The monolithic churches of south-west France, carved by hand out of solid rock, are lasting monuments to man’s desire to shape his surroundings for the glory of God. Most began as little more than caves used by hermits in search of solitude. In time, others seeking a contemplative life settled nearby. Communities developed, keeping contact with other cells by means of nearby waterways. The churches were enlarged and improved over several centuries.
Awe-inspiring is a much over-used term, but the monolithic church of Saint Jean at Aubeterre-sur-Dronne in the Charente is truly deserving of the superlative. Positioned halfway up a limestone cliff, a glorious cathedral-like structure, 27 metres long and 16 metres wide, has been hewn out of rock. Standing at the foot of one of the soaring 20 metre supporting pillars, it seems incredible that man hollowed the precipice, thereby creating a chamber as high as Notre Dame.
Early Christians escaping persecution inhabited grottos in the cliff. Between the 4th and 9th centuries, they cut a baptismal font in the floor of the nave, incising a Greek cross deep into the rock. Twelfth-century monks (Benedictine followers of Saint Maur) set about enlarging these grottos.
But a very different form of baptism had been taking place, long before the Christians arrived. A subterranean room was discovered by accident in 1961, when a lorry collapsed the road. This underground cavern was reputedly used to celebrate the rites of Mithras, a cult practising baptism by bull’s blood. The cult was declared illegal in AD 395. The monks adapted the room for Christian use.
Walking along the gallery, which occupies three sides of the building, the spirit of the past is almost tangible. Looking through the openings to the nave, some 15 metres below, it is easy to imagine the sound of voices lifted in prayer. An opening to the outside is now walled up, but would have been the original entrance to the church. A tunnel, leading to the château above, gives rise to the thought that this was a private means for the lords of Aubeterre to attend services. Sadly, many historians feel that it was more likely to have been a drainage channel, leading rainwater away from the château.
There is a magnificent two-tiered hexagonal monument, six metres high and three metres in diameter, carved from solid rock. Possibly designed as a reliquary to house the bones of a saint, in 1848 it was found to hold four coffins, two of which contained children.
Sarcophagi, hollowed out of the floor, received the bodies of monks and worshipers. The nave, which served as a cemetery until 1865, is covered with a layer of concrete, protecting the tombs. A chilling burial chamber at the side of the nave, containing over 80 sarcophagi, has been left uncovered.
During the revolution, as with so many religious buildings, the church was used as a gunpowder plant. Fortunately this phase in its history was of short duration. The church was reopened when calm returned to France and is to this day used for special services, such as Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
Centuries of work have left a legacy unparalleled in Europe. France is endowed with several subterranean churches, but only at Aubeterre-sur-Dronne can one find a total immersion baptismal font, a mausoleum monument, a circular gallery, a burial chamber and a crypt.
A minor enclave settled at Gurat, also in the Charente, six kilometres south of Villebois-Lavalette. The church of Saint Georges, near to the River Lizonne, is one of the smallest to be found in France.
Only six metres by twelve metres, the church is part of a much larger complex, most of which is hidden underground. Support pillars were carved to form a nave, choir and apse. The community was at its height in the 12th and 13th centuries, but disappeared shortly afterwards.
Excavations carried out in 1965 brought to light sarcophagi and bones, as well as a variety of implements used in daily life. It appeared that the church was still in the process of enlargement when it was abandoned. The structure shows signs of partial excavation of the walls and roof. Why the community left the church unfinished is not clear, perhaps the monks elected to join their brethren at one of the larger communes. Saint Georges was used as a gunpowder plant during the revolution and then as a foundry.
One monastic site neither abandoned nor forgotten is that of the troglodyte abbey at Brantôme, in the Dordogne. The Benedictines chose the site because of the abundance of natural riches provided by the area. Adopting caves carved out by previous pagan occupiers, they transformed the area into a thriving Christian enclave. With fish from the well-stocked River Dronne, which flows at the foot of the cliff, plus a constant supply of natural spring water, the site was ideal.
The first monastery was founded in AD 769. Within the cliff itself was housed a bakery, fish farm (currently under restoration), troglodyte mill and pigeon house, as well as dormitories and places of worship. They continued to live in the caves at least until the second half of the 15th century, when the ‘Last Judgement’ panel was carved in the main chamber. This seven-metre by seven-metre panel (the subject of expert analysis for more than 150 years) is thought to represent a monk entering monastic life and contemplating the rule of St Benedict.
Standing in the cool and quiet of the Last Judgement cave, one is aware of a grim reminder that worldly honour is subservient to the triumph of death. A second panel, depicting the Crucifixion, was carved at a later date.
As the abbey became more prosperous, the rock face was quarried to provide a ready supply of building materials, and the monks eventually moved away from the cliff into more comfortable surroundings.
One can only be in awe of the skill and artistry employed by men determined to use the natural rock in praise of God.
© Lorraine Mace 2004