Cantal: Painted Churches and Captivating Châteaux

Last time, I looked at the glorious natural environment of Cantal. The built environment is equally worth visiting on days when you don’t feel like walking, or the weather isn’t promising. We made more time during this trip to visit places we didn’t know, and we found some gems.

Churches

The little chapel of Notre-Dame de Consolation on the hillside above Thiézac

I love the little churches that you find in Cantalien villages. They are often squat but appealing, built to withstand the extremes of weather that would make short work of towering spires. The local volcanic rock sometimes gives the churches a sombre aspect, but they blend into the environment. It also weathers well. The roofs are covered with lauzes, split stone tiles, or slates.

I find the belltowers particularly appealing, many of them being clochers en peigne (like a comb). A single rectangular wall has several openings, in each of which hangs a bell. The images below explain them better than I can.

Village of Pailherols
Church in Saint-Clément
Saint-Bonnet-de-Salers

Although stark from the outside, the interiors can be surprisingly light and ornamented. The little Eglise Saint-Cyr-et-Sainte-Juliette in Saint-Cirgues-de-Jordanne is a good example.

The biggest surprise, though, was the painted ceiling below in l’Eglise Saint-Léger in Cheylade. The tourist office in Vic-sur-Cère suggested this as a short detour on our way to take the Gentiane Express in Riom-ès-Montagnes.

The church has Romanesque origins, but it was largely destroyed during the Hundred Years War and rebuilt and modified in the 15th and 17th centuries. The enormous pillars date from one of these later alterations.

Around 1,400 paintings, each one in its own square, cover the ceiling. They are symmetrical on either side of the vault, i.e. each painting has its pair. They represent animals, birds, mythical beasts and angels, all with Christian iconographic significance. They also portray the symmetry and diversity of Creation.

Who painted them? The artist’s name is lost in the mists of time. They appear to have been painted in the mid-18th century but were inspired by medieval imagery current in the 15th century. Various theories have been put forward to suggest why they were painted, but no definitive evidence has emerged.

The ceiling is an impressive piece of work and apparently unique in Cantal. All this in a tiny village that you could pass by without realising.

Châteaux

Cantal has plenty of these. Sometimes, they are simply ancient fortresses that have crumbled into piles of stones. Other châteaux have been carefully restored, having retained their original features. We visited two this time.

Le Château de Pesteils, Polminhac

This privately owned château occupies a commanding position above the Cère Valley with a wonderful view. The owners don’t allow photography inside. However, you can see pictures of the interior on the château’s website.      

The only part of the original fortress that remains is the donjon (keep; the building with the flag on top), which dates from the 13th century and is 40 metres (131 feet) high. Fifteenth-century wall paintings decorate the vaulted chamber on the second floor. The rest of the château was modified in the 17th and 19th centuries, when the two wings were added.

The donjon has five floors linked by a spiral staircase with 90 steps. The SF, who does that sort of thing, counted them all, but the lady in the ticket office said there were 86. Whoever is right, it’s a long way up, but worth it for the view from the top.

Le château d’Anjony, Tournemire

This fortress, whose exterior remains much the same as when it was first constructed, sits on a rocky spur at the end of the pretty village of Tournemire. The same family has owned it since it was first built in c.1430.

There’s a story attached to the château. It was constructed on the instructions of King Charles VII by Louis d’Anjony, who had fought with Jeanne d’Arc, to reinforce royal authority in the region. However, a château already existed nearby, owned by the Tournemire family, who were staunch upholders of the feudal system and didn’t care for these monarchist upstarts.

Moreover, the new château was built without the prior authorisation of the Tournemire seigneurs. This led to a vendetta, with at least one member of the Anjony family being murdered in 1523. His remains were then dug up by the Tournemires and dumped outside the Anjony château. According to our guide, the two families would shout abuse at each other through horns across the space between the châteaux.

Eventually, they reached a truce, cemented by a dynastic marriage, as was often the case. The fortunes of the Tournemire family took a turn for the worse, and their château fell into ruins. In a final act of revenge in the 18th century, Claude Anjony built an annex to his château, supposedly using stone from the Tournemires’ castle.

Possible site of the old Tournemire château

This fortress also boasts splendid 16th-century wall paintings (again no photography allowed, but you can see more on the YouTube clip below, about 1 minute in). The frescoes in the first floor grande salle were commissioned in 1575 and show les Neuf Preux (the Nine Worthies). Eighteenth-century panelling covered them up until they came to light in the 20th century. The Nine are down to Eight, since Julius Caesar had to give way to a new window installed at the same time as the panelling.

Although built as a defensive fortress, le château d’Anjony never saw any action, apart from the feud with the neighbours. Since the valley is somewhat secluded, the château never suffered assault or besieging and survived the French Revolution.

I said this would be two posts, but I still have some Cantalien highlights to share with you, including that special chambre d’hôtes in Saint-Cirgues-de-Jordanne, and they won’t fit here. In a few short posts, I can’t hope to cover everything, but I hope I can convey something of the spirit of this enchanting part of France.  

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15 comments

  1. Another lovely post. We have a photo of the church in Saint Bonnet de Salers and the chateau at Tournemire. One of the things we enjoy as we travel around France is how the churches change with bell towers in various forms or elegant spires. When in the Cantal we walked up to the Chapelle Notre Dame du Chateau at St Christophe les Gorges. It is on a rocky spur overlooking the gorges and very quiet and peaceful.

    We had planned a week in the Allier, also in the Auvergne, in 2020 and I had discovered a route of painted churches in little villages. We enjoy small things like this to add to our drives around.

    I do so want to return to France!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know the chapel you mention and will look it up. Always on the lookout for sights for our next visit.

      The little gems are often more satisfying than the big tourist attractions. I make a point of seeking them out. You will have plenty to see when you do return!

      Like

  2. Julius Caesar wasn’t known for giving way to much in his lifetime, so it’s heartening that the need to bring in more light displaced him at Claude Anjony’s château! Would it that modern politicians allowed more light into their transactions! Thank you for another lovely post, Vanessa. xx

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Certainly an area to visit ! You’ve certainly encouraged me to go … it looks beautiful and fascinating !
    Thanks for writing the blog 👌x

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Have you discovered Chapelle de la Roque on a circular walk from Milhars, also the chapels/churches at La Madeleine, Penne and near Font Bonne, Penne? Tiny places of worship with incredible feel of years of spirituality.?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I love this post, Vanessa!! I wish I had made it to Cantal while I was living in the Lot. I obviously missed lots of fascinating stuff!

    Liked by 1 person

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