Serendipitous encounter with 13th-century church: adopting a detour state of mind #3
Every morning, I hark the sound of church bells. They murmur gently, at first, shaping my dreams, but soon their insistent melody awakens me from my slumber. I am used to it now, my ancient alarm clock. For hundreds of years, church bells all over France have rung out the morning, sounded out the hours, and tolled the end of the day. Every French village has an age-old church; who hasn’t seen a sign pointing to a 13th-century église in a tiny town?
There was no such sign on this particular day, as I drove through the arcadian village of Armenonville-les-Gâtineaux; it was the church itself by which I was diverted.
My curiosity piqued, I pulled off the road for further inspection.
It was not a pretty church, it was time-worn and slightly crumbly, but the statues guarding the closed wooden front door were unusual.
I stood outside taking pictures, like a tourist, under the empty branches of winter trees.
A friendly voice called, “Bonjour Madame!”
It was the caretaker of the church; we chatted, he asked about my interest in the church, and suddenly I was being invited to see the treasures within.
The key to the old door was enormous, and rusty, like a key to a pirate’s treasure chest.
As I climbed the well-worn stone steps, the wooden statues of Saint Paul and Saint Pierre, (to whom the church is dedicated), sit in stone niches carved on either side of the brick facade.
Saint Paul holds a sword, and for Saint Pierre (Peter), he once held the keys to heaven but they have disappeared over time. The church dates to the 13th century when it was a chapel for a wealthy family but became a parish church many centuries later.
I’ve seen many churches in France – soaring cathedrals, stately chapels, modest and well-used églises in every centre-ville. I was even married in an 11th century, Romanesque church in the small and humble Auvergnese village in which my husband grew up. They are beautiful, but usually dark (Notre-Dame Cathedral in Amiens is a notable exception) and village churches are often unremarkable inside.
This church was simply marvellous.
When I stepped inside, my eyes were immediately drawn to the heavens, where I was not expecting to see a cacophony of colour.
Above me, just high enough that I could still make out the details, the wooden ceiling is covered in painted caissons, geometric shapes decorated with flowers, foliage, and curlicues.
Luminous rays of sunlight shone through the stained glass window, highlighting blocks of orange, yellow, white, red, and black; no modern paint colours were used here.
A wooden statue of Jesus Christ nailed to the cross is itself nailed to a long white beam that runs the width of the church.
A faded, rickety staircase hugs the wall, its precarious wooden steps lead up to a trapdoor in the roof, which opens to the belltower.
A long rope dangles from the ceiling to the floor to ring the bell, though it’s used only for weddings and funerals these days; church bells are all automated now.
Grape vines once covered the slopes of this fertile area, and the coopers who carved thin, narrow strips of wood to make wine barrels, also made the wooden staves which adorn the ceiling.
The proximity to the primordial forest of Rambouillet, where kings and queens once hunted, meant that wood, and quality carpenters, were in good supply in the region.
The caretaker told me there are many other churches in the area with similar carved statues and painted beams.
I can’t wait to explore further.
This church was given its ‘modern’ look in the late 17th century when the lord of Armenonville, Charles Jean Baptiste Fleuriau, Count of Morville, oversaw its restoration.
The wooden panelling was added first, presumably painted soon after,
then the statues, of which most have now sadly disappeared.
The clock tower was added in 1671, and voilà, the village had its parish church.
Fleuriau was an important man, he was a Councillor and Secretary for the Sun King, Louis XIV, and his eldest son would eventually serve as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs for Louis XV and become very wealthy.
With the refurbished parish church came responsibilities – Fleuriau and his wife, Françoise Guillemin gave generously to the establishment of a free school for the poor of the village, both girls and boys, taught by a Mâitresse rather than a Mâitre. Whether circumstances allowed them to or not, the children could attend the petite école up to the age of 12, before most of them would have left to work in the vignes, the grapevines. In fact, the houses next to the church, formerly one long building, are the former school. This was Fleuriau’s legacy to the village.
If I have a legacy, if I leave you with anything, it is a reminder:
My decision to turn off the main road for a closer look at the church was a serendipitous one, for in meeting the caretaker at that exact moment. It literally opened the door to hidden treasures. Who knows what other historical goodies, stories, and riches await us when we take the time to explore the past?
Which hidden treasures have you discovered on your travels through France? Share your stories with us in the comments section below.
All images copyright Melissa Barndon with the exception of 1 (google maps) and 5 (Wikipedia)
I've lived in some interesting places in my life, but I've made my home in France. The sense of history here is tangible, it's in my 250-year-old stone house with its old bread oven, it's in the hidden paths you find in ancient forests, it's in the armoires in the house of my husband's family. I write about French history and my travels in France here on my blog.
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