CHURCHES AND CHAPELS
Here, on a variety of
scales, are some charming religious buildings.
They are presented in roughly anticlockwise order
(And if you would like to know
about Anglican services in the Vendée, click here)
Beneath the church (which lies to the north of Noirmoutier castle), and
accessible from near the side of the main altar, is a beautiful 11th-century
crypt that holds the empty tomb of St Philbert, founder of a monastery on the
island of Noirmoutier (the word means "black monk") in AD674. After
repeated Viking invasions, the saint's remains were removed 162 years later
to St Philbert-de-Grand-Lieu (a pretty village south of Nantes), and later to
Tournus in Burgundy. Press the button for a taped explanation of the church's
history, with musical accompaniment.
Chapel of Notre-Dame de Bourdevert. At
a country crossroads on the D59, 4km east of the town, stands this
enchanting, tiny place of worship, dating from the 12th or 13th century and
said to have been built by two sailors in gratitude for surviving a shipwreck
in the days when the sea lapped against this spot. Push open the gnarled
wooden door (the key may be obtained from a nearby address if locked) and
step inside, where light streams through two simple arched windows on the
side walls. A model ship is suspended from the painted rafters and, on either
side of the ornate altar hang collections of babies' shoes - placed there by
parents who come and pray to the Virgin to guide their children's first
steps. Until recently a pilgrimage took place on the Feast of the Nativity,
in September; today Mass is said at 3pm on the second Sunday of the month.
Just off the main road to the north-west of Brem and south of
St-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie you come across a real delight, the remains of the
Romanesque church built by monks from St Martin's monastery near Tours in
1020. Of its original three naves, only the central one has survived
destruction by the Protestants during the 16th-century Wars of Religion. The
ancient, carved façade above the west door, famous throughout France, is
thought to show St Nicholas; two intertwined, fire-breathing snakes decorate
the top of a small window on the south side. The simple, whitewashed interior
has little decoration, but the remains of some 12th-century frescoes were
revealed in the early 1980s, languishing beneath layers of paint: on the
left, a crucifixion; on the right, a scene of three women visiting Jesus's
tomb after the Resurrection.
who was bishop here from 1606 to 1623, said Mass beneath the building's
graceful spire and soaring white columns and preached sermons from the painted
pulpit, now kept in the north aisle. Carved Romanesque faces of humans and
animals are seen alongside 17th-century stone garlands in a mixture of
architectural styles that range from the12th to the 18th centuries. The
church is linked to the bishops' palace by beautifully-preserved 16th-century
cloisters. Concerts are sometimes given on the monumental organ, presented to
the city of Luçon by the Emperor Napoléon III. Closed lunchtime.
Officially labelled "one of the most beautiful villages of France",
Vouvant - 13km north of Fontenay-le-Comte - understandably draws crowds of
tourists in summer, but in winter you seem to have this pretty place to
yourself. The richly-sculpted decorations on the north front of the romanesque
church are among the marvels of the Vendée. Fantastical animals surround the
doorways while, above, is a series of magnificent statues dating from the
15th century. Inside, the ornamentation is simpler; you can have a closer
look at some stone carvings displayed in the 11th-century crypt.
Notre-Dame du Vieux-Pouzauges.
Well signposted, about 1km south-east of the town, the church of Notre-Dame
(completed in around 1066) stands in a grassy churchyard. Once inside, press
a button for a seven-minute son-et-lumière performance highlighting the
magnificent wall-paintings on the north side of the nave. A symphony of
terracotta and ochre, they are thought to date from the 13th century but they
were subsequently painted over and not rediscovered until 1948. The French
commentary explains the subjects. Five scenes on the lower level depict
episodes in the life of the Virgin Mary and her parents: an angel appearing
to Mary's father; the kiss between him and his wife at the Golden Gate of
Jerusalem; two pictures of Mary in the Temple, and one of an angel appearing
to her. Above are friezes of grotesque animals, and illustrations
representing different months of the year. Over the west door are
more-recently uncovered frescoes showing Cain and Abel.
Église St-Michel. The
late-19th-century church, visible for miles around, dominates this
picturesque village - at 290 metres in altitude, the highest in the Vendée -
14km north-west of Pouzauges. The strange-shaped tower, which you can climb
(193 steps!) in summer for a vast panoramic view over the surrounding bocage,
or wooded countryside, is crowned with a massive copper statue of St Michael
the archangel - appropriately the patron saint of high places.
Chapelle de Chêne (or
Chêne-Chapelle). Signposted from the roundabout on the D763, just to
the south-east of the famous manor house the Logis de la Chabotterie and
about 3km south-east of St-Sulpice, is this curiosity - a minute chapel in a
hollow oak tree, with a little porch grafted on to it. You are welcome to
enter this fairyland-scale place of worship, sandwiched between the roadside
and the front garden of a normal house.
Chapelle du Petit-Luc.
On 23 February 1794 the Republican "colonnes infernales"
wiped out 564 women, children and old people as they knelt in a hilltop
chapel where they had sought sanctuary. Today the village, 23km north of La
Roche-sur-Yon, contains a modern shrine (the Mémorial de la Vendée) not only
to their memory but to that of all who fell in the post-Revolution civil war.
The present-day chapel, rebuilt in 1867 on the site of the massacre from the
stones of the original, contains marble panels bearing the names and ages of
563 dead - the 564th, Abbé Voyneau the village priest, is commemorated
farther on, near a stream beyond the old presbytery, by a simple stone column
on the site where he also met his death. It's worth looking also in the
village's more modern church, on the main crossroads. The stained-glass
windows give a blow-by-blow account of the tragic Vendée Wars.
Chapelle de la Tullévrière. A
cockerel and a cross decorate the roof of this chapel - more of a barn,
really - in a hamlet 5km north-east of St-Etienne on the D94. It was rebuilt
in 1835 on the site of an earlier building where one of the rebel priests
celebrated Mass during the 18th-century Wars of the Vendée. The simplicity of
the interior is moving; two of the stained-glass windows show clandestine
religious services of the time, and on the wall is a memorial to 22 local
martyrs - men, women and children - slaughtered by the "Bleus"
(Republican soldiers) in 1794 as they attempted to hide nearby.
© Angela Bird