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Medieval murder and turbulent history of Burgundy’s Semur-en-Auxois

Stone walls, towers and sculpture tell the tale of this monastic town if you know where to look

Entombment sculpture in the church of Notre-Dame; medieval buildings of Semur-en-Auxois from the Pont Pinard; Doubting Thomas in India above the entrance to Notre-Dame Pic: Christophe Finot / Rolf Kranz

Although the origins of the medieval Burgundian town of Semur-en-Auxois are lost in the mists of time, we do know that it was a bustling urban community by the ninth century. 

The first reference to the town’s main church comes in the form of a charter written in 879 by Boson, king of Arles, who names it as a dependent priory of the nearby large Benedictine abbey of Flavigny. 

‘Never let the truth get in the way of a good story’

A slightly fruitier legend of the foundation crops up in the 19th century, involving Robert I, duke of Burgundy (1011-1076), and a murder which took place during dinner in a chateau. 

This, however, follows the ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story’ school of thought, having been cooked up after a false interpretation of one of the church’s many sculptures. 

Returning to hard evidence, in 1154, the Pope confirmed that the church of Notre-Dame was to serve as both a priory for monks and as a parish church for the rest of the population, who needed somewhere to worship, which shows that the town’s population was on the up.

By the time the priory of Notre-Dame took on the role of parish, there was another priory in town, dedicated to John the Evangelist, and by the mid-14th century there was also a Carmelite monastery. 

13th century town walls gave protection during war

Although you couldn’t move for monks in medieval Semur, the town was more than a monastic centre. 

Economic life boomed also because of the town’s annual fairs, for which apparently permanent structures were built. The church and the duke of Burgundy cashed in from these popular events, sharing the profits from the taxes levied.

Any visitor to Semur will notice as they approach the town the robust medieval walls and towers. 

Built in the 13th century, they proved more than useful over two centuries of war. The town paid a high price, however, for remaining loyal to the dukes of Burgundy. 

The monarchy wanted the fabulously wealthy duchy of Burgundy for itself, and in 1478, King Louis XI’s troops breached the walls and occupied Semur-en-Auxois. 

Thereafter, the town was obliged to become a subject of the king.

Read more: Five French civil wars - from Charlemagne to the Paris Commune

Church of Notre-Dame remarkably intact

These mighty defensive structures still impress today, lending an authentic medieval atmosphere to the town, but it is the collegial church of Notre-Dame which takes centre stage. 

Although it has undergone multiple repair and rebuild jobs over the centuries, the church remains remarkably intact. 

The most significant restoration programme came between 1844 and 1854 under the architect Viollet-le-Duc (designer of Notre-Dame de Paris’ spire, destroyed in the fire of April 2019). 

Read more: €50million Notre-Dame Cathedral landscaping project approved in Paris

The architect did not tamper heavily with the church’s appearance, simply strengthening weakened structural elements and rebuilding part of the spire on the lantern tower. 

The monumental sculpture for which the church is so deservedly admired must have been in good condition in the 19th century, because Viollet-le-Duc barely touched any of it, save to repair one capital on a large pillar.

Finest medieval Burgundian sculpture

Highlights of this vast programme of sculpture can be found both inside and outside the church. 

Inside, one can admire a superb Entombment sculpture made at the end of the 15th century, in which the Virgin Mary grieves while the figures of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus place Christ in his tomb. 

Credit: Christophe Finot

This ensemble is remarkably well-preserved, retaining much of its original paintwork, despite being moved here in 1789 from its original home at the Carmelite priory church. 

The private emotions of each of the mourners are convincingly portrayed through the confident carving, and the work as a whole is consistent with the finest medieval Burgundian sculpture.

Town museum is full of medieval art

On the exterior, the northern porte des Bleds houses a 13th-century carved tympanum (the semi-circular field above the doorway) that tells the story of ‘Doubting’ Saint Thomas, and his role in taking Christianity to India. 

In the middle horizontal register, on the left, Thomas pokes his fingers into the resurrected Christ’s wound, refusing to believe that he has returned from the dead. 

In the central scene of this register, Christ persuades Abanes, an official sent by the king of India to find an architect to build him a palace, to take Thomas back home with him. 

On the right, Abanes and Thomas set off on a tiny boat that hardly looks fit to carry them to India. 

Evidently it did, because the lower carved register tells the story of how Thomas evangelised the far-off continent. 

And if you hanker for more medieval art, pay a visit to the town’s municipal museum, where you will find tiles, tombs, and a gorgeous wall painting of St Christopher attributed to Jehan de Bruges.

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