18 January 2018

Cunault : la châsse de saint Maxenceul

One of the key figures in the history of Christianity in Europe — especially here in the Loire Valley — is the man called saint Martin de Tours. Martin was a Roman soldier born in the early part of the 4th century (316 or 336, depending on who you believe) and deceased at the end of that century. He converted to Christianity in mid-life and then converted a lot of other people in the Loire Valley. One of his disciples was a man named Maxenceul, also a saint, who evangelized the area west of Tours, near Saumur on the Loire, where the Eglise Notre-Dame de Cunault now stands.

Without doubt, one of the most amazing things there is to see at Cunault is a reliquary chest — une châsse in French — that is said to have been carved from a massive piece of walnut wood in the 13th century. The word châsse is etymologically related to "case", "cassette", and French caisse, meaning "trunk" or "crate". One source I read says that the poly-chrome painting is not original but a later "improvement" (no date specified).

Maxenceul lived nearly a thousand years earlier than the 13th century. He founded a monastery in the Cunault area, on the model of Martin's in Tours. Five hundred years after its founding the Normans (Norsemen, Vikings) invaded central France, pushing up the Loire River. The religious community at Cunault had to retreat eastward.

The monks ended up in Burgundy, carrying the "relics" or remains of Maxenceul with them. A few decades later, when calm returned to the Saumur area, a few of the monks from Cunault returned. With the support of the dukes of Anjou, including Foulques Nerra, they founded a new monastery and built the Cunault church, which was built between the 11th and the 13th centuries. Sometime around the time the church was being completed, some artist or group of artists carved a chest to keep the revered "relics" of Maxenceul in.

I read in another account that one of the miracles cited at the time of Maxenceul's beatification was something that happened in the 16th or 17th century, during the wars of religion. The reliquary chest that supposedly contains Maxenceul's relics (there is some doubt about what is actually inside the chest) was thrown into waters of the Loire by Huguenots. Instead of sinking and being lost, it miraculously floated a few miles downstream and washed up on the banks of the river. Wood floating — imagine!

I wonder if the chest was painted after that incident. Anyway, it's a beautiful piece of work. I was lucky to have good light conditions back in July 2006 when I took these pictures. I wasn't using a tripod, and my camera then was vintage 1999. Maybe these photos are another miracle! I have some more that I will post tomorrow.

17 January 2018

Cunault : mère et enfant

Two of the most striking pieces of statuary in the Église Notre-Dame de Cunault are respectively 900 and 500 years old. And one of its most impressive artifacts, a reliquary chest, is 800 years old. The church itself was built over a period of 200 years from the 11th to the 13th centuries.

This Virgin and Child, carved in wood, is from the 12th century. One page I read said it came from or is at least in the style of works done in the Auvergne region of central France.

The work above, also in wood but painted, is from the 13th century. More about it tomorrow.

Finally for today, this Pietà goes back to the French Renaissance of the 16th century, according to what I've read.

Here's a close-up of the Vierge de Pitié, the French term for this kind of statue, or Mater dolorosa (Latin). I assume it was the work of an artist, or artists, in the Loire Valley, but I haven't found much firm information about it.

16 January 2018

More Cunault images

Sometimes it's just photos and I don't have a lot to say about them. That describes today.

The author of the Cadogan Loire guidebook says that it has been claimed that there are more than 200 carved capitals like this in the church at Cunault. Somewhere I read that most of them are perched so high up that you need binoculars to get a good look at them. I wonder if my longest zoom camera might let me get more photos.

This is a shot I took in the year 2000 with the Kodak camera I was using back then.

The church at Cunault seems alive and well-cared for nowadays compared to many I've seen in rural France. It's not dark and dank but bright and full of light.

A tile floor in the church

Many of the old churches around here have rows of chairs instead of pews, so this shot surprised me when I saw it again. The poster in this shot is announcing that a concert is being given in another local church on this day.

15 January 2018

Cunault : peintures murales

The Michelin Guide Vert mentions that there are a few 15th century wall paintings remaining in the church at Cunault. Here are some I took photos of on my last visit there.

I don't really know anything about these paintings, but there must have been many more of them decorating the walls and columns of the church all those centuries ago.

In the mid-19th century the church was classified as a monument historique by the French government. A report from that time describes the church as privately owned and in pitiful condition.

A famously miserly and wealthy man named Mr. Dupuis-Charlemagne, who lived in nearby Saumur, owned the church building, which he used as a warehouse to store wood and other stuff. He had two "doors" — crude openings, really — cut through the north and south walls of the church for the convenience of his workers.

It's amazing that any of these paintings survived the neglect and mistreatment the church suffered over the centuries. The so-called "restorations" of the nineteenth-century often did much damage to churches like Notre-Dame de Cunault as well.

14 January 2018

L'Église de Cunault : ampleur et hauteur

Of the Église priorale de Notre-Dame de Cunault, the Michelin Guide Vert says that from the outside, the church offers the eye nothing noticeably extraordinary (« n'offre rien qui retienne véritablement l'attention »). It goes on to mention the "massive" bell tower with its stone steeple and the church's "wide and flat" façade.

So what you see once you go inside is almost astonishing. You might be amazed by the breadth and height of the columns holding up the vaulted ceiling and roof. Quoting the Guide Vert, « on reste saisi par l'ampleur et la hauteur des piliers... » Cunault is "one of the largest Romanesque edifices in western France," according to the Cadogan Loire guidebook.

Monks fleeing the 9th-century Norsemen who invaded their island, Noirmoutier, off France's Atlantic coast, founded the abbey at Cunault further inland in the year 847 of our era. Only 15 years later, the invading Norsemen forced the religious community to move much farther east, all the way to Burgundy.

Decades later, the monks returned to Cunault and built an abbey church in the style of the Benedictine churches of Burgundy. It was designed to accommodate large crowds and processions of the faithful on annual pilgrimages to the site. Of the monastery, only the church built in the 11th to 13th centuries survives.

In medieval times, Cunault was  a prosperous river port on the Loire. It's not far from the town of Saumur, and the city of Angers less than an hour away by car. The author of the Cadogan guidebook describes the surrounding area along the south bank of the river as "a string of utterly charming Loire-side old villages" with several beautiful churches and the ruins of an old fortress set in "delightfully wooded" countryside with nice river views.

All these photos date back to July 2006. I took them with a Canon Pro90 IS digital camera that I'd been using since the year 2000.