A bible carved from stone: the Abbey Church of Saint-Gilles by Janice Lert

The little town of Saint-Gilles has a long and prestigious past. It is hard to believe that this town was once an important port. Actually an old branch of the Rhône River allowed boats, from the period of the Greeks through the Middle Ages, to go from the Mediterranean Sea into Gaul. The Greeks traded with the locals, and the town would have a commercial role for centuries thereafter.

the Abbey Church of Saint Gilles


In the 7th century, when the Moors had overrun the area, a monastery was created at Saint-Gilles, affiliated with the Benedictines of Cluny from the 11th century on. Giles, the legendary saint, was buried in the crypt of the abbey church which soon became a pilgrimage destination in its own right. But don’t forget the spot was also on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, and the arrival of all these travelers brought money to build a new church, consecrated by Pope Urban II in 1096.


The portal was finished during the 12th century but the church was partially demolished during the religious wars. religious wars. The portal was saved, but the top sections were destroyed so that it appears today disproportionately long. It is one of only two monumental Romanesque portals in this area, the other being that of St. Trophime’s in Arles. At St. Gilles there are three portals, corresponding to the three interior naves, and so the portal can be difficult to grasp in its entirety.


If we concentrate first on the three tympanums, they are not of equal size, the middle one being the largest. In this half circle we find Christ in glory, represented after the resurrection, surrounded by the symbols of the four gospel writers, badly mutilated. The tympanum over the left entrance depicts the nativity with the visit of the three Wise Men; that over the right entrance represents the crucifixion. Thus these two scenes recall the beginning and the end of the life of Christ, the "alpha" and the "omega".


The next important elements to notice on the west facade are the tall engaged statues that decorate the space between the portals, alternating with columns. The apostles represented in the statues located between the left portal and the main portal, or around the main portal, have been identified, and certain are even signed by "Brunus".


If we continue around the central or main portal, we will notice down low on the left and the right, scenes from the Old Testament: Cain and Abel on the left, Balaam and his donkey on the bottom right. This double evocation of man’s struggle against evil as seen in the Old Testament helps to understand the message of the portal: the saints help us overcome evil and bring us to God. Next we will look at the horizontal line of sculptures crossing all the lintels of the three portals. There we have scenes from the last days of the life of Christ: the entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (left), the Last Supper (center), and on the right scenes after the crucifixion with the women buying perfumes and going to the tomb of Christ (a medieval sarcophagus) to find that he was gone. These scenes in particular are a reminder of the presence of the cult of these holy women close by in Les -aintes- Maries-de-la-Mer.


Visit the inside of the upper church where you will see the relics of Giles in three different reliquaries. Then go down into the crypt (watch your step!) It is here, in the center section, where St. Giles was buried, and his tomb has been a pilgrimage destination for centuries. The crypt plays the role of an underground church. The cross vaults here are among the oldest in France (admire the pleated ribbon decoration and the lovely key stone). Notice also the tomb of the papal legate, Pierre de Castelnau, assassinated near St. Gilles in 1208, whose death resulted in the Albigensian Crusade in the 13th century. A door on the north side of the crypt opens onto the remains of the cloisters, where the monks’ wine cellar will soon be open to the public.


Then go around the outside to the back side (the east end) of the church and you will see the remains of the pilgrimage choir which was ruined in the 17th century and finally demolished during the French Revolution. Today only the bases of the pillars and walls give an idea of the plan of the original church. And the curious "St. Gilles screw", a masterpiece of stereotomy preserved in a little tower on the right. The 'screw' is actually a spiral staircase probably originally designed for access to a bell tower. Each stone is both convex and concave, carved in such a way as to fit in with the others to form this staircase where no mortar was needed. It still serves as a model today for young people studying stone-cutting. A modern bust of Pope Clement IV, who was from St. Gilles, is also exhibited here.


It is difficult today to imagine this exceptional church as part of a monastery which has almost completely disappeared. Would the lovely portal have been visible for the inhabitants or hidden behind a monastery wall? At any rate, it reminds us today of an open prayer book where the spectator can meditate on the life of Jesus.