Saturday, 19 March 2011


Recently we've had a run of glorious weather --not so good today though, grey and misty-- and taking advantage we went down to St Savin sur Gartempe to visit the Abbey.

St Savin
A UNESCO world heritage site since 1983, the abbey church is richly decorated with beautiful frescos-- a fantastic survival. The church was built in the 11th century in the Romanesque style--all rounded arches and windows, a heavy squat central tower over the transept and an apsidal east end. There is porch tower at the west end which sports a later [14th cent] Gothic spire. Durham Cathedral in the UK is built in the same style.

It seems there has been an abbey on the site at least since the time of Charlemagne [early 9th cent.] to house the relics of 2 brothers, Savin and Cyprien.
nave ceiling

According to tradition they were 5th century Macedonian brothers who fled their country as they were being persecuted for being Christians. The story goes that they were finally cornered on the banks of the River Gartempe and beheaded. Apparently their relics were discovered 300 years later and the abbey was founded to house them and so became an important pilgrimage site.

The current abbey church was built in the 11th century following a generous cash donation in 1010 by the Duchess of Aquitaine. The frescos were painted at the same time and probably completed by 1100.

animals bottom, birds middle, humans top
 In an age where literacy was confined to the very few it made sense to have a medieval picture book of bible stories for the congregation to reflect on; either in mosaics [eg: Ravenna or Achen], frescos or, glass [eg: Chartres, York].  On the left is Noah's Ark.

The entry porch at the west end too is covered in frescos with a representation of Christ in Majesty at its heart. It also depicts scenes from the Book of Revelations and one of the less commonly seen is a representation of 'Woman of the Apocalypse' [Book of Revelations 12:1-18] or 'The Lady and the Dragon'.   

angel to the rescue
Bottom left seated is St John to whom the Book of Revelations is attributed; he looks to be holding his hands up in horror. Top left is the citadel of God; centre is the woman with her newly born male child on her lap. Just to the left of her is an angel ready to wisk the child off to the safety of the citadel and to the right is a huge red winged dragon who wishes to consume the child. Dragons and demons or devils were always red, the colour of sin and of human blood.

The frescos at St Savin have recently undergone several years of restoration and are now looking fantastic. It is humbling to think that for 900 years, people have been looking up at the stories they depict. Just think of what stories the frescos could tell if only they could talk!!

[PS you can enlarge any of the photos by clicking on them]


Susan said...

It's a really special place. I hope you went on a nice enough day to sit in the square opposite the church and have a beer.

Niall & Antoinette said...

Do you know we had the place all to ourselves--magic. Did indeed sit outside in the square, and had the sun roof of the car open, the sun made it just warm enough.