Friday, April 20, 2012

Lavardin: The Church of Saint-Genest

Saint Thibault and Saint Maur

We see our friend David almost every time he comes to France, which can be several times a year. He owns a house in Brittany and we often go there to visit, especially when the weather is fine and we have a hankering to be by the seaside. (You can stare out from there and imagine glimpsing New York, just across the waters.) This trip, however, we talked him into visiting us, since we weren't able to get away.

David hadn't been to La Loire Valley for years and had never visited Le Loir. We spent a pleasant day heading south and stopping at both rivers for a tour of a few of our favorite spots. This post is devoted entirely to our first destination, the charming plus beau village of Lavardin, with it's 11th century church and colorful 12th-15th century frescoes.

Christ in majesty

There are several churches in our area with lovely fresco work on the walls, but the Church of Saint-Genest in Lavardin is the standout example. This kind of decoration was very popular in the late Middle Ages, but fell out of favor after the Renaissance. The walls of these ornately decorated churches were often painted over in white lime.

Scenes of the Passion

It has been like a treasure hunt during the last hundred years to patiently chip away the lime and discover the historical images beneath. The restoration of Saint-Genest was long and painstaking.

Right arcade

For the congregation that first enjoyed these images, they were as books, Biblical stories to read and inspire.


Many of the columns seem purely decorative, but even the foliage had symbolic meaning.

floral and foliage decoration

The oldest paintings are on the walls of the church. They depict the life of Christ and his apostles.

Acanthus leaf column decoration and scenes from the life of Christ

The colors are sunny and the imagery naive, charming and full of feeling and pathos.

Madonna and child

Later, in the 15th century, the age of chivalry, new images and colors were added to the columns, highlighting some of the more recent saints and people of relevance to that time and place. The style is a bit more realistic.

Saint Genest and Saint Liboire, bishop of Tours

Blue is introduced. And text appears.

Presumably painted in the 15th century

The main stories are still Biblical and center upon Christ and his followers and, of course, the Madonna,

Madonna nursing Jesus (rarely depicted)

but knights, bishops and people alive at the time were woven into the religious stories, to keep it all current.

Possibly Saint Ambrose, bishop of Milan

If the frescoes were done correctly, they could last almost indefinitely. The pigment, made of ground earth, was applied while the lime was still wet and upon drying a chemical reaction occurred basically binding the stone with the color.

Fleur de Lys, representing the kings of France

However if the images were instead painted on top of dry lime, they were much more fragile and easily chipped away.

Even so, I found these little fragments (added fully 300 years after the wall frescoes) to be as beautiful abstract art. Time has had its happy way with the colors.

The charming village of Lavardin, with its ancient red tile roofs, nestles into a emerald green valley, where the Loir River bubbles past. There is nothing within miles to spoil its idyllic nature. It's a quick trip from Maison Conti to enjoy this gem.


  1. Those frescoes are beautiful. I love the colours. They seem in remarkable condition for such an age. I agree the "abstracts" are lovely too.

  2. Cette église est splendide ! j'en connaissais la réputation mais je ne l'ai jamais visitée. Je trouve toujours très émouvant de "lire" ainsi la représentation de gens si éloignés de nous dans le temps. Les couleurs sont merveilleuses.On ne se lasse jamais de regarder.
    Comme quoi tout ce qui est spirituel peut inspirer de belles choses (mais parfois aussi, hélas ! le pire)