History and its treasures: The Chapel of the Black Penitents of Saint-Géniez-d’Olt

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Chronic. Pascal Cazottes makes us discover today the chapel of the Black Penitents of Saint-Geniez-d’Olt. Less known and perhaps a little less flamboyant than that of Villefranche-de-Rouergue, this chapel nevertheless has similarities with its sister in Bas-Rouergue, if only at the level of its ceiling, which is made of wood and covered in paintings with religious themes.

It was in the 17th century, more precisely in 1672, that the brotherhood of the Black Penitents of Saint-Geniez-d’Olt was sold by the Augustinians of this same city, in return for an annual fee of ten sols, a property on which was going to be built the chapel that we know today.

It should be noted that this one will not be truly completed until 1705, when the Grandons father and son, renowned painters (especially the son Charles who will become ordinary painter of the city of Lyon), will have put the last touch to the vault in building wood. We will also notice that the chapel of the Black Penitents of Villefranche-de-Rouergue was built around the same time: construction took place between 1642 and 1671 and the ceiling was not painted until 1701.

So these are dates that create a new rapprochement between our two chapels. However, there the concordances stop, because the theme addressed in the chapel of Saint-Geniez is totally different. Indeed, in Saint-Geniez, the main subject is none other than John the Baptist whose tragic end (death by decapitation) has been represented in two places: on the ceiling and on the altarpiece, a large painting recalling this terrible scene having been placed on the central panel of the said altarpiece with, just above, two sculpted angels presenting a gold plate on which rests the head of the martyr.

And let’s not forget either this statue of Saint John the Baptist enthroned in a niche located to the right of the painting (the niche located opposite being occupied by a statue of Saint Anne initiating the Virgin Mary to reading).

As for the other subjects treated in painting, here is the enumeration (without worrying about presenting them in any order): the Holy Trinity, the prophet Elijah taken up in a chariot of fire, the Assumption of the Virgin, the presentation of the Virgin in the temple, the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), and, finally, four hermits who have been identified as Saint Paul the Anchorite, Saint Anthony (of the desert), Saint Jerome and William (duke of Aquitaine). Now, as we will see, these hermits, like Elijah, refer us to John the Baptist.

As it is also clear that the painters, or their sponsor(s), wanted to emphasize eremitism, even this “desert” conducive to asceticism, meditation, the encounter with the sacred, and, consequently, to a purified spirituality. Of course, we will not fail to evoke the hermits named above by some biographical elements. But, above all, let us recall here the journey of Saint John the Baptist who can be seen as an essential figure in the Christian religion, given that this “precursor” announced the coming of Jesus Christ.

From the outset, let us specify that John the Baptist was related to Jesus Christ since, according to the Gospel according to Luke, he was the son of Zacharias and Elizabeth, the latter being a relative (probably a cousin) of the Virgin Mary.

It should also be noted that the birth of John, like that of Jesus, was considered miraculous (Elisabeth was already an old woman when she gave birth), and that the coming into the world of John, like that of Jesus, was announced by Archangel Gabriel.

It was, moreover, the Archangel Gabriel who announced that John would walk before God with the spirit and power of Elijah. And that is why Elijah is represented right in the middle of the ceiling of the chapel dedicated to Saint John the Baptist.

Quite simply because John has always been considered a new Elijah, this great prophet of Israel from the 9th century BC who was taken to heaven during his lifetime in a whirlwind after riding in a chariot of fire drawn by horses no less inflamed. This parenthesis closed, we resume the journey of Jean who, having reached adulthood, made the decision to live as an ascetic in the desert, henceforth wearing a garment of camel hair held by a leather belt placed around the loins and not eating more than locusts and wild honey (as we learn from the Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 3, verse 4).

He had therefore become that hermit whose example many after him would follow. Having settled on the banks of the Jordan, he began to prophesy (announcing the coming of the Messiah) and to practice the “baptism of repentance” by immersion in the water of the river.

This is confirmed by the Gospel according to Matthew (chapter 3, verse 11) which attributes these words to John: “I baptize you with water, to bring you to repentance, but there comes one stronger than me, and I am not worthy to wear his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

However, it is interesting to note here this Jewish tradition which wanted the coming of the Messiah to be preceded by the return of the prophet Elijah, who was to prepare the way of the Lord, thus fulfilling this word of Isaiah: “Clear a way in the desert for the Lord.

This further reinforces the view that John the Baptist was none other than Elijah, or rather his reincarnation. After baptizing Jesus who, coming out of the water, received the Spirit of God, John attracted the wrath of Herodias, the wife of Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Perea.

In fact, John, having little concern for pleasing the “greats of this world”, did not hesitate to denounce the scandalous union of Herod with Herodias, the latter being already married to the brother (or half- brother) of Herod.

Strongly angered by the words of the prophet, Herodias persuaded her new husband to throw John into prison and remain chained there. However, she also wanted the prophet’s head which Herod could not bring himself to give her. But one evening at a banquet when Salome, the daughter of Herodias, charmed Herod and all her guests with one of her dances, of which she had the secret, Herod wished to reward her by granting her her dearest wish.

It was then that Salome took advantage of the situation to claim the head of John the Baptist which was to be given to his mother on a platter. Unable to escape his promise, Herod sent one of his guards to decapitate John in his jail… By dedicating their chapel to Saint John the Baptist, we suspect that the Black Penitents wished, at the same time, to salute, even to promote, the eremitism, that is the way of life of all those hermits who withdrew (and still withdraw) voluntarily from the world in order to better consecrate their lives to God.

But fleeing the society of men implies that the aspirant to eremitism must go and settle in a particularly desert region. Hence, moreover, the etymology of the word “eremitism” which derives directly from the Greek word “eremos” meaning “desert” or “abandoned region”. It is therefore these “fathers of the desert”, having lived in the last part of Antiquity (with the exception of Guillaume, Duke of Aquitaine), that the Black Penitents wished to honor by having them appear (in painting) in the within their own chapel. Of the four hermits represented, one of them is more easily recognizable. This is Antoine the Hermit, also called Antoine du désert. The latter can be easily identified thanks to the pig that appears next to it. It was from the Middle Ages that we got into the habit of representing him with this animal (as well as with a bell) following the right granted to the order of Saint-Antoine to let his pigs roam in the streets, as long as they were equipped with a bell.

After this clarification, we find Antoine the Hermit who, born in Egypt around 250, in a relatively well-to-do Christian family, found himself an orphan at 18 years old. Having distributed all his goods to the poor, he decided to consecrate his life to God and, to do so, chose the life of a hermit. Having gone to live thirteen years in the desert, the number of his disciples only increased, pushing him again to seek solitude.

But in his second retreat, the devil and his demons tormented him, putting a strain on his resistance which did not weaken. Joined once again by disciples, he will give valuable advice, notably to Hilarion of Gaza who will found one of the first monasteries of Christianity. The second hermit represented in the chapel is none other than Saint Paul the Anchorite, believed to have spent sixty years of his life in a cave and considered the very first hermit, having preceded Saint Anthony in hermit life by only a few years.

Arriving third in our description of hermits, Saint Jerome (or Jerome of Stridon) lived for a time in a desert in historic Syria before becoming one of the Doctors of the Church and, above all, the first translator of the Bible into Latin. Finally, the fourth hermit of the chapel – Guillaume, Duke of Aquitaine – lived in the 12th century. Converted to Catholicism by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, he went on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela where he is believed to have died. In fact, he would have made believe in his death to withdraw from the world and go to continue his existence in a hermitage of Mount Lebanon.

We have now come to the end of our visit to the chapel of the Black Penitents of Saint-Geniez-d’Olt. Many other observations could have been made on this chapel, but we leave it to others to complete this work which has just begun.

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History and its treasures: The Chapel of the Black Penitents of Saint-Géniez-d’Olt

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