Ochres in Burgundy / by Jeannine Cook

In a previous blog on medieval tiles, I mentioned that there were ochre mines in the North West part of Burgundy. A spur-of-the-moment decision to turn left or right on a road in Puisaye, Burgundy, led to a delicious confirmation of the wonderful heritage of these ochre riches. Meandering one wonderful Sunday of serendipity in this Puisaye area, famed too for its ceramics, the chance road led to Moutiers-en-Puisaye.

A tiny village, founded in 690 AD as Meleretense monasterium, a monastery and rest place for Breton pilgrims en route to Rome,  Moutiers-en-Puisaye's fame comes from the Church of St Peter, originally built in the 10th century, under the control of St. Germain d’Auxerre . It was fortified in troubled times during the 13th century and knew many vicissitudes and alterations in later centuries.  The last, and perhaps most surprising, evolution in the church’s history came in 1982, when cracks in the white wall plaster appeared.   Upon investigation, it was discovered that hidden beneath the whitewash were medieval frescoes in ochre. Restoration by a Japanese expert brought back to life a wonderful diversity of these frescoes that marry Burgundy’s natural ochres and scenes from the Bible painted from the late 12th century onwards.

The church is sturdy and elegant in of itself, welcoming visitors with a wonderful portico and totally impressive oak-beamed roof that is the prelude to the 11th century nave with its wooden barrel vaulted ceiling. Massive oak posts and beams punctuate the nave and form frames for the many frescoes (although some of the frescoes are slightly hidden behind the posts, which stand proud of the wall).

 Eglise St. Pierre in Moutiers-en-Puisaye, the 13th century entrance and porch, with the mortar between the stones already indicative of being in "ochre country" (photograph J. Cook)

Eglise St. Pierre in Moutiers-en-Puisaye, the 13th century entrance and porch, with the mortar between the stones already indicative of being in "ochre country" (photograph J. Cook)

 The beautiful beamed roof of the entrance portico, prelude to entering Eglise St. Pierre (photograph J Cook)

The beautiful beamed roof of the entrance portico, prelude to entering Eglise St. Pierre (photograph J Cook)

 Eglise St. Pierre's nave, originally built in the 11th century. (photograph J. Cook)

Eglise St. Pierre's nave, originally built in the 11th century. (photograph J. Cook)

The Sunday that we visited, Mass had obviously been celebrated in this parish church, for the flower arrangements were beautiful and a perfect complement to the yellow and red ochre frescoes above. The nave frescoes are the earlier ones, painted probably at the end of the 12th century onwards, and in the choir area, there are some 16th and 17th ochre frescoes that continue the celebration of the area’s abundant ochre mines.

 Fresh flowers graced Eglise St. Pierre the day we visited. Above, the Annunciation in a 12th century fresco. (photograph J. Cook)

Fresh flowers graced Eglise St. Pierre the day we visited. Above, the Annunciation in a 12th century fresco. (photograph J. Cook)

 Eglise St. Pierre, south wall, 13th century ochre frescoes.  Above, Adam and Eve being ejected from Paradise and working hard; below, St. John preaching and Christ being baptised.(photograph J. Cook)

Eglise St. Pierre, south wall, 13th century ochre frescoes.  Above, Adam and Eve being ejected from Paradise and working hard; below, St. John preaching and Christ being baptised.(photograph J. Cook)

 The banishment from Paradise for Adam and Eve, detail of the above fresco

The banishment from Paradise for Adam and Eve, detail of the above fresco

 Adam hard at work, with Eve, detail of the above 13th century fresco.

Adam hard at work, with Eve, detail of the above 13th century fresco.

 12th century frescoes in the  Eglise St. Pierre (photograph J. Cook)

12th century frescoes in the  Eglise St. Pierre (photograph J. Cook)

 Detail of a 12th century fresco, with the Angel sounding the Trumpet

Detail of a 12th century fresco, with the Angel sounding the Trumpet

 Late 13th century frescoes on the south wall of Eglise St. Pierre, depicting episodes from the Book of Genesis (photograph J. Cook)

Late 13th century frescoes on the south wall of Eglise St. Pierre, depicting episodes from the Book of Genesis (photograph J. Cook)

 Detail of the fresco above, the Shepherds' Adoration, Eglise St. Pierre

Detail of the fresco above, the Shepherds' Adoration, Eglise St. Pierre

 A later ochre fresco in the choir, 16th-17th century,  Eglise St. Pierre (photograph J. Cook)

A later ochre fresco in the choir, 16th-17th century,  Eglise St. Pierre (photograph J. Cook)

Walking around the quiet, cool church, a respite from the very hot day outside, was a delight.

 The exterior of Eglise St. Pierre, Moutiers-en-Puisaye (photograph J. Cook)

The exterior of Eglise St. Pierre, Moutiers-en-Puisaye (photograph J. Cook)

The medieval frescoes told of Biblical scenes, but the expressions and stance of some of the people depicted made me sometimes break out into laughter or smile in pleasure. It was a lively, very human celebration and reward for that serendipitous turning down this road to Moutiers en Puisaye.