Eglise Saint-Martin

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Besse is a small village in the middle of nowhere, about 15 miles south west of Belvès in an area rarely visited by tourists. It is set in a valley with mixed deciduous woodland. The area has been settled since Roman times but there is little farming and the pastures look neglected. There is a small lavoir at the start of the village. Buildings are stone with pantiles roofs and are lovingly looked after with flowers. An old wooden cart was planted out with vivid red geraniums.

The 11thC fortified church of St Martin is built at the top of the hill and was part of a Benedictine Priory. It has a very tall nave with steep pitched roof. This was increased in height during the 14thC when a room with arrow slits was built above it for use by the villagers in time of siege. During the Hundred Years War wooden hoardings would have been erected along the sides of the nave to attack the enemy storming the base of the church.

It is a cruciform building with the transepts and choir added in the 15th and 16thC.

The church is reached through a small archway in a wall topped by a stone cross. Steps lead up to the west door with its round pillars with carved capitals and beautifully carved arches above. It is set in a triangular portico of paler stone with carved corbels beneath. This has pillars on either side with carved capitals of figures and foliage.

The outer arch is carved with a looped spiral design. In the centre is the carved figure of God the Father, flanked by two angels.

The arch inside this is carved with Biblical figures. At the top are the clothed figures of Adam and Eve in Paradise with the tree of knowledge and the serpent. There are angels on either side of them. On the left they are being banished from Paradise and covering their nudity with their hands. Below is an image of the prophet Isaiah surrounded by seraphs and listening to the voice of God, represented as a trumpet.

On the right side is a carving of a huntsman on a horse holding a cross bow and chasing a deer with antlers. It represents the legend of Eustache. Next there is a carving of Mary holding the baby Jesus. At the bottom is St Michael killing the dragon, which looks remarkably like a serpent.

The inside arch has carvings of two beasts at the bottom. At the centre top is the Lamb of God with a cross. Between are rows of four carved shapes which look a bit like ears of wheat, but are described as ‘Palms’.

Inside, steps lead up into the nave. At the back, stone steps lead up into a wooden gallery at the west end. This has a wooden ladder which would have given access to the defensive room above and could be pulled up in times of siege.

The nave is plain with two small Romanesque windows. There are two round wall pillars which continue as a big arch across the ceiling. On the south pillar is a statue of Joan of Arc with a memorial to the dead of World War One on the wall next to her. Opposite is a small uncarved wooden pulpit.

There is a small apse at the east end with a wrought iron altar rail. There is a rather battered plaster covered altar and retable with host box , figures on either side and a crown above. The stained glass windows are 19thC. The small wall pillars on the chancel arch and walls are painted red. The arches of the vaulted chancel ceiling and the arches above the windows are painted red and yellow. Between the ribs, the ceiling is painted blue.

There are two small transepts The north has a wooden altar and retable picked out in gilt with grapes and leaves on the corers and a gilt M. There is a statue of Mary and the Christ child on the host box. Above is the remains of a painting with St PAul, St John and the Virgin. On the wall opposite is an oil painting of the Annunciation signed by N de Chaunac and dated 1894. Ceiling ribs are painted the same as the chancel but the ceiling in pink.

The south transept has a wooden altar which has been painted white. It has a crown on the base and leaves and grapes painted at the corners.The retable above has a host box with a monstrance carved on the front with Egyptian style figures on either side. The side panels have gilded figures on a blue background with ears of wheat and grapes and leaves down the sides. Above the host box is a painted statue of St Louis wearing a crown and holding a red cushion with a crown of thorns on it.

On the walls are the remains of 16thC frescoes. These still retain their colours but remains are fragmentary and we were guessing at the details. To the left of the window is a scene of the burial of Christ with the three Marys. On the right is what could be a scene of the betrayal of Christ when he was kissed by Judas.

Across the window is a black funerary band with two small shields with the figures of two animals on each. Above is a gold crown. On the west wall is a picture of Christ in a loin cloth being presented to the people before his crucifixion. Below is what could be Christ ascending into Heaven with disciples on either side.

On the north side of the transept arch are two angels holding a shield. The pillars, ribs and ceiling are painted in similar colours to the chancel, although there is the remains of a yellow pattern on the red arches and ribs.

This is a fascinating church and well worth finding. Not only is it an excellent example of a fortified church it has a beautifully carved doorway and some nice frescoes. Guide books mention the carved doorway but ignore the frescoes. 

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