2 The Great Thaw


ecclasia Ecclesia, (The Church).

From the portal of Strasbourg Cathedral

 "The Church was powerful for all kinds of negative reasons: she didn't suffer many of the inconveniences of feudalism: there was no question of divided inheritances. For these reasons she could conserve and expand her properties. And she was powerful for positive reasons: Men of intelligence naturally and normally took holy orders, and could rise from obscurity to positions of immense influence. .........the Church was basically a democratic institution where ability - administrative, diplomatic, and sheer intellectual ability - made its way. And then the  church was international. ......... The great churchmen of the 11th and 12th centuries came from all over Europe." p 35

st  philibert's

One of the few churches dating to 950 to have survived is St. Philibert's Church at Tournus, Burgundy, the church of the former Benedictine abbey.

 Our first visit to Tournus was on a cold, wet, dark early morning circa 1989. We walked a few blocks from the train station and confronted a foreboding building that brought the term 'dark ages' to mind. There were crows looking down from the bell tower and cawing and the inside of the building was even more dismal; one tiny burning candle in the chancel confronted the gloom, there was not a soul in sight. We climbed the stairs to a room above the vestibule and heard steps in the dark behind us, but there was nobody there.

If there was a ghost behind us it was probably the spirit of one these two dour dudes portrayed in the arcade.

Saint-Pierre de Moissac & Cluny Abbey

"The first great eruption of ecclesiastical splendour was unashamedly extravagant." "As with the similar outburst of the Baroque, one can think up ingenious interpretations of the subjects, but the motive force behind them was simply irrepressible, irresponsible energy. The Romanesque carvers were like a school of dolphins."  p. 39

The best example of the energy of the carvers is the tympanum and the cloister of the Abbey church of St Pierre, Moissac, a sister church to Cluny.

The figures were originally painted in primary colors, making them look, in Clark's words, "fiercely Tibetan".


               Cloister of the abbey church St Pierre de Moissac, you can spend hours reading the art.


Cluny had a sad ending : after the French Revolution all the monastic buildings and the church were destroyed.  In 1793, its archives were burned and the church was delivered up to plundering. The abbey estate was sold in 1798, until then the abbey was used as a stone quarry to build houses in the town.

Today, only the southern transept and its bell-tower still stand; the ruined bases of columns give an idea of the size of the rest of the church. The surviving structure represents less than 10% of the floor area of Cluny III, which was the largest church of Christendom, until the construction of St Peter's in Rome, five centuries later. The reconstruction below gives us a good idea of the original complex.


Such a complex organization requires good administration and the medieval church hierarchy reached well into most of western Europe.


In the mountains north of Rodez is the village of Conques, population 300.



We traveled there by  car and arrived in the afternoon Christmas Eve 1996. Luckily the only  hotel (to the far left in the image above) was open and as the only guests we were given a room with a view of the abbey church. The only other business open was the bakery, which in France must stay open by law even on Christmas day. We had come to see the abbey and the famous statue of St Foy that Clark had given a full page in color in the book.

 The abbey  was founded in the 9th century by a community of Benedictine monks. About that time the relics of St. James were discovered at Compostela in Spain and pilgrims began making  their way to the shrine. The pilgrimage routes passed through various shrines along the way, bringing in money from the tourist trade.  The monks at Conques wanted to get in on the business so  thy conspired to acquire a relic to attract pilgrims. A monk was dispatched to join a monastery in Agen; which had the relics of St. Foy, a girl martyred in 303 AD under Diocletian. She refused to worship idols and was put to death. Her relics began to work miracles and she was turned into an idol herself. "How ironical that this little girl who was put to death for refusing to worship idols, should have been turned into one herself. Well, that 's the medieval mind. They cared passionately about the truth, but their sense of evidence was different from ours." p.41

The Conques brother acted as a faithful monk for several years at Agen until he was able to steal the relic and bring it back to Conques. And just as they had hoped, the pilgrim road shifted from Agen to Conques. Pilgrims left jewels to be added to the saint's statue and goldsmiths create ornaments and containers for the relic. Pepin and Charlemagne both sent golden treasures.

st foy

The church was restored in the 19th century and still attracts pilgrims, such as Victoria and I. We visited the treasury saw St Foy and attended Christmas midnight mass. Walking around town before the mass we could find a light in only one home. Either everybody went to bed early or thay had abandoned the mountain village for the winter. So, we were surprised that the church filled for the mass, the parking lot just outside of town was packed with cars. During the mass the family (husband, two teenaged boys, and mother) sitting in front of us began to squirm while the priest was chanting the mass. Then they began to suppress giggles, then they all began to shake. I was curious and a bit annoyed, then the priest hit a bad note and the cause of the giggle became obvious.  A few more sour notes and Victoria and I joined the gigglers. The priest had a tin ear.

Any account of church architecture notes the shift from Romanesque to Gothic. Clark mentions the Royal Abbey of St Denis where the Gothic style began, but he gave it short shrift which I did not understand until we visited the abbey.


st denis
St Denis

The site was in late Roman times a Gallo-Roman cemetery and the funeral remains still lie beneath the cathedral; the people buried there had a faith that was a mix of Christian and pre-Christian beliefs and practices. Then around 475 St. Genevieve purchased some land and built Saint-Denys de la Chapelle. In 636 on the orders of Dagobert I the relics of Saint Denis, a patron saint of France, were reinterred in the basilica. The basilica became a place of pilgrimage and the burial place of the French kings, with nearly every king from the 10th to the 18th centuries being buried there. 

The choir was completed in 1144 and the building ranks as an architectural landmark, as the first major structure of which a substantial part was designed and built in the Gothic style or as it was originally know the "French Style".

We were staying in a hotel on the Rue Voltaire when we decided to take the Metro out to St Denise. There were several stops along the way and at each stop French looking folks got off the train and Arabs got on the train. By the time we made the exit at St Denise there were only Arabs on the train and two Americans. In front of the church a market was being held and almost all of the vendors and customers were Arabs. Some of the food items we could not identify, but it was pleasant to look about. The most historical French building in the country was entirely surrounded by immigrants from North Africa, odd.

The building was in poor shape and most of the original stained glass had been removed for safe keeping and replaced with photographic transparencies. The north tower, lost in storm in the 19th century was sadly missing. It was easy to understand why Clark used the cathedral at Chartres to demonstrated the beauty and power of the Gothic cathedral instead of St Denise. Nevertheless, almost half a century after Clark's lament for St Denise there is good news; the north tower is being rebuilt and the area around the church has improved. If you go to Google map of St Denise there are current images of the church showing the progress on the tower.

Vézelay Abbey

abbey of vezelay

Vézelay Abbey in Burgundy was originally a monastery. The abbey church, know today as the Basilica of Saint Mary Magdalene, was sacked by the Huguenots in 1569 and suffered further damage during the French Revolution.



The tympanum was completed in 1130 and Bernard of Clairvaux chose the curch as the place from which he would call for the Second Crusade. The subject of the tympanum is the Pentecostal Mission of the Apostles, thus urging potential crusaders to retake the Holy Land. Vézelay was also the staging point for the Third Crusade; there King Richard the Lionheart of England and King Philip Augustus of France met and joined their armies for a combined western invasion of the holy land. Vézelay's portal, with its complicated program of imagery in sculpted capitals and portals, testifies to its place in the history of the crusades.

Vézelay is a masterpiece of Burgundian Romanesque art and architecture. However, much of the vault and the buttresses were added in the 19th century when there was a revival of interest in Romanesque churches in France.  A visit to the small town is rewarding,  one can spend hours examining the carvings on the capitals and, off season, there are few tourist. Also, there is a two star Michelin restaurant there if you happen to have beaucoup d'argent.



Chartres Cathedral

chartres "In some miraculous way Chartres has survived. Fire and war, revolution and restoration, have attacked it in vain. Even the tourist have not destroyed its atmosphere, as they have in so many temples of the human spirit from the Sistine Chapel to Elephanta. One can still climb the hill to the cathedral in the spirit of a pilgrim; and the south tower is still more or less as it was when completed in 1164."
p. 52

There has been so much written and so many pictures taken of the cathedral there is nothing I can add except for one small but important story.

The stained glass from the cathedral was removed in 1939 before the Germans invaded France.  While the city suffered damage from bombing in the course of the war the cathedral was spared due to the efforts of an American Army officer. 

Colonel Welborn Barton Griffith, Jr. challenged an order to destroy the cathedral. He volunteered to go behind enemy lines to learn  whether the Germans were occupying the cathedral and using it as an observation post. With one enlisted soldier to assist, Griffith proceeded to the cathedral and found that the Germans were not using it. He reported that the cathedral was clear of enemy troops and the order to destroy the cathedral was withdrawn. The Allies liberated the area, but Colonel Griffith was killed in action on August 16, 1944, in the town of Leves, near Chartres.

After the War the glass was releaded and replaced. The building is again being restored and that has lead to some controversy. An American architecture critic Martin Filler’s complaint is that the €15m state-run makeover, which began in 2009, set out "to do no less than repaint the entire interior in bright whites and garish colors that are intended to return the sanctuary to its medieval state". He singled out the cathedral’s historic Black Madonna, whose repainting had "transformed the Mother of God into a simpering kewpie doll".

black madonna

That is all I will say about the church  (and  nothing about the kewpie doll)  except I did a piece on the Labyrinth which is linked Here.

"Chartres is the epitome of the first great awakening of European civilisation."  ...."(Everything) rest on the foundation of the twelfth century. That was the age which gave European civilisation it impetus. Our  intellectual energy, our contact with the great minds of  Greece, our ability to move and change, our belief that God may be approached through beauty, our feeling of compassion, our sense of the unity of Christendom - all this, and much more, appeared in those hundred marvelous years between the consecration of Cluny and the rebuilding of Chartres." p 60

3. Romance and Reality                                              Contents