One of the serendipitous bonuses of my explorations in winding Pyrenees valleys near Bordeneuve was a church not even listed clearly in the maps I was using: Notre Dame de Tramesaygues in Audressein. Two impetuous rivers join in their rush downstream, ultimately to swell the Garonne river, and the small village borders these tumbling waters. In fact,Tramesaygues means "between the waters' in patois. On the UNESCO world heritage site list, this 14th century Romanesque church is graced with some really wonderful frescoes in the entrance portico. Since they are roofed over by the bell tower, they are protected to an extent, and thus much more impressive.
I had not expected these frescoes at all. The alleyway leading to the church showed a bell tower and rather ordinary church below. But I walked in under the high, old beams of the roof and bell tower and gasped.
First, this three arch-wide porch was apparently used as a shelter for the pilgrims on the way to Santiago de Compostela. They must thus have had time to contemplate the frescoes on the arches and vaulted roof above them. They are certainly varied in subject matter.
There, saints and beautiful angels play instruments. These are surrounded by a red ochre frame with black quadriform rosettes. Above the centre door, you can make out a scene of the Annunciation with a small painting of a centaur at the top right.
The rest of the instructive scenes show people in trouble and giving thanks at the shrine to Notre-Dame. There is a person with a nosebleed lying in bed; below, he is kneeling at the shrine giving thanks for his recovery. Another shows a prisoner praying for his release, then walking out of the castellated prison a free man and going to give thanks to the Virgin for his release. There is a woodland scene with a small boy falling out of a tree and exposing his bare bottom! Below, his mother is making an offering to the Virgin for his safety.
All sorts of imaginative scenes tell of life in the Middle Ages. An assassin thrusts his sword into a defenseless man. He then returns, armed, to a castle. Below, he is imploring the Virgin to pardon him at the shrine. Another scene shows an unequal struggle between two armed opponents. One has been stabbed by a sword and is holding his right arm across his chest while his weapon hangs useless in his left hand. He is then shown giving thanks to the Virgin for his lucky escape.
In the main archway and the arches between nave and side aisles, there are two frescoes. One is of John the Baptist carrying a lamb. The other, which reminded me of the importance of this route to the pilgrims. Santiago de Compostela, the famous St. James of Compostela, is depicted marvellously, carrying his staff, dressed in the emblematic cloak and pilgrim's hat with its scallop insignia. Still today, you see pilgrims using these same symbols of the pilgrimage experience.
Over the doorways are some simple, wonderful carved heads in stone, and a small, weathered cavalry, a crucifix on one side and the Virgin and child on the other, stands on a pillar by the door. On the walkway to the church, there is a small, highly evocative cross that tells of many pilgrims passing that way.
One can almost hear the pilgrims' footsteps and beat of their wooden staffs as they approached this interim goal on the way to Santiago, streaming along the river to this holy shelter where they could rest in the shade and gaze at the frescoes above their heads. If you are in the Ariège area and interested in Romanesque frescoes in a beauteous valley, seek out Notre Dame de Tramesaygues in Audressein. It is worth the visit.