I knew there was a church in the village where we bought our house in 2002. It was rather big and austere but otherwise did not seem to have anything special about it. I could not have told you its age or style.
Over the next few years, I discovered Eglise Abbatiale de Larreule (Hautes-Pyrénées) was a Romanesque abbey church founded in 1067 – all that was left of a once-great monastery that had been demolished after the Revolution.
Historical detective story
As my French improved, I learned that at the height of the abbey’s prosperity in the 15th century, a two-storey cloister (cloître) had been built against the north wall of the church.
There was virtually nothing left of this structure and it was difficult to imagine it had ever been there.
Of the 30 or 40 carved marble capitals (the decorative top section of a column) and their corresponding bases, there was only one of each left in the village. Where, I wondered, had the rest of them gone?
Curious by nature, and armed with the necessary research skills, I found myself engaged in a historical detective story tracking them down.
I was not alone. Research into local history is always a collaborative, cumulative effort. I am part of a local heritage association and two historians had done good work cataloguing our missing village treasures.
I brought something new to the party: I spoke English, and that would become vital for complete success in our quest.
The first step was to find out what was already known. I was fortunate because, while I was researching, the internet came of age. It was a vital tool to complement the local history books in my nearest library.
The archives départementales was an essential visit but it took organisation and determination to search through the mass of inconsequential detail to find what I wanted to know.
Over the 17th and 18th centuries, our abbey declined. Historians have always blamed the Wars of Religion for this but I believe it was more to do with enrolment.
As the rural population accumulated modest wealth – you can see it in the houses of the village – more hands were needed in the fields and fewer young men wanted to be monks.
Read more: A brief history of monastic life in France
The abbey deteriorated and was abandoned long before the Revolution came and declared its buildings public property.
We have a drawing from 1846 showing the remains of the cloister still in place, but the rest of it had fallen down.
The locals helped themselves to building materials and antiquarians took the best carved stones into protective custody.
The capitals and bases of the cloister were dispersed. Some were probably used to mark the corners of fields where they were eroded by weather.
George Grey Barnard
At the end of the 19th century, something fortunate happened. A local history buff decided to write a book describing all the capitals he could locate and had them illustrated by an engraver. This document provides indisputable proof of the stones that originated from our village.
The next date in our cloister’s story is January 1, 1907, when the mayor signed a council resolution permitting the sale of five capitals to an antique dealer.
The stones, he declared, “are useless to our village”.
This innocent-looking declaration forms part of a larger story that gradually revealed itself.
Five years previously, in 1902, American sculptor George Grey Barnard received a large commission that he decided to complete in Paris.
Soon, however, he realised he had underestimated the cost of materials and he looked around for sources of income.
He noted that France, especially the south west, had a surplus of mediaeval sculpture. It was everywhere and unappreciated.
Meanwhile, in the US, European cultural artefacts were in demand and millionaires were happy to pay the prices that village mayors wanted to charge.
Barnard moved entire cloisters across the Atlantic before the French state realised what was happening and brought in a law to prevent the further sale of antiquities, which was passed in December 1913.
By that time, it was too late. The stones of our cloister had disappeared. All that was left was to track them down.
Finding the lost stones
Our heritage association decided to make an inventory and also, if possible, create an exhibition of large-format photographs of everything that had been lost. To that end, an English speaker was needed.
We began the hunt close to home. I walked into our departmental museum in Tarbes and rather bluntly (you get away with these things if you are a foreigner) asked whether they had any of our capitals that I could see.
No, they said, they were all in storage, but the fact that I had asked created an obligation for the curator.
With a friend, I was able to get into the storage facility and see the four magnificent capitals that were kept upside-down in wooden crates.
To photograph them, I lay on the floor and used Photoshop later to delete the woodwork.
The task now is not only to locate as many capitals and bases as we can, but also to photograph all four sides and interpret the images.
Most show episodes from the Bible but there are enigmatic carvings too, such as one of a face looking left, right and straight ahead at the same time.
‘Barnard’s capitals’ were equally easy to find. Some are in New York’s Met Cloisters museum and others on the patio of the Explorers Club.
The club’s president and archivist were delighted to receive an English email from France. They have promised to provide the photographs we have requested.
Other capitals made their way to Cleveland museum.
I am in two minds about museums owning imported antiquities.
Part of me thinks things should be returned to where they belong and displayed in context, but another part knows that the capitals conserved in the US would probably not otherwise have survived from 1906.
Slowly, we are finding the other stones. Some of them never left France. One base is hidden behind a door in another church. In time, we may be able to recover it.
Another three bases are in a chateau in the Landes and can only be seen by special request.
American buyers did not want them because they are risqué: one shows concupiscence (a polite word for sexual lust) and on another a monkey moons the viewer.
Continuing the search
Sadly, we have to assume that some stones have been lost altogether, but who knows?
Not all the capitals described in that 19th century book have been located.
In my dreams, one is found neglected in a barn, or is given to our association by someone’s heir, or else is unearthed accidentally by a farmer’s plough.
I am sure there are discoveries still to be made and that motivates me to keep searching.
Some may even be under our noses.
Looking closely at the walls of the church one day, I found a fragment of one capital buried in the lime mortar.
Meanwhile, technology keeps developing and a tantalising new prospect is opening up. It is now possible to scan a piece of sculpture and ‘print out’ a 3D replica. This is an expensive process but could be a solution for the future.
Our ultimate aim is to recreate as much of the cloister as we can in the village where it belongs, even if it is an imitation.
I doubt I will still be here to see it, but at least I will have contributed to the process of bringing it about.
Where to see French cloisters up close
Abbaye de Moissac (Tarn-et-Garonne): The Romanesque cloister par excellence, dating from 1100, which has 46 sculpted capitals.
Abbaye de Saint-Michel de Cuxa (Pyrénées-Orientales): The sale of a large part of this cloister in the early 20th century forced the French government to change the law on the export of art treasures. It has since been reconstructed.
Jardin Massey, Tarbes (Hautes-Pyrénées): Elements of three cloisters are assembled together here in a free-standing structure in a public park.
Cathédrale Saint-Trophime d’Arles (Bouches-du-Rhône): A 12th to 14th-century combination of Romanesque and Gothic sculpture.
Abbaye de Fontenay (Côte-d’Or): An intact 12th-century Cistercian cloister.
The Met Cloisters (New York): Ironically, this is the best exhibition of French cloisters and their sculpture.