CORNERSTONES: Making Lemonade in the Auvergne

Chapelle Sainte Madeleine, Massaic, Cantal, France. | Photos by Simon Cotton

By Simon Cotton

A basalt cliff towers some 200 meters above the Cantal town of Massiac, from which cliff a tiny chapel scarcely obtrudes. One has to ascend to the chapel to appreciate a wonderful panorama southwards, looking down on the A75 autoroute heading south from Paris to the Mediterranean near Montpellier. Like many buildings in the mountainous Auvergne region in central France, this humble Romanesque chapel is constructed substantially of a brown stone, usually of volcanic origin. Built as a chapel for a long-vanished chateau, it remains well cared-for and consecrated for worship, although totally isolated.

Chapel of St. Michel de’Aiguilhe, Le Puy-en-Velay, France

The major Romanesque churches of the Auvergne, like Saint Nectaire, Issoire and Notre Dame du Port in Clermont-Ferrand make the most of this dark material, using it decoratively in alternation with lighter stone. This is done in the voussoirs of windows and in decoration applied to towers and particularly in bands of inlaid work running round the upper part of the apses at their east ends.

Similarly prominent in the city of Le Puy are the chapel of Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe, founded in the 10th century, and the Romanesque cathedral, both perched on pillars of volcanic material and constructed of the like, which again make use of this kind of decoration.

When we visit cities like New York, Paris, Rome, and London, we see churches and public buildings built of high-quality materials like limestone or marble, which confer an aura on those buildings constructed from them. This region of France, like many in other countries, is not so blessed, but the builders of these churches made the most of what they were given. When you are given lemons, you make lemonade, the very best lemonade that you can.

Another church in this region teaches us a lesson. After the first millennium AD, people stopped expecting the end of the world and began building new churches. As the monk Raoul Glaber (d. 1047) famously commented at that time, it was as if Europe was “cladding itself everywhere in a white mantle of churches’.”

So the little village of Colamine-sous-Vodable, about 20 miles south of Clermont-Ferrand, started to build a new church. The choir probably dates from that century, the nave being slightly later and the south aisle and north transept a little later still.

Notre Dame de Colamine

Simple and unsophisticated, this 11th- or 12th-century church, typical of the area, served its little parish under the shadow of the hill of Vodable and of its larger church, right up to the French Revolution, when churches throughout France were closed for worship, and many  pieces of religious art were destroyed. After the Revolution the diocese of Clermont was reorganized, and Colamine lost its parish status. Colamine church became just a cemetery chapel, kept in use by having a churchyard. From then, things went downhill, as it slipped into obscurity and the fabric deteriorated. The statue of its patron saint was even stolen in 1970.

In 1977, some brave people formed an Association de Sauvegarde and minor repairs began. On August 18, 1979, they took down a rather crude reredos, or screen, behind the high altar, which had been assembled from older pieces at the end of the 18th century. Seven statues were revealed, six of wood. Four are rather rustic 16th- or 17th-century figures: Saints Anthony of Egypt, St. Bartholomew, St. Roch and an unidentified bishop, and there is a fine Gothic Virgin Mary. The highlight is a wonderful late 12th-century Virgin and Child, “Notre Dame de Colamine,”  which belongs in the company of the great Romanesque Majestés of the Auvergne.

An apse, Eglise de Saint-Nectaire, Auvergne, France

Those parishioners who took care of their church and its furnishings when iconoclasts wanted to destroy them have had their posthumous reward, two centuries later. A thousand years after its building, Colamine church stands as it did then, with just a farm for company in an unspoilt landscape, its churchyard sprinkled with the wild flowers typical of the Auvergne.

It’s a parable of sorts. Does your church have saints hidden within its walls?

Dr. Simon Cotton is honorary senior lecturer in chemistry at the University of Birmingham in the UK and a former churchwarden of St. Giles, Norwich and St. Jude, Peterborough. He is a member of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. 



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