Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Chapelle Sainte-Radegonde de Chinon

Friday, June 10, 2011

Having lost my boutique innocence in Chinon, I cheerily boarded the bus. I was basking in a splash of sun like a well-contented cat when it was announced that we had more Plantagenet exploring to do. Off the bus, then, and out for a walk along some troglodyte dwellings high above the city.

Having studied Latin in my youth (or having pretended to), I was transported by the word 'troglodyte' to images of enchanted Hobbit-like creatures living in twee caves far from the soul-numbing influences of civilization. But of course in France, the word troglodyte refers to dwellings dug into the rock faces of the landscape, and to the residents thereof.

Troglodyte caves like the ones that housed the tasting rooms of Domaine Fillitreau maintain a fairly constant 53 degrees Fahrenheit. That sounds nippy to me, but means minimal effort gets expended to heat the home in winter and cool in summer. The soft shellstone that characterizes this region was easily worked, and thus very much in demand for building. Working the stone had a potential double benefit: income from selling the quarried product whilst simultaneously creating living spaces.

There are many examples of inhabited troglodyte caves to be found in the Loire Valley, particularly between Saumur and Angers. These caves, aside from being practical and charming, also provided the region with an underground defense system. The Norman invasions of the 9th and 10th centuries prompted people to create underground passageways as escape routes from the local chateau, so they could hide in caves and forest.

When wandering the town of Chinon, I'd seen winding streets with signs like this one, pointing the way to caves beneath the castle mound.

You can follow a steep path which will take you on a 20 minute walk to the caves which house the Chapelle Sainte-Radegonde de Chinon. Lucky us, our big old bus hauled up the hill. We thus had a short but pleasant walk to the chapel.

There really is something that stirs the inner Hobbit when visiting a cluster of these caves.  Tall people like me would have developed a permanent stoop from passing through the wee doors.

Photo by John Phillips

Knowing that troglodyte dwellings were ubiquitous in these parts, I was not surprised to learn that we'd be visiting the caves, but I didn't realize we were about to see something related to Eleanor. We found ourselves at the site of a 12th century chapel that had been built around the tomb of a hermit known as Jean Le Reclus, or St. John of Chinon. Jean had been spiritual advisor to Saint Radegonde, for whom this chapel was named. As we listened to the tour guide share Radegonde's story, my imaginary solar of favorite women from history shifted to allow a new person to enter the room. 

Born circa 520 CE the kingdom of Thuringia, in what we know now as central Germany, Princess Radegonde and her brother were taken hostage by their uncle who had killed their father to claim the crown of the kingdom. What goes around comes around: this power-hungry uncle refused to honor a treaty with the Merovingians, and so lost kingdom and life when the Franks invaded Thuringia. Without their uncle's protection, Radegonde and her brother were again captured. Radegonde was forced to marry Clothaire, a son of Clovis first King of the Franks.

Marriage did not suit Radegonde but piety did, and she soon assumed the life of an ascetic. Radegonde eventually learned that her brother had led a revolt against her husband's rule of their native lands and been assassinated by order of Clothaire. She repudiated her husband, took sanctuary, and eventually became a nun. Clothaire did not take kindly to his wife's abandonment and Radegonde sought spiritual direction from Jean Le Reclus in the face of obstacles Clothaire placed in her way. She founded L'Abbaye de Saint-Croix at Poitiers, and was revered by the women who joined her there. The convent declined following her death in 587, but Radegonde's personal legend strengthened. One part of her legend credits her with single-handedly killing a marauding, nun-killing dragon. You go, Radegonde! She was consecrated a saint in the 9th century. A number of towns, churches and chapels in both France and England were dedicated to her, including an abbey founded in Dover in her honor in 1191.

I can imagine that the legends surrounding this remarkable woman gave solace to medieval ladies who were betrayed by the men they had married, and that Radegonde's piety and strength of character must have proved inspirational.  Perhaps her story had special resonance for Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was married to a man she felt she no longer knew and whom she felt compelled to challenge on behalf of their sons. Certainly Eleanor would have been intimately familiar with Radegonde's legend given their shared city of Poitiers.

But we're in Chinon, not Poitiers. How does all this connect? Jean was supposedly a refugee from the Saxon raids on Britain, which would have made him a sympathetic figure to our Radegonde. She revered him for his wisdom and spiritual direction, so much so that legend has it that upon his death Radegonde had a chapel built here to honor his remains: 

If we can imagine that Eleanor of Aquitaine considered Radegonde to be a saint of particular personal devotion, then it is not a stretch to consider that Eleanor may have endowed this chapel and even visited it when in Chinon. Perhaps her personal favor was signified by a fresco upon the wall.  

This one:

This so-called Plantagenet mural in the chapel dates to the 12th century.  In The Rough Guide to The Loire, author James McConnachie wrote: 
High on one wall of the chapel, a captivating painting depicts a horseback cortege of regal figures, probably the Plantagenet royal family.  It's uncertain whether it celebrates the marriage of King John in 1200 or marks the end of Eleanor of Aquitaine's captivity in Chinon....The leading figure is probably Henry II...followed by his wife Eleanor (crowned, centre) and their daughter Jeanne....Dated to the end of the twelfth century, it may be the only contemporary portrait of Eleanor in the world - not counting the effigy on her tomb in Fontevraud.
Hmmm, not exactly. The Crucifiction window that we saw at Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Poitiers is another likeness of Eleanor created during her lifetime. 

But this scene is quite different and intriguing.

Is it son John's wedding? Ha, not much to celebrate there, although I suppose if you had to commemorate that event a drawing on a cave in deepest France would do. 

Let's say the main figure is Henry. Then Richard and John must be in the rear. Or maybe it's Young Hal and Richard. But then where are Geoffrey and John?  We might presume Eleanor is in the center, but who's that beside her? Joanna?  Seems strange to exclude Matilda and Leanora, but they were married and far away, so perhaps we're only seeing the kids who are at home. But wait, are Hal and Geoffrey deceased at the time of the mural? Is that maybe a servant beside Eleanor? What if that's Richard in the lead? Eleanor could be riding with Berengaria, but the latter ought to have a crown, right? And who's in the rear -- John and, uhm, Arthur? Nah, not Arthur. Hey, maybe that's Henry in the lead with his four sons on a hunt; Henry the Young King is crowned, then followed by Richard, Geoffrey and John.

Such was the gist of our group's discussion. We wanted to believe that the figure in the green cape was Eleanor. We really wanted to believe that.

Granted, there's plenty of room for doubt. The walls can't talk, after all. For all we know, this mural has nothing Plantagenet to do at all and instead portrays a scene from the cycle of Radegonde.

Our group stood around staring at that section of wall, debating the royal cortege portrayed in the fresco. I'll tell you what, the world could have ended in that moment and we'd not have noticed. 

This chapel had apparently been inhabited as a private residence from the time of the Revolution until 1959, when the Chinon town council took control. The mural was discovered when a bit of plaster fell down during clean-up in 1964.  

After finally tearing ourselves away from the mural, we wandered around inside the caves. The site has been converted to a regional life museum, Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires

There is still a working well dug 15 feet into the cave walls.  Things were rather haphazardly strewn about the walls but it all had a charming effect. The stone head below is wearing the hat I bought in Poitiers. I don't know how that happened. *whistles innocently*

Photo by Nicole Benkert

There is an altar in the chapel nave, which is itself the reputed site of the cell of the hermit Jean.

 Some more 12th century mural work.

 And lastly, here is a 19th century gisant that commemorates Jean.

Photo by Sherill Roberts

We headed back to Fontevraud for our last night in the leper quarters. Outside of St-Lazare are medicinal gardens, such as might have existed near an infirmary.

 Also, there were bees. Lots of bees.  I liked this fellow.

That evening before dinner, our group was treated to a private reading by Sharon Kay Penman from Lionheart, which was due out the coming October. We then had a lovely meal in the former St-Lazare refectory, provided by the hotel restaurantI later spent some quality iPad time in this room, checking in with my family.

Photo by Nicole Benkert

We leave on the morrow. Next stop: Angers. 

1 comment:

  1. I came across your blog whilst searching photos for mine. I really enjoyed it; excellent photos and plenty of information. Well done!


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