The image of Rocher St Michel d’Aiguilhe is probably the most well known and photographed in Le Puy-en-Velay.
Built on top of a volcanic plug which rises steeply 82m above the surrounding area, it is reached by 265 steps. It’s not as bad as we feared as there is a handrail to help pull yourself up and seats along the way. Ignore the two wooden ladders near the top!
In 961AD, Bishop Godescalc built a small square oratory on the top of the rock. This had three apses and a small square tower with a red tile roof. With increasing numbers of pilgrims, it was enlarged in the 12thC to cover all of the top of the rock. A new entrance was added with steps into the ambulatory with stone benches round the outer walls and round pillars supporting round arches. At one end is an elegant tall pointed bell tower which was built in the 14thC to replace the earlier one which was struck by lightning.It has open round topped bell windows and a short stone spire. There is a narrow walkway round the outside which gives good views of Le Puy en Velay and the surrounding area.
There is a very ornately carved doorway with patterns of black, red and white stones. At the top in recessed arches are small statues of St John, the Virgin, God, Archangel Michael and St Peter. In centre lobe of tympanum is a carving of a lamb carrying a cross and the inscription Anges Dei. On either side is an eagle and an angel (two of signs of Apocalypse). The left lobe has a carving of a bull and the right carvings of men holding cups. Above is an arch of carved foliage coming out of the mouth of two heads. Below is a smaller arch with more foliage. The lintel is 19thC and has a carving of two sirens; one with fish’s tail, the other with a serpent’s tail.
Inside there are the remains of 10thC frescoes on the walls and ceiling. These were covered with whitewash in the 19thC but this has now been removed and the frescoes restored. The highlight is one of Christ in Majesty surrounded by haloed figures.
In the main chapel is a modern copper statue of St Michael covered in verdegris, There is a smaller statue of him to the left in the ambulatory with lit candles. ???The display of relics includes an 11thC polychrome reliquary of Christ, 13thC Byzantine ivory box with gilded copper brackets thought to have been a reliquary and a pectoral cross with Virgin and Child.
There is a small shop and ticket office at bottom of steps selling a good selection of post cards, Le Puy lentils and framed pictures of locally produced lacework as well as other tourist gifts.
This was a very rewarding visit. Don’t be put off by the climb. It is worth all the effort and allow yourself time to sit in the ambulatory and take in the atmosphere. It is a beautiful building and was the highlight of our visit to Le Puy-en-Velay.