Visit of the church St Mary
In 1239 the Dominicans (or Black Friars, also called Jacobins in the kingdom of France) built their convent in a suburb close to the limits of the City and the Castle grounds. Their chapel is at the origin of the parish church of St Mary.
Nowadays the north front of the edifice stands on the south side of the small, triangular Place des Jacobins. Two low roofed chapels rest against the wall of the nave. Buttresses create a simple rhythm along the walls. A 17th-century portal opens in the furthest west end. In a niche framed in by two spirals stands a statue of the Virgin with Child, an evidence that the place was particularly devoted to Mary. Under the porch a 14th-century Limousin Gothic portal shows all the characteristics of this kind of architecture : pointed arches, triple arch mouldings, capital frieze, little columns and tores. In the north wall of the large, wainscotted single nave there used to be the entrances to two chapels with ogive vaulting. Nowadays the one to the east serves as a vestry.
AN ARCHITECTURAL REREDOS, typical of the post-tridentine period (i.e. following the Council of Trent).
A monumental reredos is built against the wall of the flat chevet. This piece of work, made of painted and gilded wood is to be regarded as baroque, considering the themes developed, the way they are staged, and the whole decoration.
The rigour of its conception gives it great originality. Single pilasters separate all the elements. The central panel, with its curved entablature, is the only one to be flanked with columns. The two symmetrical structures are to be seen as a tryptich, with two panels wide open and the central one with a statue. To the left, St Martial, first bishop of Limoges, holds out a double barred patriarchal cross in the direction of the tabernacle. To the right, St Stephen, a proto-martyr, points at it in a similar gesture.
To describe these arrangements four levels, separated by cornices, are to be considered.
- on the lower level, supporting the others, the gilded bas-reliefs picturing the four Evangelists and their symbols.
- on the second level, the statues.
- on the third level, the entablature.
on the top moulding, two medallions : St Peter above St Martial and St Paul above St Stephen. Such an arrangement symbolises the Counter Reformation teaching : the Gospels are the foundation of the Church which is both an institution (St Martial) and the Assembly of Believers (St Stephen).
THE CENTRAL BODY
The central body is a magnificent porch. The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, a painting by Jean Restout (1692-1768) covers its whole surface. In front of the entrance to the porch stand the high altar and the tabernacle, topped by a triangle and a cross gilt all around. The Presentation is an expression of deep joy.The Virgin, seemingly intent on throwing herself into the arms of the High Priest, barely touches the ground. A deep vault creates an impression of space. Above the reredos is a pediment, all in curves : in its centre,a circle including a triangle with the word YAHVE written in it.
Vertically, along the median line of the monument, God, Christ on the Cross and the consecrated Host are meant as evidences of the truth of Transsubstantiation.
Life and joy suffuse the whole ornamentation. Pediments, medallions, mouldings, the frieze, all are decorated with a profusion of foliage and flowers, rinceaux, lines full of light : everything is gilt.
The entablature separates the celestial world from the terrestrial one. On the decorative moulding are the Angels of Heaven, one of whom, close to St Martial, holds a mitre. Little angels’ heads appear above the garlands around the tabernacle whereas Jesus is figured on the door as a child carrying his cross. They are its guardians. In the days of the Counter Reformation and baroque art angels were considered as messengers giving a dynamic vision of the celestial world and being a link between heaven and earth. They bring life.
Thus, the reredos appears as a true stage fully expressing the sensitiveness of 17th-century and early 18th-century Catholics. This one is particular as it was created for seminarists.
SAINT MARY’S CHURCH : ITS HISTORY IN THE CITY
From the 13th century onwards the church has been part of the life of the city. The bourgeois used to come in to listen to the Jacobins monks preaching in French. In 1791 the chapel was dedicated to St Thomas Aquinas. The ceremonies were celebrated by priests who had sworn an oath of loyalty to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. After the signature of the Concordat in 1802 Saint Mary was selected to be one of the four parishes in the city. When the seminary chapel was pulled down the reredos was moved to the church chevet.
It is not possible here to expatiate on St Mary’s rich history and movable heritage.