The Chapel of St Michael d'Aiguilhe (Chapelle Saint Michel d'Aiguilhe) is a fascinating little pilgrimage chapel perched atop a needle (aiguilhe) of rock in Le Puy-en-Velay, Auvergne. Jutting dramatically towards heaven, the rock needle has been a sacred place for thousands of years: a prehistoric dolmen was built there and the Romans dedicated it to Mercury before the Christians built a chapel to St. Michael.
History of St. Michel d'Aiguilhe
An especially dramatic part of the volcanic landscape of the Auvergne, the basalt needle of Le Puy has been regarded as sacred probably since it was first spotted by humans. Three great stones incorporated into St. Michael's Chapel are thought to be the remains of a prehistoric dolmen built at the top.
Later, the Romans worshipped Mercury - the swift messenger god with winged shoes - at the site. When the area was christianized, the rock was consecrated to St. Michael the Archangel, who is the patron of many high places throughout Europe.
The Chapel of St. Michael was built by Bishop Godescalc and the deacon Trianus in 962. It was a simple shrine built on a central plan: a square sanctuary a tiny apsidole on each side. This original sanctuary and two of the apsidoles still survive today. The chapel attracted many pilgrims, especially since Le Puy was the starting point for one of the main routes to Santiago de Compostela.
In the 12th century, the chapel was significantly enlarged by adding a short nave west of the original sanctuary, an elliptical ambulatory, two side chapels, a narthex with an upper gallery, a carved portal, and a bell tower. The 10th-century frescoes were repainted in the original style and more were added.
The bell tower fell down in 1275 and was not reconstructed until the 19th century. Removal of the plaster in the chapel in about 1850 revealed the magnificent 10th and 12th-century frescoes. A century later, in 1955, archaeologists discovered a treasure trove of sacred objects in the altar, which are now displayed behind an iron grate in the wall.
What to See at St. Michel d'Aiguilhe
Near the base of the rock is the 12th-century Chapel of St. Clair, which has an octagonal plan and exterior mosaic decoration. One of the two doorways has an ancient carved lintel showing the phases of the moon.
The basalt needle on which the chapel is built rises 269 feet (82m) high, with a top diameter of 187 feet (57m) and a base circumference of 560 feet (170m). Further height is added by the attractive 12th-century bell tower of St. Michael's Chapel. The tower is similar in style to that of Le Puy Cathedral, with arches made from stones of alternating colors.
The chapel is reached by 268 stone steps that wind their way up the side of the rock. The stairs are wide and in good condition, and a stone outer wall provides a sense of security (even to this author, who is not fond of heights). There are places to rest on the way up and the views are magnificent.
At the top, a wide path around the church provides a good look at the church exterior and the places where its masonry joins with the natural rock, as well as sweeping views of Le Puy, the cathedral, and the surrounding countryside.
The fascinating facade of the chapel also dates from the 12th century. Like the cathedral, its multicolor stonework and arches give it an exotic appearance revealing Islamic influences. It is decorated with mosaics of red, white and black stone in geometric patterns, accented with reliefs carved of lighter stone.
The stonework of the facade illustrates themes from Genesis and Revelation. The reliefs within the unusual trefoil arch depict the Lamb of God (labeled with AGNUS DEI) in the center, with four Elders of the Apocalypse holding vials of perfume on each side. Above the arch are vines populated with birds and two human figures, which probably represents Creation and the Fall. Note the tiny Green Man masks beneath the feet of each human figure.
Under the arch are more vines, which issue from the mouths of large human heads and contain birds pecking at grapes. This is thought to symbolize Creation and Redemption, but the Parable of the Mustard Seed has also been suggested.
The lintel is carved with two mermaids: one with a snake's tail and one with the tail of a fish. These might represent temptation or the souls who have died on land and at sea. The capital on the right has twin images of a man entwined in foliage and holding plants, while the left capital depicts two eagles in the pose of phoenix. Again Creation and Redemption seem to be represented.
At the top of the facade are five reliefs beneath arches held by four open hands. In the center is Christ in Judgment with the Alpha and Omega, holding the Book of the Life. On the right are the Virgin Mary and St. John and on the left are Sts. Peter and Michael. Below this is a small oculus surrounded by a relief of palmettes.
The interior is highly atmospheric, with an uneven stone floor and dim lighting from the small windows. The ground plan is irregular, reflecting the limitations of the dramatic site and the two phases of construction. The earliest part of the chapel is a square shrine built in the 10th century. In the 12th century a short barrel-vaulted nave and elliptical ambulatory was added around it. The nine-bay ambulatory is supported by slender stone columns whose capitals are carved with foliage and animals.
The upper walls and pyramidal vault of the 10th-century sanctuary is covered in frescoes of the same period. They are not in great condition, but enough survives to recognize the subjects and admire the rich colors used in the decoration. In the vault fresco is Christ in Majesty, flanked by the personified sun and moon. Above him is St. Michael the Archangel, patron of the chapel, with two seraphim. The four corners have medallions of the Four Evangelists alternating with angels.
The walls of the sanctuary depict the the Resurrection of the Dead, Heaven (shown as a castle with people peering out the windows), Hell (with people being punished by demons), the Twelve Apostles, angels and saints.
A niche in the right wall of the sanctuary displays the sacred artifacts discovered in the altar in 1955. Among the items is an 11th-century wooden crucifix that looks very Spanish and was probably brought from Santiago de Compostela by a pilgrim, and a metal Byzantine cross carved with a Virgin and Child.
There are more frescoes in the south-east chapel to the right of the sanctuary (12th-century), including bishops and angels. The north-east chapel has a modern bronze statue of the Virgin and a 14th/15th-century wooden statue of St. Michael slaying the dragon.
Quick Facts on St. Michel d'Aiguilhe
|Names:||Chapel of St. Michael d'Aiguilhe · Chapelle Saint Michel d'Aiguilhe · St. Michel d'Aiguilhe|
|Categories:||churches; World Heritage Sites|
|Dates:||962; 12th C|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||45.050021° N, 3.882363° E|
|Address:||Le Puy, France|
|Lodging:||View hotels near St. Michel d'Aiguilhe|
- Personal visit (June 15, 2008).
- Cécile Gall, Discover Le Puy-en-Velay (MSM), 45-49.
- Peter Strafford, Romanesque Churches of France: A Traveller's Guide (London: Giles de la Mare, 2005), 190-92.
- Saint Michel d'Aiguilhe - Architecture Religieuse en Occident
- Julianna Lees, "Green Men and Sirens at St. Michael d'Aiguilhe" (PDF), 2008.
Map of St. Michel d'Aiguilhe, Le Puy
Below is a location map and aerial view of St. Michel d'Aiguilhe. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.