Frescoes and keyhole arches: Saint-Martin de Fenollar, France

On the road from Ceret in the Pyrénées-Orientales, France, heading towards the Mediterranean, a short detour takes you to Maureillas-las-Illas and on to a chapel which you would never find if you were simply driving around.  It’s not only off the road a short way, but it has a house built in front of it, indeed, attached to it and concealing the chapel from view.  Pity.

Saint-Martin de Fenollar, Maureillas-las-Illas, Pyrénées-Orientales, France
Saint-Martin de Fenollar, Maureillas-las-Illas, Pyrénées-Orientales, France

It’s the chapel of Saint-Martin de Fenollar.  In the 1960s it was restored and is now one of France’s ‘monuments historiques’.  The earliest record of the chapel dates it at 844 AD which makes it an example of pre-Romanesque architecture.  Its exterior is simple and small, but the interior is much more interesting.  There are pre-Romanesque arches, which were shaped like keyholes or horseshoes, and are sometimes called Moorish arches.  In my header photo above, you can see that the external doorway was once keyhole shaped. Signs in the chapel say that all photography, with or without flash, is strictly forbidden.  So I took no photos of the interior.  I was good.  There are, however, a few on Creative Commons which I can use to give you a reason to visit this little ‘gallery’ of 900-year-old paintings.  Indeed, these photos reveal more colour than can actually be seen inside the dark little chapel where only a few slits let the daylight in.  Here’s a photo from Wikimedia Commons of a keyhole arch leading to the apse inside the chapel:

« Fenollar arc triomphal outrepassé » par EmDee — Travail personnel. Sous licence CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

This form of arch was used in Visigothic architecture in Spain until the Muslim invasion in the eighth century AD, following which Spanish Muslim architects adopted its form for their mosques.  In Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa, an abbey of the same region, there’s some information on the wall of the church to explain the different arches:

Arch comparison St Michel de Cuxa
Arch comparison, Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa, France

However, Saint-Martin-de-Fenollar is a treasure for its remnants of 12th-century frescoes, which probably would have covered every wall top to bottom. What’s really amazing is that, before the restoration, a farmer had used the chapel for agricultural purposes and had knocked a huge hole in the eastern wall of the choir to make a door.  The wall was covered in frescoes, which with his help became little more than rubble.  The hole has since been filled and the remaining frescoes brought back to life.  In the photo of the apse, above, the infill is clear around and under the window.  We can only imagine what images had been there before. I have no photos of the interior but I have memories.  I looked at this ‘Christ in Majesty’ on the ceiling until my neck ached.  In the image below the colours are brilliant, but in the poor light creeping through the arrow slits and narrow windows, combined with dim electric lights illuminating the apse, the frescoes are quite dull.  I imagine that in Romanesque times candles would have lit the images, flickering over the Biblical faces and animating them mysteriously.  The photo below would not have looked so bright in candlelight or in minimal daylight, so we are seeing the image differently.  It’s a Christ in Majesty, encircled by a tetramorph, from the Greek tetra, meaning four, and morph, shape. Around the image of Christ are the four evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

File:Chapelle Saint Martin de Fenollar - Commune de Maureillas (66).jpg
Christ in Majesty, in a tetramorph surrounded by the four physically flexible evangelists, Saint-Martin-de-Fenollar, France. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

What a precious jewel we found by leaving the beaten track and venturing inside an otherwise unremarkable structure.

My thanks to Dennis Aubrey at Via Lucis for introducing me to this chapel.


Saint-Julien, Estavar, France

Estavar is a tiny, isolated but very pretty village in the south of France, close to Spain, situated at 1225m above sea level, and known as the community that receives the most sun each year in the Cerdagne region.  I went there recently to see l’Eglise Saint-Julien, a small Romanesque church.  It was closed when I visited, and seems to be open only for guided visits.  Inside there are remnants of 12th-century frescoes, which I didn’t get to see, but the outside is charming and worth a visit.  It was encouraging to see some work being done to restore it.

Bell gable, Eglise Saint-Julien, Estavar, Pyrénées-Orientales, France
Bell gable, Eglise Saint-Julien, Estavar, Pyrénées-Orientales, France
Chevet, Eglise Saint-Julien, Estavar, France
Chevet, Eglise Saint-Julien, Estavar, France

See the sculpted heads around the top of the chevet?  Each one is an individual.  Zoom in!

Heads around the chevet, Eglise Saint-Julien, Estavar, France
Heads around the chevet, Eglise Saint-Julien, Estavar, France

Estavar is on the border of Llivia, a Spanish enclave which has existed within France like an island since the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659, in which the mountain range of the Pyrenees became the border.  Some Spanish villages north of the mountains became French, but the Spanish influence is everywhere evident in the Catalan culture north and south of the border.  Since the treaty demanded that only villages would be ceded to France, Llivia remained Spanish, since it had once been the capital of Cerdanya (Cerdagne in French) and was considered a city.

Thanks to Dennis Aubrey and his blog Via Lucis, I’ve seen many parts of France that I would have, in the past, ignored.  My friend who drives me around when I’m here, and who has lived in the Pyrénees for decades, has also discovered some sites she didn’t know existed, and is thankful to me for introducing her to them!  She should really be thanking Dennis…


Prieuré de Marcevol, Pyrénées-Orientales

For a recent sojourn in the Pyrénées-Orientales, I asked Dennis Aubrey to recommend some Romanesque churches and monasteries to visit.  Marcevol was on his list.  Thanks Dennis.

On our way to spend a weekend in the higher Pyrenees, a friend and I visited the Prieuré de Marcevol which had unfortunately closed two minutes before we arrived.  But the sun sets late on these spring nights and I was able to take some photos of the exterior.  It’s a twelfth-century priory founded by the Order of Saint Sépulcre, destroyed in an earthquake in 1428, abandoned as ruins during the French Revolution and only properly restored in the last 40 years.  The priory now welcomes groups for cultural and sporting activities.

Facade, Marcevol Priory, France
Facade, Marcevol Priory, France

The facade is impressive, but the eye returns again and again to the rosy marble framing of the door and window.  The marble comes from the nearby quarries in Villefranche-de-Conflent, and has been used in many churches in the region.

Marcevol priory, Pyrénées-Orientales, France
Rose marble, Marcevol priory, Pyrénées-Orientales, France

Uphill from the priory, there’s the small hamlet of Marcevol and a small eleventh-century church, Nostra Senyora de las Gradas (Santa Maria de las Grades).

Church in the hamlet of Marcevol, France
Romanesque church in the hamlet of Marcevol, France

We drove up the hill to see if we could go inside but unfortunately we were out of luck again;  it is not open to the public.  It’s right next door to, practically adjoining, a house which we thought was part of the church structure.  The owner, sitting on the steps by his back door, set us right.

Church, Marcevol, France
Eglise Sainte-Marie des Grades, 11th-century church, Marcevol, France

The chevet of the church is decorated by Lombard Bands, or a series of blind arcades, which are believed to also enhance stability.  Blocks of stone, much longer and wider than the others in the structure, were set deep into the thick walls above and below the arcades.  Lombard Bands were widely used on Romanesque churches in the Catalonia region of southern France and northern Spain, where Marcevol is located.

Since the little church and houses are all of stone, there’s nothing ugly in this hamlet.  For even when stone structures are neglected and tumble down, wildflowers grow quite naturally in the gaps. On the web site for the Marcevol priory, I read:  ‘Anyone who has never been to Marcevol does not know everything about the world’s beauty.’  It’s not just the priory, the hamlet and church that inspire, but also the setting, close to the majestic Mount Canigou (2785 m), the mountain loved by the Catalans.

Steps up to the church, Marcevol, France
Steps up to the 13th-century wall protecting the nave, Marcevol, France