Romanesque Bestiaries in Poitou-Charentes: Symbols Explained
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Romanesque Bestiaries in Poitou-Charentes: Symbols Explained

The ancient church of Saint-Pierre of Chauvigny, between Poitiers and Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe, hangs from the strong walls of a ruined fortress. Several of the distinctive characteristics of the local Romanesque Style are brought together here. The capitals, signed by a certain Godfridus, show an imaginary bestiary that perhaps derives from images brought back by the Crusaders. Around the choir, dragons, a sphinx and birds of prey all plunge the pilgrim into an apocalyptic world. This monster devouring a tiny naked figure creates a violent impression that was reinforced by the colours that were originally applied to the stone. What should we make of such medieval fictions? What light does this love of anecdote and detail throw on the believer's soul?

How can one choose a favourite from the bouquet of Poitevin churches? Perhaps Charroux, of which all that survives is an extraordinary lantern-tower on eight pillars, and arches springing from capitals of luxuriant foliage, called the Charlemagne Tower. Or perhaps Airvault, where the ribbed and pointed vaults of the Angevin Style are attached to an older Romanesque structure. Or Saint-Gilles of Argenton-Château, or Saint-Jouin-de-Marnes. Or some other church, its façade adorned with delicately carved arches.

The ancient church of Saint-Pierre of Chauvigny, between Poitiers and Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe, hangs from the strong walls of a ruined fortress. Several of the distinctive characteristics of the local Romanesque Style are brought together here, with its barrel-vaulted central nave, lit by large windows in the façade, and carried on rib-vaulted side-aisles, of almost equal height. The capitals, signed by a certain Godfridus, show an imaginary bestiary that perhaps derives from images brought back by the Crusaders, and the soft limestone carries energetic reliefs of the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Magi and the Weighing of Souls at the Last Judgement. Around the choir, dragons, a sphinx and birds of prey all plunge the pilgrim into an apocalyptic world. This monster devouring a tiny naked figure creates a violent impression that was reinforced by the colours that were originally applied to the stone. 

Not far away, on the borders of Poitou and Saintonge, the Church of Saint-Pierre of Aulnay-de-Saintonge  raises its Gothic cross above a cemetery, framed by cypresses. This country church is a Romanesque gem. No one knows who footed the bill for it; there is no word of any special relic, nor do we know if the Abbey of Saint-Cyprien, to which it was linked, or the Chapter of Poitiers contributed to the building costs. What is certain is that the church was situated on the road to Santiago de Compostela and received gifts from the faithful. 

One should take one's time to see the decoration when the sunlight shows up the stone voussoirs. On capitals of the apse and choir are Biblical Scenes, among them Samson and Delilah, the first sin, Saint-George and the dragon, beautiful birds in foliage and, in the nave there is the famous capitals of elephants. It really seems to have aroused the amusement of the sculptor himself - "hi sunt elephanti", these are elephants. 

What should we make of such medieval fictions? What light does this love of anecdote and detail throw on the believer's soul? The supranatural was part of everyday life at this time when both monks and image-makers found pleasure in stories of miracles. Maybe, they found courage as well; in these unplanned connections between the vegetable, animal and human worlds, in these knights trampling the enemies of the Church underfoot, in these virtues triumphing over vice they could overcome their fears and declare the victory of faith over superstition.  

The extraordinary Charlemagne Tower in Charroux (Vienne, France).

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ee/Charroux-La_tour_Charlemagne.jpg

Abbey of Saint-Jouin-de-Marnes (Deux-Sèvres, France).

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/39/Saint-Jouin-de-Marnes_Abbaye.JPG?uselang=fr

Collegiate Church of Saint-Pierre in Chauvigny (Vienne, France).

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/91/Chauvigny_coll%C3%A9giale_Saint-Pierre.JPG

Capital, Collegiate Church of Saint-Pierre in Chauvigny. 

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/fr/8/81/Chauvigny_eglise_chapiteau2.jpg

Church of Saint-Pierre in Aulnay-de-Saintonge (Charente-Maritime).

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2a/F06.Aulnay.2181.jpg

The famous capital with elephants, Church of Saint-Pierre in Aulnay-de-Saintonge.

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fe/F92.Aulnay.Langhauskapitelle.Elefanten.jpg

Capital with lions on the left, in the centre Samson fighting the Lion of Timna and on the right Delilah having Samson's hair cut. Church of Saint-Pierre in Chauvigny.

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/ba/F06.Aulnay.214.jpg

Crucifixion of Saint-Peter, Church of Saint-Pierre in Aulnay-de-Saintonge.

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a8/F06.Aulnay.436.jpg

Capital showing two men fighting a dragon. Church of Aulnay-de-Saintonge. 

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/09/Lutte_dragon.jpg

A devouring monster, Church of Saint-Pierre in Aulnay-de-Saintonge.

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/53/Monstre_devorant.jpg

West façade, Church of Saint-Pierre in Aulnay-de-Saintonge (Charente Maritime, France).

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/80/F06.Aulnay.2511.jpg

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Comments (4)

Your descriptive detail is outstanding. Thank you.

Nicely presented, as always Francois.

Very detailed sculptures and magnificent feature on romanesque architecture dear Francois, good day my friend.

Ranked #1 in France

Thank you for your comments. Very best wishes.

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