The Church of St. Peter in Aulnay de Saintonge, Poitou, is one of the finest Romanesque churches in western France and a personal favorite of ours. Located in a peaceful setting overlooking a pasture at the edge of Aulnay village, its beautiful architecture is enhanced by an extensive, fascinating array of Romanesque sculpture inside and out.
History of Aulnay de Saintonge Church
Known in Latin as Aunedonacum, Aulnay's history begins in Roman times, when it was a small town along the road between the prominent ancient cities of Poitiers and Saintes. In the Middle Ages, the road continued to be used, especially as part of the pilgrimage route from Paris to Santiago de Compostela.
The first known church in Aulnay (of unknown date) was called St-Pierre-de-la-Tour, which was given to the Benedictine monks of St-Cyprien Abbey in Poitiers in the 11th century.
In the early 12th century, the church was transferred to the chapter of Poitiers Cathedral. Shortly thereafter it was rebuilt, most likely under the direction of Poitiers' canons, in about 1140 to 1170.
A few changes and restorations were made in later centuries, including the top half and spire of the tower (13th/14th century) and the reworking of the west facade (15th century).
What to See at Aulnay de Saintonge Church
The Church of St. Peter stands at the west end of the village of Aulnay, overlooking a picturesque old cemetery to the east and west and green fields (with friendly cows) to the south. A small road runs along the north side, where there is parking. The church can be entered from the south and west doors.
Most visitors approach the church from the east, which provides the loveliest view of the church. The cream-colored stone is accentuated by the deep green of several cypress trees in the churchyard, whose pointed shape also echoes the church spire. Both the tall spire and upper section of the tower are Gothic, dating from the late 13th or early 14th century.
Engaged columns run the length of the tall chevet, leading up to a roofline accentuated by corbels. The large central apse is flanked by two smaller apsidal chapels on the transept.
The three apses are topped with beautifully tiled roofs and decorated with a variety of lively sculptures - corbel figures, carved capitals, and reliefs. There are almost no biblical or even overtly religious scenes, with the exception of a capital with the Weighing of Souls.
The east window is framed with a bas-relief of men struggling among vines and vertical reliefs of entwined creatures run below each window of the central apse.
The corbels bear single figures of humans, beasts and many hybrid creatures, in a similar style to England's Kilpeck Church, which was built around the same time (c.1140).
One of the capitals features vine tendrils graphically growing out of a small man's backside. According to Uwe Geese (Romanesque, 342), this represents the devil's snares being released into the world to trap sinners.
Moving around to the south side, one of the most magnificent aspects of the church comes into view: the south portal. There is no tympanum, but the four archivolts are alive with sculpture. From a distance the sculpture forms a repetitive pattern, providing a pleasing visual rhythm. But closer inspection reveals that the pattern is actually a procession of fascinating figures - human, animal, and somewhere in between. Above the portal are more figured corbels.
The first (innermost) archivolt is decorated with a bas-relief of six animals among vines. The second archivolt has 24 sculpted figures with halos, holding books and containers and facing sideways; these are probably the Twelve Apostles and Twelve Prophets. The two middle archivolts are supported by atlantes figures underneath, which can only be seen when standing in the doorway.
The third archivolt has 31 front-facing figures with crowns, vials, and musical instruments, identifying them as the 24 Elders of the Apocalypse (aesthetic and architectural factors required the increase in their number).
The outer archivolt is the most interesting of all, populated with large figures of beasts and hybrid creatures. Most derive from the medieval Bestiary, in which real and mythical animals were given symbolic meanings. Among the parade of characters is a siren, a sphinx, a large owl and a donkey playing a harp. The figures generally face away from the center and each one is carved on a separate stone that supports the arch.
There are further sculptures on the upper facade and the three capitals topping the engaged columns on each side of the door. The outer two columns on each side are carved with a decorative pattern.
The west facade is another fine example of Romanesque art, although it has suffered a great deal of damage. The upper half was once richly decorated, including an equestrian sculpture of Constantine or Charlemagne, but none of this has survived; it was sadly replaced with the present plain facade in the 15th century, as part of essential repair work. The twin conical turrets on the ends are original from the 12th century.
There are three west portals. The two side portals have been blocked up; each one has a tympanum, three pointed archivolts, and two capitals topping engaged columns on each side. The left portal tympanum depicts the Crucifixion of St. Peter, patron saint of the church. The right tympanum depicts Christ in Majesty between two saints; some traces of paint can still be seen. The heads of all these figures have been smashed. The archivolts of both side portals are carved with abstract plant designs in a regular pattern.
The central portal has four archivolts, three large capitals on each side, and no tympanum. The innermost archivolt features a medallion of the Lamb of God flanked by angels. This is followed by the Virtues and Vices, which are opposed in pairs and labeled in Latin. The Virtues are represented by tall, elegant ladies with shields and spears and the Vices by little vanquished demons. Next come the Wise and Foolish Virgins - Wise on the left and Foolish on the right - culminating in a small bust of Christ and a door at the top center. Last but not least, the Zodiacs and Labors of the Months (also labeled, but badly damaged) fill the outer archivolt.
The interior of the church is pleasingly simple and almost austere: a tall nave with a pointed vault and side aisles, a transept, and small choir with east apse. The transept crossing is topped with a cupola with an unusual design of eight radiating ribs, resting on pendatives.
The pillars of the nave are quite sizeable, allowing for large sculptures on the capitals. These depict a variety of human masks, creatures, biblical scenes and foliage. Near the door in the south aisle is a capital with three elephants - drawn, as usual in this period, a bit inaccurately. A helpful Latin inscription explains: "Here are elephants." Also in the south aisle are twin male masks (a similar one nearby was left unfinished) and Delilah cutting Samson's hair as he sleeps.
Quick Facts on Aulnay de Saintonge Church
|Aulnay de Saintonge Church · Eglise d'Aulnay de Saintonge · Saint-Pierre d'Aulnay de Saintonge
|churches; World Heritage Sites
|Visitor and Contact Information
|46.022982° N, 0.355361° W
|Rue Haute de l'Eglise
|05 46 33 14 44
|Open in daylight hours
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- Personal visit (July 12, 2008).
- Peter Strafford, Romanesque Churches of France: A Traveller's Guide (London: Giles de la Mare, 2005), 205-10.
- Rolf Toman, ed., Fiona Hulse, Ian Macmillan, trans. Romanesque: Architecture, Sculpture, Painting (Ullman & Könemann, 2004), 270-71, 342.
- Aulnay - art-roman.net
- Aulnay de Saintonge - Romanes.net
- Aulnay, chef-d'oeuvre de l'art roman - Charente-Maritime.org
- Eglise St-Pierre, Aulnay - Paradoxplace
- Photos of Aulnay de Saintonge Church - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Aulnay de Saintonge Church, Aulnay-de-Saintonge
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