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Moissac in the Tarn

Illumination in stone

The Michelin Green Guide lists Moissac as being “worth a detour”, but to art lovers throughout the world it merits without question the higher designation of “worth a journey”, and has done for centuries. Like the young Bach walking 250 miles to Lübeck to hear Buxtehude play the organ, medieval church artists and sculptors would have travelled any distance to gaze upon and be inspired by the 12th century South Porch and Cloisters at the Abbey Church of St-Pierre. The influence of this masterpiece of Romanesque art and sculpture can be seen in hundreds of churches across the south of France and beyond, and would have been spread all along via Podiensis, the branch of the pilgrimage route of Santiago de Campostella along which Moissac lies. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, this beautiful building barely escaped being demolished in the mid-19th century to make way for a new railway line between Bordeaux and Sète; only the intervention of the Beaux-Arts commission saved it. On the site of a monastery founded according to legend by Clovis the Frank, St-Pierre is descended from a series of earlier churches which were forced to withstand periodic onslaughts by Arabs, Norsemen, and other marauding tribes. The Romanesque church of St-Pierre was consecrated in 1063, and its affiliation with the powerful Cluny order offered a phase of influence and tranquillity, during which its marvellous transformation was to take place.

The tympanum over the deeply-recessed South Porch is an illumination brought to stone: the vision of the Apocalypse from the Gospel of St John (Revelations, Chapter 4). The central figure of course is Christ in majesty, holding the Book of Life and hand raised in benediction. His expression is disturbingly stern, perhaps suggesting Moorish influences brought back from Spain. He is flanked by the four Evangelists represented by their customary symbols, and two elegantly elongated seraphim. To both sides and underneath are represented the 24 Elders of the Apocalypse, in a glorious variety of postures and individual detail – crowns, beards, hair – but all directing their awed gaze inward and upward at the triumphant Christ.

The monolithic trumeau column supporting the lintel is a revelation in itself: three couples of lions ascend intertwined, each tail-end in different elaborate detail. On the right-hand side of this magnificent column is the prophet Jeremiah, a true mystic visionary with a far-away look in his eyes, the drapery folds in imitation of an illustrated manuscript, but the expression and grace of the figure worthy of Michelangelo. He faces the prophet Isaiah on the right jamb, holding the scroll representing the Old Testament. The New Law appears on the left, with St Paul, traditionally portrayed as bald, looking toward St Peter, the founder of the Church, holding his trademark keys. The lintel is decorated with a rosette motif, and the entire doorway is framed by a triplicate arch moulding decorated in stylized foliage. To the right are historical Biblical scenes: the Annunciation, the Visitation, the adoration of the Magi, the flight into Egypt, and to the left, scenes of the Damnation. Vile creatures torment the condemned: a poor unchaste woman being tortured by snakes and toads, the soul of Dives being ripped down to the fiery pit, the story of Lazarus, and other sobering tales.

The interior of St-Pierre, somewhat remodelled in the 15th century, is very interesting, with some fine carving on the capitals and wonderful statuary, but the other highlight of the church is the extraordinary Cloisters, completed, according to an inscription, in 1100 under the Abbot Ansquitil. Surrounding the cloister garth, dominated at one end by a grand cedar of Lebanon, is a series of seventy-six alternating single and double columns, each supporting an inverted triangular carved block of stone: 45 of these illustrate scenes from the Bible and the lives of the saints: Daniel in the lions’ den, St Peter crucified (upside down), the decapitation of St John the Baptist. The others feature decorative plant, animal, and geometrical motifs. In the four reinforced corner piers are depictions of the apostles, with their bodies facing forward but faces in profile, all marvellously expressive in spite of the low relief.

Having left this haven of contemplative serenity, the visitor will find the town of Moissac very pleasant and welcoming. Set on the north bank of the Tarn River 40km east of Agen, and surrounded by hillsides covered in orchards and vineyards, Moissac offers all the delights of southwest France. Saturday and Sunday markets throughout the year present the usual culinary delicacies of the region: duck, cassoulet, foie gras, local cheeses and confectionary, and the local Chasselas vintage is a very pleasant fruity white wine and the first AOC grape, designated in 1971. There are guided tourist circuits, including nature walks and cycle paths along the towpath of the Canal Lateral de Garonne, part of the Canal du Midi which connects the Atlantic with the Mediterranean, visiting along the way a picturesque canal bridge which crosses over the river. Historically-themed tours and talks explore the town’s past and its importance through the centuries, including multi-language tours of the Abbey, and the Marguerite Vidal Folk Museum features a medieval garden illustrating monastic life in the Middle-Ages. The local vineyards offer tasting sessions, and the Uvarium is dedicated to various cures based on grape juice, in addition to the usual one. In July and August the Moissac Plage is opened along the Tarn, with swimming, water-skiing, boat hire and cruises.


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