Abbey Church of Sainte-Marie, Souillac, Dordogne

The abbey church of Sainte-Marie in Souillac in the Dordogne region of France has its origins with the Benedictine monks of Saint Pierre d’Aurillac, who established a priory here in the 10th century. The abbey church was built between 1075 and 1150 and ranks amongst the finest examples of Romanesque and Byzantine architectural styles in the South-West of France. It is laid out on the plan of a Latin cross, and it is said that the sanctuary was inspired by the church of Haghia Sophia in Istanbul. The church has some architectural similaries with the Saint-Front Cathedral in Périgueux and the Saint-Étienne Cathedral in Cahors.

Some early wall paintings exist in a wall niche inside the entrance.

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The church was seriously damaged during the Wars of Religion, and the abbey was dismantled during the French Revolution and used as a tobacco warehouse.

Romanesque sculpture flourished in Souillac. The inner western wall is has impressive carvings that were originally part of the portal. One highly adorned column has fabulous animals fighting each other. To the left of the doorway as you enter the church is a carving of the prophet Isaiah in a posture of movement, possibly dance, one of the most important depictions of a prophet in Romanesque art.

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The wooden choir stalls in the apse behind the alter  contain three daisy wheels, a compass-drawn circle and a partial circle. The three daisy wheels are 5cm, 6½cm and 7cm in diameter. They can be found on the back/top of the 13th choir stalls from the left, when facing them (with the altar behind you). In front of them, on one of the uprights dividing the choir stalls, there is a cluster of small compass drawn circles.  The choir stalls date from the 17th century.
The horizontal surfaces of the choir stalls have two merels which appear to correspond to the type known as Three Men’s Morris. The smallest of the two merels is 4cm x 5cm. The larger completely fills the middle part of the choir stall. Next to them is a partial merel Photographing them with a scale in situ proved to be extremely difficult. There are also two merels on vertical surfaces behind the choir stalls. the larger of the two is 18cm wide x 13cm high, and the smaller one, above it is 4cm x 4cm. Nearby is a name inscribed in the wood. In addition, a vertical merel can be found to the left of the main door in the entry hall area of the church. This is in black on a lime-washed surface.
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The back of the altar has attracted a lot of relatively modern graffiti, the earliest of which appears to date to 1912. Much of this is of the variety typified by Nini loves Toto, but there is also a religious element at work here as well as Patrice is noted as loving Jesus, recorded on 30 January 1991.
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The church is open to visitors during the day.

Abbey Church of Sainte-Marie
Place Pierre Betz
46200 Souillac

Report by Linda Wilson

Search terms: abbey, church, wall paintings, daisy wheel (compass drawn), circle (compass drawn), circle (cluster), Circle (incomplete) merel, merel (incomplete) three men’s morris