fox and Chantecleer the Rooster. Below is a hunting scene typical of those depicted on Gallo-Roman sarcophagi, notably that of Saint Lusorius at the nearby abbey of Déols. The bottom register features peasants carrying out the tasks which refer to the Labours of the Months.

Midway between Bourges and Déols on the Limoges road to Compostela, pilgrims reached the crossing of the river Arnon.

On the other side of the river they were cared for by the Benedictine monks of the priory of Saint Michel in the small hamlet of Charost.

From the eleventh century  Charost was protected by a fortified castle which stood just beyond the town walls which were entered by three gates.

The priory of Saint Michel de Charost was a dependency of the abbey of Notre-Dame d’Issoudun.

The massive church, still standing today is evidence of the large monastic community which existed during the twelfth century, evidence of its strategic position and attested to by a papal bull of 1154 in which Pope Adrian II mentions the priory by name.

The striking reddish appearance of the church is due to the use of limestone containing ferrous oxide.

The southern porch of the church features a carved tympanum. It depicts Christ in Majesty seated within a mandorla and surrounded by the Four Living Beasts of Revelation.