Ruins at the site of the former Maillezais Abbey and Cathedral
|Location||Maillezais, Pays de la Loire, France|
|Province||Diocese of Maillezais|
|Ecclesiastical or organizational status||ruins|
|Architectural type||Abbey church|
|Official name: Ancienne abbaye Saint-Pierre|
|Designated:||30 January 1924|
Maillezais Cathedral (Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Maillezais) is a ruined Roman Catholic cathedral in the commune of Maillezais in the Vendée, France. Formerly the Abbey of Saint-Pierre, the ruins consist of a church, refectory, dormitory, kitchen, cellars, turrets and ramparts. The cathedral has been declared as a heritage monument in reflection of its Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance form. It was designated as a monument historique on 30 January 1924. The cathedral belonged to the Diocese of Luçon with rites of Roman (Latin) with St. Peter as the Patron Saint.
In 1060, a monk named Peter recounted that during a hunting expedition in 976, Countess Emma, the wife of William IV, Duke of Aquitaine, discovered the ruins of a chapel dedicated to Saint-Hilaire and decided to found an abbey. The couple contributed to the structure's rebuilding and it became an important monastery in Pays de la Loire. The church was consecrated in 989 by Gombald, Archbishop of Bordeaux. Located in Saint-Pierre-le-Vieux, Vendée, it was 2 kilometres (1.2 mi) from the current abbey. Father Gausbert, cousin of Countess Emma, brought thirteen monks from Église Saint-Julien de Tours to settle at the abbey. The Benedictine facility was initially under the jurisdiction of Saint-Julien de Tours, later passing to Saint-Cyprien in Poitiers. In 1010, Saint-Pierre-le-Vieux transferred to St. Peter Maillezais. William V, Duke of Aquitaine was buried at the abbey's cloister in 1030. His sons Guillaume and Eudes, chose to be buried in Maillezais as well.
Around 1100, Abbot Pierre wrote two books on the construction and transfer of the Abbey of Maillezais.
In 1225, Geoffroy d'Estissac, who was envious of Maillezais, attacked and looted the abbey. Excommunicated from the church, he went to Rome and apologized to the Pope in the presence of the abbot of Maillezais for his wrongful deeds. After he was pardoned, he restructured it with additional bays to the nave. While Geoffroy II Povereau was the abbot in the early 14th century, it was a large property consisting of churches, priories, and large fertile land.
The Marais Poitevin was developed in early part of the 13th century, when the abbeys of Maillezais Nieul-sur-l'Autise, Saint-Michel-en-Herm, and the Absie St. Maixent joined together. In 1317, Pope John XXI restructured the French episcopate when Philip V was the king. He carved out many new bishoprics with cathedrals from the diocese of Poitiers, which included raising the status of Maillezais to a bishopric with its own cathedral in the aftermath of the suppression of the Albigensians. It became an episcopal city (and also of Luzon) and was called the Saint-Pierre Cathedral. The abbot was elevated to the rank of Bishop of Maillezais. The first bishop was Geoffroy. The cathedral became a center of intellectual pursuits. François Rabelais was invited by Bishop Geoffroy d'Estissac to teach at the abbey; he taught there for five years, and later became famous writer. The refurbishing of the cathedral was continued and in the middle of the 14th century a transept was added in gothic style and a bell was also provided. There were many improvements to the cathedral's interiors such as better furnishings, conversion of the abbot's residence into an episcopal palace, building of monastery's dormitory near the second cloister. However what remains among the ruins of the cathedral are its eastern and southern wings.
Other bishops of the cathedral were among were Guillaume de Lucé (1421–38) and Thibaud de Lucé (1438–55) who were political counselors to Charles VII, King of France. Further improvements took place when Geoffrey d'Estissac of Périgord became the bishop in 1518. It was the last refurbishing done and the additions made were the choir of the cathedral and also the castle of Coulonges on l'Autise. During the period after 1528, after Rabelais who in charge of the monastic order from 1524–28, there was internecine war between the Catholics and the Protestants. The cathedral was destroyed in 1562 in the course of the Reformation and subsequent Wars of Religion. In 1589, Agrippa d'Aubigné, a Protestant, a scholar and a poet, became the bishop and fortified the cathedral with a watch tower. The fort became a stronghols of the Protestants for the next thirty years till the Duke of Rohan succeeded him.
When during the late 16th and early 17th century the Protestants of the Huguenots had converted it into a fort like structure, the Catholics had to even baptize their children outside the city limits. It remained under the control of the Protestants till 1618. But by 1619 the cathedral was back under the control of the Catholics and Henri de Sourdis became the Bishop. In 1629, the Bishopric of Maillezais was one of the richest in France with a lease value of 35,000 livres. It remained the seat of the bishopric Maillezais until 1648, when the bishopric was transferred to the St. Louis Cathedral of La Rochelle. It was then abandoned. Henri de Sourdis could not function as Pope Innocent X decided to move its functions to Episcopal La Rochelle from 1666. The monastic community continued at the site until 1666. After that Maillezais remained abandoned.
However, the cathedral remained neglected till after the Revolution when it was sold as national property to serve as a stone quarry. In 1840, it was returned to the people who decided to maintain the cathedral as a heritage monument. It was designated a historical monument on 30 January 1924. It was only after 1996 that the General Council of the Vendée took interest in its restoration.
William V, Duke of Aquitaine who was responsible for its initial restoration in the 10th century is buried in the chapel.
Architectural and archaeological remains
The façade on the west gable of the church built in 1025, which consisted of two bays of naves flanked by two towers, is now fully open. The staircase to access the first floor, which existed originally, is also missing. The fortifications in the form of battlements built in the 15th century by Agrippa are still seen. Of the seven bays added with partial columns with capitals are camouflaged by the fortifications, only the top four Romanesque bays are visible. A realignment is seen in this on account of the second floor raised in later years. Three large Gothic windows topped with dissimilar arcades provide light to the naves.
Out of the high transepts, built in first half of the fourteenth century, only the north transept part is visible now. At the lower part of the walls of the transept decorated arches are seen and in some part it has a door which provides views of the warheads. A decorated arched cornice is seen at the second level and it has two large openings in the Gothic style.
The bell tower has fully survived and from the top of the tower vistas of the marsh that surrounds the cathedral could be seen. Entrance to the tower is through a door decorated with carvings. The view from the tower also covers the northwest wall of the ruins. The façade on the northern side wall has five protective boxes, which were erected in the twelfth century.
Archaeological excavations done at the cloister and near the refectory have revealed foundations of buildings, kitchen, refectory, dormitory, and chapter house; all built around a central garden. The kitchen had an octagonal layout. Tombs, pots, urns, remnants of columns, two capitals, butt of abbot copper enamels (dated to late thirteenth century), silos, washbasins, cellar (of 12th century) were also found. The fourteenth-century buildings such as the inn do not exist now.
Excavation done in the south wing has revealed a salt cellar at the entrance which is a large vaulted room in the basement which was used by monks for making salt. At the ground floor level there are two rooms used for dining, with kitchen located in the basement which had a central fireplace. In the upper floor there was a second dining room as part of the dormitory with wooden fittings and a fireplace at the centre. A pier provided the approach to the moors which could be used for plying boats through its winding channels from where one can get views of the "imposing ruins of the abbey silhouetted in the sky".
- "Historic Monuments: Former Abbey of Saint-Pierre". Official website of culture of Government of France. Retrieved 31 July 2013.
- "The Lady of the swamp: The fascinating story of an abbey cathedral" (in French). Abbeys in the south Vendee. Retrieved 31 July 2013.
- "Ancienne cathédrale Saint-Pierre". Catholic Organization. Retrieved 1 August 2013.
- "Catholic Encyclopedia: Luçon, incl Diocese of Maillezais" (in French). NewAdvent Organization. Retrieved 1 August 2013.
- "Maillezais suite des images:Bienvenue" (in French). Balade-en-maraispoitevin. Retrieved 1 August 2013.
- Luria 2005, pp. 18, 54.
- Bergin 1996, p. 93.
- "Maillezais suite des images:Bienvenue:Description of ruins" (in French). Balade-en-maraispoitevin. Retrieved 1 August 2013.
- Bergin, Joseph (1996). The Making of the French Episcopate, 1589–1661. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-06751-4.
- Luria, Keith P. (1 August 2005). Sacred Boundaries: Religious Coexistence and Conflict in Early-Modern France. CUA Press. ISBN 978-0-8132-1411-5.
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