The Basilica of St. Andoche in Saulieu, Burgundy, was founded as an abbey church in the 6th century and rebuilt as a collegiate church in the 12th century. It became a Minor Basilica in 1919. It is famed for its magnificent carved capitals depicting biblical stories and medieval scenes. Also of note are the 14th-century choir stalls, which are carved with two biblical scenes and a variety of other figures.
History of Saulieu Church
In Roman times, Saulieu was Sedelocum, a town on the Agrippan Way between Autun (Augustodonum) and Avallon (Aballo). In 177 AD, a missionary from the Near East named Andoche was martyred and buried in the town. His remains were venerated by the local inhabitants and eventually attracted pilgrims from out of town as well.
The developing pilgrimage led to the founding of an abbey in the 6th century. This attracted a number of important visitors and the patronage of no less than Charlemagne, who restored the abbey and lavished it with splendid gifts. In 843, Charles the Bald put St. Andoche Abbey under the authority of the Bishop of Autun.
Shortly after 1100, the abbey church was rebuilt by Etienne de Bagé, Bishop of Autun. It was completed by 1119, when Pope Callistus II presided over the translation of St. Andoche's relics into the new church. In 1139, the abbey church was secularized, becoming a collegiate church with 12 canons.
During the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), English soldiers pillaged the town of Saulieu and set fire to the church. The Romanesque choir was destroyed and rebuilt in the Gothic style. In later years, side chapels were donated by bishops of Autun.
In the 17th century, severe storms damaged the spires of the church. The north spire was replaced by the present dome, which represents the imperial crown of Charlemagne, early protector of the church.
Saulieu Church was classified as a historical monument by Prosper Merimée in 1841. Viollet-le-Duc did not restore the church, but appreciated its attractions and produced several drawings. In 1869, the portal was rebuilt by a Lyon sculptor named F. Creusot.
On November 10, 1919, to mark the 8th centennial of Pope Callistus II's visit to Saulieu, Pope Benedict XV raised the status of the church to Minor Basilica.
What to See at Saulieu Church
The exterior of Saulieu's church, which overlooks an attractive rectangular plaza with a stone fountain, is only of minor interest. The portal dates from the 19th century and has been criticized for its style, which is not in keeping with the rest of the church. Rising above the west facade is a stout Romanesque tower, topped with a 17th-century dome shaped like Charlemagne's crown.
The Romanesque nave is tall and attractive, made of cream-colored stone and topped with a barrel vault. The side aisles have pointed arches and groin vaults. There is no transept. The style of the interior is clearly influenced by the powerful Abbey of Cluny.
The undisputed highlight of Saulieu Basilica is the set of carved capitals in the nave, which date from the early 1100s. "A common feature of all the Saulieu capitals is the vigor of the carving, which is combined at times with typically Romanesque fantasy and humor." (Peter Strafford).
There are over 60 capitals in all, about 10 of which have narrative figures. The most interesting of the figurative capitals are detailed below, numbered from the west end. If you visit in person, be sure to bring €1 coins to illuminate them.
Flight into Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15) - south arcade, fourth pier
The most exquisitely carved capital at Saulieu, this shows Mary and the baby Jesus on the back of a donkey. She and the donkey are looking in front of them, down the road, but her body faces the viewer. She is seated on the donkey like a throne, with her legs supported on a small platform. On the left face of the capital, Joseph leads the donkey. Each of the donkey's four hoofs stand on a wheel, an intriguing symbolic element. One interpretation is that they represent the wrath of Herod (since wheels represented wrath in ancient times), which the Holy Family is fleeing but also treading underfoot.
Balaam (Numbers 23-24) - north arcade, second pier
This capital shows Balaam on his ass, wearing a medieval riding cloak and carrying a tau staff. Both Balaam and the donkey look in astonishment towards the right face of the capital, where an angel standing on city walls holds up a sword, blocking the way. Between the angel's wings is a star, representing Balaam's prophecy: "I see a star that rises out of Jacob, a stem that springs from Israel's root." (Numbers 24:17). In Christian interpretation, this prophecy refers to Christ.
The Risen Christ (John 20:11-18; Matthew 28:1-10) - south arcade, second pier
On the right face, a cheerful angel sits on the empty tomb while three women look on in astonishment. On the main part of the capital, a robed Christ with a cruciform halo stands with his hands raised. He has a beard and a fine French mustache; his ear is large and deeply carved. His gaze is otherwordly, but directed towards the left face of the capital, where three women carry vases. Two of them are talking to each other, while a third (presumably Mary Magdalen) gazes up at Christ and offers him her vase.
Temptation of Christ (Mt 4:1-11; Mk 1:12-13; Lk 4:1-13) - north arcade, third pier
On the left is a devil in profile with a snake coiled around his leg. He offers Christ a stone, tempting him to turn it into bread instead of fasting. On the right, Christ has a cruciform halo and sits with an open book on his knee, likely referring to his responses that began with "It is written..." He points at the devil as he rebukes him. An angel accompanies Christ on the right. The scene is set against a background of lovely vegetation.
Suicide of Judas (Matthew 27:3-10; Acts 1:15) - south arcade, third pier
Against a tranquil background of vines and leaves, Judas gags as he hangs from his belt. His purse containing the pieces of silver is still attached to the belt, and a devil pulls down on the rope on the right. The implication appears to be that not only did a devil make Judas betray Jesus, it also inspired his suicide.
Rude Bears - north arcade, fourth pier
In contrast to the lofty biblical themes of most other figurative capitals, this one signifies the bear's fart, which in medieval times was a traditional annoucement of spring. Two bears stand on their hind legs to fight each other, while robed men on the two side faces hold up the bears' unnaturally-long tails to draw attention to the main point of the capital. Both men hold a stone or other round object, raised high in their other hand. The bear also symbolizes authority, and the capital may also depict two men claiming authority.
A Cock Fight- south arcade, fourth pier (facing the aisle)
Another secular medieval theme. In the center is the end of a cock fight. In the corners are two people; the winner rejoicing and the loser in distress.
Projecting off the north side are two square side chapels, the first of which contains the baptismal font and displays replicas of 6th-century Byzantine ivories. There are three chapels on the south side: the Chapelle St. Joseph (15th century); the Chapelle du Cardinal Rollin (16th century); and the Chapelle Notre-Dame de Pitié (16th century).
The Gothic-style choir dates from 1704. In the center is the high altar, under which St. Andoche's relics are enshrined in a marble tomb. The tomb dates mostly from a restoration in 1848, but incorporates a few bits of the 6th century tomb.
The wooden choir stalls date from the end of the 14th century and are of great interest. In the center back are two finely carved panels, depicting the Flight into Egypt (left) and the Annunciation (right). The armrests of the stalls are carved with a wide variety of fascinating heads, both human and animal.
Quick Facts on Saulieu Church
|Names:||Basilica of St. Andoche · Saulieu Church|
|Dates:||early 12th C|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||47.279504° N, 4.229972° E|
|Address:||4 Rue Savot, 21210 Saulieu, France|
|Hours:||Nov-Easter: 9-12 and 2-4:30; closed Sundays and Mondays|
Easter-Nov: 9-12 and 1:30-6:30; closed Mondays
|Lodging:||View hotels near Saulieu Church|
- Personal visit (May 27, 2008).
- Basilica St Andoche, Saulieu: Visit Guide (Diocese of Dijon, 2003). Color pamphlet available in book shop.
- Peter Strafford, Romanesque Churches of France: A Traveller's Guide (London: Gilles de Mare, 2005), 80-83.
- Saulieu - Art-Roman.net
- Photos of Saulieu Church - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Saulieu Church
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