A guide to Église Saint-Martin church in Besse

Besse road sign with church in background
St Martin church in Besse, Dordogne

THERE have been human settlements in Besse dating back possibly as far as the Prehistoric age.

With iron ore in the ground and wood for charcoal from the nearby forests it later became important for the Celts. The history is partial but certainly when the Romans arrived, they built a road from Cahor to Perigueux. It is believed that a route went from Besse to meet it.

During the XI century a Benedictine Priory was built, as well as a castle which protected the Priory. The castle has gone, and only a small part of the nave of the original church remains and the west wall with its porch.

The Priory Church – Église Saint-Martin

Entrance and stairway of the church

As said, the church at Besse was built in the XI century for a Benedictine priory so making it first and foremost a priory church.

The church entrance is one of only three Romanesque sculptured archways in Périgord (the two others being Thiviers XI century and Merlande XIII).

The two flat buttresses supporting the door show the likely height of the original building also seen at the cornice and flat buttress on the south side of the church.

Sculpted for the monks, the door was not to be read as a catechism or instruction, yet the symbols need to be deciphered as they portray a tremendous ode to the Redemption.

The west wall has the door or porch. Above the portal of the doorway is the outline of an equilateral triangle which is inscribed inside with diamond shapes.

Then resting on the edge that is supported by two fine dedicated pillars, is a set of six corbels. The two pillars outline a rectangle surrounding the porch.

The entrance and arches

Church door and archway

The door has three semicircular arches. A theme of cord or rope intertwined or knotted is threaded through the carving.

The first arch: The interior curve of the arch: This is just decorated with crossed ropes.

The second arch: This shows a flow of palm leaves decorated with seeds or beads leading to, on the right, a sadly decapitated lion and on the left, two monsters on their hind legs, one opposite the other, a male and female. The lion probably represents God’s protector, as in Daniel in the Lion’s den, when a man was blessed by God, even a lion could not harm him.

Then the symbol of monsters were a medieval symbol for fertility, not uncommon, they can for example be seen at a monastery in Rostillon.

At the keystone there is a sacrificed lamb resting on an angel, the Lamb of God.

A couple of fish lie within the highest two palm leaves to the left of the lamb, symbols of Christ.

The third arch: This is often chosen as the most interesting band with the most intricate carving and stories.

There is a knotted rope running inside the arch in a symmetrical design.

On the bottom left, St Peter in Chains, sits on a bishop’s throne, or ‘cathèdre’. He holds out his arms to an angel flying nearby. St Peter twice was led from prison by an angel from Jerusalem and Rome, in the Bible’s Acts of the Apostles.

Over the arch itself appears a series of sculpted legends from the Old Testament most probably reading from left to right.

Here is Isiah the prophet who was the first to proclaim the coming of a Messiah. He is sculpted with an angel, a séraphins and a man. The séraphins purifies the words of Isiah by passing charcoal over his lips.

Depiction of Adam and Eve

Adam and Eve carvings

Adam and Eve are carved in two places. Both are depicted after committing the sin of eating the apple as they are aware they are naked. The tree is in the form of a Cross. To Adam’s right God speaks, the words carved into the stone between them.

The second image of Adam and Eve is at the arch keystone, here clothed yet perhaps before tasting the fruit. There are glimpses of the local landscape, in an oak leaf by Adam’s feet, a fig leaf by Eve’s.

Here the snake of awareness is around the tree, Eve considers the apple, stretching her hand to the fruit while Adam contemplates, his hand in his chin. Two angels form a semi-circle above them.

The following tale is that rarely depicted of St Eustace who hunted the stag in the forest, but saw the face of Christ between the antlers, as is shown here.

After this you can see the Virgin and child.

Lastly, St Michael slaying the dragon.

Around the outside of this arch, it is decorated with twisted rope and at the keystone sitting on a table, supported by angels, a small person with their hands held in the angel’s hands. This does not symbolise either Christ or God as it has no halo.

Small stone mushroom carving

On the right hand end of the arch, to the right of the column you can also see two small cèpe mushrooms, one slightly larger than the other and these are believed to have been the signature of the sculptor, if nothing else they reflect the popularity and abundance of the mushroom in the surrounding forests.

The symbolism behind the sculptures

Lion: Protected by God or God’s protector (as in the stories of Daniel, St Blandina and St Eustace)

The two monsters: They are a symbol of fertility, (be fruitful and multiply, ‘croissez et multipliez’)

Rope: That which ties and encloses us, keeping us in our bad habits, thoughts and inner demons. Here St Michael fights the demons and escorts our souls to Paradise.

Isiah: the first prophet to announce the coming of Christ, the Messiah between 664 and 630 B.C.

Tree: This, like a cross, is in front of baby Jesus, a symbol of the crucifixion.

St Peter: Was freed twice from prison by an angel allowing him to spread the word of God.

Palms: When Jesus went to Jerusalem riding on a donkey, on what has become known as ‘Palm Sunday’, the crowds of people laid palms and branches along the ground.

Fishes: Here two fishes symbolise Christ and the donkey. The cross on the donkey’s back also symbolises the mark of the cross, the cross of the crucifixion of Jesus, when he died in order to save humanity.

St Eustace and his vision: St Eustace, the legend says that a roman general names Placidus hunted a stag through the forest in Tivoli near Rome. This symbolised a quest for God, for the eternal. In his vision, God’s head or a cross appeared framed between the antlers of the stag. He was immediately converted as was his family, and he converted his name to Eustace.

St Michael: chased the demon in the sky, the dragon, but he helps us to overcome our own demons. He receives the souls of those chosen at the end of time, in the hereafter.

Not too far away from Besse you can take an easy walk with the trois évêques, in Lavaur, and Besse also hosts a night market every Friday in July and August.

Region: Nouvelle-Aquitaine
Département: Dordogne
Village: Besse
Coordinates: 44° 40′ 06″ N, 1° 06′ 24″ E

If you are looking to visit, find out more about the hotels in Villefranche-du-Périgord.

Categorised as Tourism

By Craig McGinty

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