Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne: Why pilgrims flock to this French beauty spot

Art historian Dr Julia Faiers wonders at the majesty of Saint-Pierre abbey

No ordinary tradesman’s entrance. The sculpted depiction of the Last Judgment that decorates the south portal of Saint-Pierre abbey was designed with laypeople in mind
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Names can tell you a lot about a place, and Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne is no exception. A ninth-century archbishop of Bourges happened upon the little village of Vellinus while surveying his seigneurial lands. So enchanted was he that he ditched its old name, re-baptised it Bellus Locus (that’s ‘Beautiful Place’ to you and me), and founded a Benedictine abbey there.

But archbishop Raoul (or Rodolphe, depending on the source) didn’t set up shop simply because he liked the view. The abbey’s location on the banks of the Dordogne river was in a strategically useful position. Raoul was a canny operator focussed on attracting pilgrims (and their wallets) to his new foundation. Build it and they will come. And so they did.

Archbishop Raoul founded the abbey of Saint-Pierre in 898 and installed 12 monks from nearby Solignac. The relics of saints Felicity, Prime and Félicien that he acquired for the abbey proved to be a potent draw for pilgrims.

And although nothing remains of the ninth-century church, the numerous pilgrims who came to venerate the saintly relics there left offerings so bountiful that the monks were able to start work on a new, larger abbey, built on the same site, before the middle of the twelfth century.

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While the monks accessed the abbey through the north transept, the medieval pilgrim entered the church through the south porch, which opened onto the main market square. Thus both visitors and townspeople beheld an entrance richly carved with intoxicating Christian imagery depicting Judgement Day.

At the entrance of Saint-Pierre abbey Pic: steve estvanik / Shutterstock

The sculptors, who came from Toulouse in the 1130s, filled the surface of the tympanum (the semi-circular area above the doors) with people, angels and beasts both real and imaginary. Below the feet of the apostles, on either side of Christ, we see the dead rising from their tombs to receive judgement, including on His left, four figures who are among the Saved. Scholars have identified these as Jews being welcomed into heaven, as one of them lifts his tunic to reveal his circumcision.

At the centre of the mêlée sits Christ in Judgement with a benign expression on his face, arms stretched wide to welcome the visitor into the church and the faithful into heaven. The message couldn’t be simpler. Enter my house and you will be saved.

The interior of the abbey was designed with pilgrims in mind, incorporating apsidal chapels to house relics, and a spacious ambulatory, an area of the church for people to move around the choir and inner sanctuary. The monks carried out their liturgical duties in the choir, while the ambulatory was geared towards facilitating a steady flow of pilgrims keen to lay eyes on the abbey’s spiritual treasures. On feast days, this steady flow could quickly turn into a rushing tide.

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So what were these pilgrims flocking to see, and why? A star attraction was a twelfth-century statue of the Virgin and Child. It might not have contained the miracle-working relics of long-dead saints, but it packed a punch for medieval pilgrims.

The statue was made from wood and covered in repoussé silver, with antique cameos and precious stones that heightened the image’s spiritual, magical properties. Along with this magnificent object, the abbey’s treasury still holds two arm reliquaries—that is, a sculpture in the shape of an arm, containing fragments of a saint’s arm bones.

These reliquaries were made in the thirteenth century from wood, covered in silver and then gilded in places. They purport to contain the relics of the arms of Saint Emilien and of Saint Felicity, the hands raised in benediction. This type of reliquary is known to have played an active part of medieval worship. The clergy blessed worshippers by touching them with the hand of the reliquary.

The abbey is located on the banks of the Dordogne river (photo for illustration purposes) Pic: Tanja Midgardson / Shutterstock

What appears to us today a macabre and bewildering practice made perfect sense to the devout medieval believer. Pilgrims travelled long distances to be in the presence of these powerful talismans of the Christian faith, which they believed could cure them of every ailment or malaise. But this miracle-working didn’t come for free, and so pilgrims would leave money, candles (then very expensive), or even effigies in wax of afflicted body parts, in the hope of increasing their odds of success. It is possible that little wax arm effigies were left as offerings to the arm reliquaries of Felicity and Emilien at the abbey of Saint Pierre.

Despite its twelfth-century heyday, this church now lies beyond the reach of Unesco’s heritage-protected pilgrim routes through France to Santiago, falling somewhere between the Le Puy and Vézelay routes. But this beautifully preserved architectural hymn to salvation deserves a visit in its own right. Whether you’re a believer or not, it’s hard to resist the charms of this great abbey in the centre of a town once called Beautiful Place.

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