A Cave Church in France

Saint-Émilion, a famous Bordeaux wine town in the south of France, is named for a hermit saint who moved there from Brittany. He’s called St. Aemilianus or St. Emilian of Saujon, St. Emilian of Combes, and so on, for all the various places he could be said to have lived. He died in 767, and his feast is January 7. (Which is about the time when extremely new wine could be drunk.) But his day is also celebrated on November 16, probably because it’s not as cold and comes at harvest time. He’s a patron saint of wine merchants and businessmen. (The local patron of vintners and vineyard owners is St. Valery/Valerius, one of his disciples. He is depicted with the tools and outfit of a vineyard worker, including a water gourd.)

Anyway, this town was built around what was once a cave deep in the forest of Combes. It was a convenient place for a hermit to camp out. As usual with saintly hermits, people were drawn to the vicinity of his cave to consult him for holy advice, or even just to rubberneck. Men who wanted to be monks didn’t go home again, which is how a lot of hermitages suddenly become monasteries. And where there’s a monastery, there’s often a town that comes into being.

So there’s not much remote forest left at Saint-Émilion… although the vineyards are a perfectly good replacement… but the cave is still there. It doesn’t look like a cave from the outside, because the whole rock outcropping and underground cave system was gradually carved into a church, over the course of centuries. (Mostly in the 11th century.)

The place is called the Église Monolithe – “the single-stone church.” There are a few others in the world, particularly in Ethiopia.

Here’s a video of St. Emilian’s underground, monolithic church. It gives a much better idea of what the church is like than any of the photo pages I’ve seen. The big metal pillar things are modern reinforcements for the bell tower. The church doesn’t seem to be in use at this time, although there is still a place near the entrance to venerate St. Emilian. (His relics were lost, though.) The place where the guys are sitting and talking in the video used to be the altar area, and the video shows you a few of the stone carvings done to fancy up the church, which is otherwise pretty plain. (But beautiful and impressive.) There’s also tons of really nice aerial drone footage.

It’s worth it to turn on the auto-translate closed captions, but some of the stuff the expert says is pretty ignorant. A many-headed dragon in church isn’t a “force of nature;” it’s a Revelation or other Biblical reference.

That’s not a “figure with a stick” who “gains wings,” but either St. Michael defeating the dragon (very suitable for a high rocky outcropping), or more likely, a scene from the Book of Tobit, with Tobias fighting the river monster to get its liver to heal his father’s blindness, while St. Raphael stands by with his traveling stick. In the latter case, the meaning would be that you have to defeat evil to help heal others, and that your guardian angel will help you and give you advice. (Very suitable for both the monastery’s monks and for the lay parishioners.)

The church is believed to have been built as a sort of thanksgiving by knights returning from the Crusades, so the Book of Tobit theme of a dangerous journey would fit well. It lies on one of the French pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela.

As with a lot of medieval churches, the carvings up by the altar probably used to be painted, to differentiate them from the rest of the wall and to be able to add fine details.

A page about why the bell tower needs support (groundwater plus limestone), and how the support pillars were funded and improved. Also a couple nice photos I haven’t seen elsewhere, including one of the Revelation creature with a scorpion’s tail and woman-length hair. But it’s shooting an arrow, for some reason. The video above only shows the oldest part of the church, whereas there are actually three naves and a crypt!

This article talks about Holy Trinity Chapel, built directly on top of the original hermitage to keep it protected, with some gorgeous 13th century frescoes. It also talks about the hermitage itself, which contains indented stones which were traditionally used as a bed and a chair by the saint, as well as a holy spring. (Obviously dampness was part of the mortification.) She warns that you have to reserve a place in one of the underground tours if you want to see the church at all.

It also talks about how Saint-Emilion is allegedly the place where macarons/macaroons were first invented by the Ursuline sisters. You can buy macarons made according to the 1620 recipe.

This article in French talks a lot more about the history and frescoes in the other big medieval church in town, the collegial church of the Augustinian canons, including the fact that its big 14th-15th century enlargement and bell tower were mostly funded by a papal nephew, Cardinal Gaillard de la Mothe.  The remains of his cardinal palace are also in town. (The church also features a medieval pet door for a cat who notoriously hated being in church during offices and Mass.)

In the long-running anime Detective Conan (aka Case Closed), the supporting character “Jodie Saintemillion” is actually named Saint-Emilion, in a reference to the wines made there.

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Filed under Church, History, Saint Stories

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