A narrow winding road climbs into St Hilaire, which is a lot larger than it looks on the map as there is a lot of new development round the old town. The old town clustered round the abbey, is an attractive place with plaster and half timber frame houses and tree lined streets.
The town is dominated by the mass of the abbey and the wall of the east side of the abbey runs along the side of the main street. There is a small parking area for the abbey down a side street to the north.
An early chapel was built here in the 6thC by St. Hilary, the first bishop of Carcassonne and he was buried here. In the 8thC this was replaced by a larger church and monastery dedicated to St Sernin, first bishop of Toulouse. In the 10thC the relics of St Hilary were discovered and the church renamed. Most of the present building dates from 11-14thC. It was badly damaged in the Albigensian Crusade 1209-29 and restored 1237-60. The cloister was built between 1323-40.
The abbey encountered major financial difficulties in the 14thC as a result of the Black Death and Hundred Years War. In the 16thC it was under the control of abbots appointed from the aristocracy who ignored their duties and there was further decline. The abbey closed in 1748, the building was sold and the abbey church became the parish church.
The abbey church was never completed and has pebble wall across west facade, making the nave look and feel very short compared with its height. There is a large and narrow offset tower with a machicolated top. At the east end is a lower and very large apse.
The ticket office is in the east wing of the cloisters, next to the Abbot’s apartment. We were greeted by a very helpful young man, who judging by his accent had learnt his English watching Inspector Clousseau. We were directed to the ticket office. Here an equally helpful lady explained the layout of the abbey and gave us information in English. She was a bit too helpful as we found out later as she kept following us round to give us more details. There are information signs in French, English, German and Spanish.
We were told to begin our visit in the church with 12thC apse and 14thC nave. Entry is off the north end of the cloister and a passageway leads to the door into the church. There are steps down into the nave with Romanesque windows high on the walls. Chandeliers with electric ‘candles’ provide artificial light. It has a vaulted ceiling with carved bosses. The ribs end in elaborately carved bases with heads, Atlantis imperbalis, foliage and mythical beasts. There are carved stone stations of the cross on the walls and statues of Cure d’Ars, St Theresa and Joan of Arc.There is a 17thC carved wood altar with a sounding board with a crown above.
The chancel pillars have a statue of the crowned Virgin with the Christ Child and St Theresa. The chancel is separated from the nave by a metal alter rail which had been decorated with variegated ivy and pinks. There is a splendid red and white marble altar. Above is a white marble host box with a gilded front and coloured marble panels. Above is a polychrome wooden crucifix. On either side are white marble praying angels on dark marble pillars.
Round the base of the apse are old wooden benches with low backs. On the north wall is a statue of St Roch and Christ with the sacre coeur on the south wall. The three round topped windows contain modern stained glass. Two wall pillars with carved capitals lead to a single rib across the chancel ceiling.
The Chapel of the Virgin is in the north transept. This has a red and black marble altar with white flecks. On the base is a white M monogram. There is an elaborate 17thC low gilt retable with barley corn twist pillars, host box and carved panels. In the centre, cherubs support a gilded crowned Virgin Mary holding the crowned Christ Child. On either side are painted statues of St Philomene and St Anthony of Padua. There is a memorial to the dead of World War one and a large oil painting of ‘Our Lady of the Rosary’.
In the transept, to the right of the apse, is the sarcophagus of St Sernin. Described as a sarcophagus, it was probably an altar as it would be too narrow inside for a body. It is 17thC and beautifully carved from a single block of white marble. Over the years, the marble has developed a lovely waxy quality.
On the right panel there are three standing figures, representing St. Sernin (in the centre with his crozier) and two of his followers. On the right is St. Honest, Bishop of Pamplona and Sernin’s successor in Toulouse. On his left is St. Papoul, who evangelised the Lauragais region between Toulouse and Carcassonne.
On the front panel, the right side depicts the arrest of St. Sernin as he preaches in Toulouse, holding a book. Animals representing paganism and barbarianism are shown under his feet. Onlookers watch from a building on the right, which may represent the Capitol building in Toulouse. He is arrested by four Roman soldiers. on the left is the scene of his martyrdom. St. Sernin is tied to the hooves of a bull, who is goaded by persecutors using a stake to prick its hide. It drags St. Sernin through the streets behind him. The bishop accepts his fate calmly, even finding the strength to bless two female saints as he passes them. Below are more animal heads.
The left end panel depicts the burial of St. Sernin. A woman tenderly caresses his head while his soul (represented as a small child) leaves his body to be received by an angel above. On the far left, St. Sernin’s tomb and shrine are shown. Angels pour out incense above, and female pilgrims sit below.
Above is a small pale stone retable with the host box with the Xhi-Rho symbol of the door with the signs for alpha and omega on either side. Above is a statue of St Cernin in gilded bishop’s robes with mitre and crook.
On the south wall is another red an black marble altar flecked with white. This has a statue of joseph with to young Jesus above. On the walls on either side are chandeliers with candles and white porcelain flowers and long hanging crystal chains.
The cloisters to the south of the church are 14thC with a 16thC fountain. They have an arcade of pointed arches on double round pillars with eroded carved capitals. The west side has several locked old wooden doors to craft workshops and store rooms Behind the cloister would have been the vegetable garden.
The Bishop’s Apartments off the east wall of the cloister were being renovated in May 2013. A door leads into an 18thC antechamber with a panelled ceiling and walls. On the end wall is a white flecked red and back marble fountain. A door leads into the 15thC chamber which has a painted ceiling.
The Abbot was appointed by the crown and was no longer a religious figurehead. The paintings were designed to entertain rather than have a religious content. There is what is described as the ‘erotic’ painting of a man kissing a nude female.
Along the base of the walls is a frieze of rust and beige triangles designed to give a 3D effect of a four pointed star. The walls above are painted deep rust and have paintings of shields in a diagonal framework. Round the top are more shields. The sides of the beams are painted in a zig-zag pattern of red and white on black. The bottoms of the beams have animal mouths holding the end of chequered banners in red/white. blue/white or beige/white. On the ceiling between the beams are painted squares with a dark brown floral motif with a blue centre on a pale beige background. Round the top of the walls are panels showing figures, often with banners with script on them.
The Abbot’s Apartments were originally larger and extended the width of the building across hat is now a corridor. Restoration work has revealed the original painted beams under a later ceiling.
The monks Refectory on the south wall has been restored and is now used as an exhibition area. There was a display of art on the walls and a selection of trendy lampshades on a table. It does, however, still have the steps to the 14thC reading chair. This was carefully arranged so a monk could not be seen once seated. It allowed the monk to read at the same time to both the monks refectory and the pilgrims refectory, now in ruins, on the other side.
Step from the south east corner of the cloisters lead to the cellars. These were carved out of the sandstone and puddlestone. There is a stone building over them and rough steps lead down to an uneven floor with a series of chambers carved out of the walls. A pillar helps to support the roof. Four trapdoors (round holes) in the roof were used by villagers to supply the community with food.
This is a well worthwhile visit.