Monday, June 16, 2014

Romanesque Churches

If you were to join me on my 15-mile bike loop that starts from our house and heads out into rolling farm fields you would be surprised when seemingly out of nowhere a church steeple appears. Come along and I will show you 5 churches to be discovered along this short loop.

  These churches all date from the 11th - 13th century with one jewel box exception. Some of their foundations are probably sitting on foundations of buildings built by the Romans who conquered and settled here among the Gauls in the 1st century.

The Perigord region (about the size of Delaware) has always been sparsely populated. And yet by the end of the 12th century there were as many as 400 Romanesque churches in the small region of the Perigord. “Romanesque” because they are based on the principals and style that had been brought to and became a part of the region’s architecture before the downfall of the Roman Empire.  

The beauty of these churches comes from their extreme simplicity of design and decoration. A simple, almost severe form, carved out of the golden, light sandstone that is one of the major assets of Perigordian architecture.  From the Michelin Green Guide: “The originality of the Perigord Romanesque style is in its vaulting - the dome. Some specialists believe that this shows eastern influence,  others that it is a French invention.” The orientation of each church is to face towards the orient, placing them on an east-west axis. The purpose is to have the faithful facing Jerusalem.  Or maybe, since the church interiors are as stark as their exteriors, it was to profit from the glorious rays of the morning sun.

During the 11th and 12th century there was a resurgence of population and construction during the brief interludes of peace. During times of turmoil these churches were used for the protection of the population of the hamlets nestled around them. Belfries doubled as watchtowers. Narrow windows allowed light, but not intruders. Some walls were up to 3 meters thick.

Two major periods of turmoil were the 100 Years War between France and England and then the terrible family-splitting Wars of Religion between Catholics and Protestants. Wars washed through and around these small villages and their strong churches.  One  marvels at the tenacity of the human spirit.
The last small church on the loop is actually a tiny chapel finished in 2012. A privately built and attended chapel. The arrival of this building of faith helps one understand the drive to create a place of spirituality and how such a church community can start out small nestled in it’s hamlet community of about 14 houses and 12 souls.

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