THE FONTGOMBAULT ABBEY CHURCH
The chapel of the former priory of Décené, in the parish of Pouligny-Saint-Pierre, on the edge of the Brenne, was when the monks came back in a state of shameful neglect and on the verge of collapse. It was bought back in 1954, then dismantled stone by stone in 1965, and finally reassembled in 1970 in front of the abbey church, where it was consecrated again on August 12, 1971.
A small masterpiece of Romanesque simplicity, it breathes peace and, still today, invites to prayer.
The small edifice housing a statue of Our Lady was built in 2010 and solemnly blessed on July 2016, in the memory of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The statue is venerated under the title Mater admirabilis, "Admirable Mother", a title for which the Virgin Mary has shown her predilection.
The abbey church of Fontgombault was conceived on a grandiose scale, roughly 82 m (270 ft) long; its nave is 17.6 m (58 ft) wide and the same in height; the impressive scale of the sanctuary (whose barrel vault is 8.27 m (27 ft) wide) gives it a remarkable size and harmony.
The layout of the sacred space combines the "Benedictine plan", characterized by the addition, before the apses grafted onto the transept arm, of one or two additional bays, with a plan frequently adopted in pilgrimage churches, which includes an ambulatory and three radiating chapels.
The most advanced techniques of the 12th century were used for the architectural project of Fontgombault, especially to provide a generous lighting of the building, as in the great church of Cluny built by St. Hugh.
While the abbey church thus heralds the Gothic style and its passion for light, the austerity of the sculptural decoration echoes the desire to return to the more toned-down simplicity of the "new monasticism".
The thickness of its walls (2.10 m or 7 ft at the level of the main doorway) enabled the large west gable to survive the almost total collapse of the nave in 1569. The lower section of the central gable is somewhat thicker than the rest and juts out to give more depth to the large portal without a tympanum, like others in Berry and Poitou. Only three corbels and the stone sill remain from the porch canopy that once sheltered the great portal. The axial window with geminated lancets is probably from the end of the 12th or 13th century. The watch-tower, with its crenels and arrow-slits, testifies to the time when this part of the church was fortified during the Hundred Years' War between the English and the French, in the 14th and 15th centuries.
The portal with four arch mouldings is richly sculpted: the first has a coffered rose design, the third one an uncoupled billet moulding, while the second and the fourth consist of annular clusters, in addition to numerous plant motifs and animal or human figures.
The chevet with radiating chapels consists of three levels: the five apsidiole chapels, the ambulatory, the sanctuary hemicycle, surmounted by an intermediate gable which extends to the bays of the outer apsidioles.
The quadrilateral bell-tower rises above the transept crossing. The original tower was destroyed in a great fire at the end of the 16th century, and only the stub remains, surrounded by engaged columns, and pierced by four small bays, now walled up, which one opened onto the cupola drum.
At present the bell-tower houses four hand-ringed bells, and a clock carillon with two small electrified bells.
On entering the nave, one is struck by how the axis of the building deviates leftwards, as in other Romanesque churches. Ruined in 1569 by the Calvinists, the nave remained for a long time a heap of rubble where grass was growing. It was restored by Father Lenoir in about ten years (1889-1899).
Its present height does not perhaps correspond to the original configuration of the building, nor probably its cross-arches; but as it stands today, the central nave, thanks to its calm dignity, the intense brightness of daylight that floods it in the afternoon hours, and the perspective it provides on a faraway and mysterious sanctuary, is an invitation to meditation and prayer.
In the south aisle is the statue of Our Lady of the Good Death, formerly placed in the tympanum of the north portal of the church and named "Mediatrix of all graces". It received its present name during the Revolution, after an unfortunate man, who had tried to desecrate it, fell and died shortly afterwards, showing deep repentance. Its face was redone in the 1950s in the spirit of the Romanesque Virgins.
Accessible during the day to the veneration of the faithful, she is visited in the evening by the monks who come filially to pay their respects and entrust her with all their intentions.
The massive transept projects about 6 m (20 ft) on both sides beyond the central aisle; the plan of the crossing is in the form of an irregular trapezium, splayed towards the sanctuary. The eastern arch is, like the sanctuary vault, semi-circular, while the transept arms are covered with broken barrel vaults.
The cupola, raised on semi-conical squinches, is nearly 23 m (66 ft) high, without being strictly circular.
The transept arms are flanked eastwards by the ambulatory and two deep chapels, according to the Benedictine plan. A gallery, lit by a series of twin and single windows, runs all round the transept arm and connects with the choir triforium. Small windows, situated at vault anchorage level, illuminate the top of the transept.
The dimensions of the choir reveal amazing confidence on the part of the architect, who did not hesitate to raise the vault to more than seventeen meters (56 ft), with an exceptional span of 8.27 m (27 ft). These proportions, close to those of Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire, give a majestic spaciousness to the stonework casket which highlights the main altar. Thanks to its untrammelled design, its elegance and the harmony of its deployment, the sanctuary of Fontgombault stands out as one of the most successfull Romanesque creations.
Within the hemicycle, six cylindrical columns set on a low wall provide support for seven high-pitched arches that allow the light from the large bays of the ambulatory to penetrate the sanctuary. The space between columns is calculated to respond to the ambulatory plan: seen from the center of the altar, the three radiating chapels and the ambulatory windows appear to be framed by alternating wide and narrow walls.
The perforated gallery above the ambulatory illustrates one of the first attempts at perforating the triforium.
A spacious, well-lit ambulatory around the sanctuary provides access to the apse chapels. As tradition would have it, the axial chapel is larger and more generously decorated than the other ones.
The sculptors of Fontgombault have deployed foliage capitals throughout the sanctuary.
The high altar, which dates from 1857, measures four meters by two (13 by 6 ft), and draws its inspiration from the decoration of the south portal of the Bourges cathedral, depicting Christ in glory surrounded by the twelve Apostles.