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Guided visit of the church of Saint Martin de Laives

Situated 15 km south of Chalon sur Saône, Saint Martin, former parish church of Laives, sits at the top of a hill forming the beginning of Monts du Mâconnais.

The church stands out on its hill attracting the attention of travellers along the main road (RN 6), the “Motorway of the Sun” and the Paris/Lyon railway line. Nearly a thousand years old, illuminated every night since 1972, it is appropriately known as “the light of South Burgundy”.

Prehistoric remains brought to light around 1876 seem to indicate that ancient tribes had sought refuge on this hill conveniently situated between three rivers: the Saône, Grosne and Grison. It was there that the Celts established their oppida (Mont Cuny and Saint Martin). Geobiologists assert that a Druid temple was once erected on the site of the current church.

During the Gallic Wars and the Roman occupation, the church site afforded the legions the best possible observation post of the river bank and the Via Agrippa. From the various vases and tiles which were uncovered, it is reasonable to suppose that the Romans established a camp on the remains of the former site. A Roman temple dedicated to Mercury is thought to have replaced the original Druid temple.

Like a number of other sites of military significance, the “seniors”, former legionaries of the Roman armies, built their villas on the hillside (the current hamlet of Sens and village of Laives). Some of their barbarian allies, the Sarmates, built their village facing the west. The names of the village of Sennecey-le-Grand and the hamlet of Sermaisey derive from them. The same applies to Sennecé, Sancé, Sens, Sermesse and Sermoyer.

In the 4th century, the evangelist Saint Martin or his followers pulled down the pagan temple and built a church which, at a later stage, was dedicated to Saint Martin. In the 9th century, several names were attributed to this church: Sanctus Martinus in monte, Villa Montes, or Ecclesia Sancti Martini in monte or merely Mons (Mount).

The current Romanesque church dates from the 11th century (1050-1080?). At that time, similar churches abounded in South Burgundy. The Architect monk designs, orientates and builds the House of God.

Saint Martin de Laives is situated on the Chemin des Moines, a flood-free track on the ridge of the hill which links the abbeys of La Ferté and Cluny.

The middle of the 12th century saw the decline of the original village and by the middle of the 14th century, when the country became plague stricken, it was abandoned. More than half the population of Laives died. Those who survived left the village and moved to the valley and its many brooks. There only remained on the hill the church and its rural Benedictine priory, property of Saint Pierre de Chalon-sur-Saône. In the 15th century, the Benedictines left the priory. An ancient parsonage turned to the south west and bordering the cemetery seems to have existed before the 15th century. An underground passage, which provided a sense of safety, linked the parsonage to the church. The church end of this passage was under the altar. A very small portion of the passage can still be visited.

The Renaissance was a time when major transformations took place. Two chapels were built on the northern and southern sides, thus lengthening the original Romanesque transept. The sacristy was built next to the North chapel. A sink and a chimney, which must have made the room quite comfortable at the time, can still be seen. However, in those days, because of the skinners, thieves who tortured people by heating the soles of their feet in order to find out where they were hiding their savings, not to forget the wars of religion, the place had become so insecure that the various priests in charge over the years often refused to live on the hill, preferring to sleep in a house in the village.

The French Revolution turned the church of Saint Martin de Laives into a “Temple of Reason”. In 1834, the town council, out of concern for its poor state, decided to have a brand new church built in the very village of Laives. Henceforth, no more burials will take place in the Mount churchyard.

In the 12th century, the church and the various properties, which belonged to the bishopric of Nevers, were given away to the Benedictines of Saint-Pierre de Chalon.

In 1905, the edifice was classified as Historical Monument. In spite of this, it remained derelict and was used as a shelter by the shepherds and the local rascals. During World War I, it also housed passing soldiers.

In 1944, the church was at the centre of the battle which took place for the liberation of Sennecey-le-Grand.

In 1972, the Tourist Office of Sennecey-le-Grand became aware of the value of the church and in 1976, a society for the safeguard of the church was created.

It is now our pleasure,
in the name of “Les Amis de Saint Martin de Laives”
(composed exclusively of voluntary workers),
to welcome and guide you through the church of Saint Martin de Laives which is currently being renovated.

Let’s go up the nave. As is customary, the church is oriented with the choir to the east and the entrance to the west.

The front door is not the original door: it was put in when a porch was added to the front wall. Marks left by the foundations can still be seen.

The upper window was created in the 16th century, causing the destruction of the outside Lombard arcading but similar arcading is still to be seen on the side walls of the edifice. At first sight, the lack of ornaments is striking. The basilical layout, the semicircular arch and, originally, the absence of transept, can be attributed to the Romanesque art of the 11th century. A time of minimalist art whose austerity may give both Christians and atheists food for meditation. One might have a thought for the stonemasons, overseen by the monk architects, and the ordinary workers who, guided by their faith, built this edifice which has seen generations of peasants, craftsmen and local leading citizens, many of whom still lie underneath the nave or the chapels.

We are in the house of the Lord and of the people. Three-nave churches were frequently the work of monks establishing a priory. Such is the case of Laives. In the diocese of Chalon, the vaulting of the sides or aisles of most churches consists of transverse struts. This is the case here. Looking at the left aisle, only the first window is of Romanesque origin. It is narrow and inwardly splayed. The other windows, enlarged at a later stage, are not situated in the middle of the bays. Turning to the aisle on the right hand side, we can see walled-up windows.

The places of two Romanesque doors can clearly be seen on both the right and the left sides.

To the right of the entrance stands the baptismal font, an octagonal* plain basin (*the numeral 8 being the roman symbol of “resurrection”). The Romanesque part of the edifice consists of the semicircular?arched nave flanked by two aisles which themselves are continued by two apsidal chapels. One of them is in the form of a half dome; the other is square-shaped with an ogival vaulting dating from the 15th century. The choir ending the nave, also half-domed, is a semicircular apse which juts out onto the aisles. The nave is 18.30 m long and 3.95 m wide (from pillar to pillar). In 1553, stones replaced the original brick vaulting but in the 18th century, an ultimate renovation gave it back its former aspect. In accordance with the local usage at the time, the roofing is made of lava. As there is no framework, it lies directly on the points of the vaulting. A double pitched roof runs over both the nave and the aisles. It weighs an impressive 700 kg/m2, hence the flattened aspect of the edifice when looked at from the outside. The massive buttresses enhance this impression. The vaults lie on two rows of three pillars linked by semicircular arches of equal length. These pillars are massive and cross-shaped. They are plain, without any cornices or capitals. Small altars sit on the pillars; these altars are made of simple paving stones resting on big cubic pieces of masonry.

In the 12th century, the foundation of the second pillar used to be a gravestone, the altar dedicated to Saint Anne. The last altar to the right was dedicated to Saint Fiacrus. To the left, above the second pillar, you can see two escutcheons supported by angels; they were damaged in 1793. Traces of paintings can still be seen on the altar dedicated to Saint Martin.

Inside the pillars is a filling of aggregate mixed in mortar. Like the village houses, the church was built with uneven, hammered quarry stones bonded with thick mortar joints. The corners, front and buttresses are made of freestone. Lime filler, tinged with pink by the sand, used to cover the walls as well as the tying of the arches. Looking at the bare part of the aisle on the right, alongside the Gothic chapel, one can appreciate the building technique prevailing in the Middle Ages. In the 18th century, the old building was renovated and a filler of plaster was then used and a brick ledge set under the central vault. We have already eliminated some of the leprous filler in the part that has been renovated, namely, the bell tower and choir, and we shall do the same here.

Let us go to the entrance of the choir. This chancel is lit by a dome on trunks supporting the bell tower. The location of the bell tower above the choir is of paramount importance: it meant that the upkeep of the tower was to be borne by the tithe-owners.

An emblazoned stone is embedded in the outside western side of the bell tower. On the North and South sides, the dome is supported by arches which reduce the surface of the chancel, bringing it back to a square. Above, invisible from the outside, a second similar dome supports the top of the bell tower to which access is only possible via the roof.

We are now under the bell tower, in the chancel in front of the choir. Originally, the choir was dimly lit by three small Romanesque windows. In the 15th century, these were replaced by a large Gothic window which let more light in. The bottom of the round-shaped apse has been levelled but the opening still lacks height. This part of the church has recently been restored. The closet on the left was walled up and then reopened. It was used to store the liturgical objects and parish books. The beautiful niches of dressed stone have been rid of the plaster which covered them in the 18th century. Two crosses of consecration can be seen, now that the paint which covered the walls has been removed. The squint arches (hagioscopes) allowed the congregation to follow the mass from the side chapels.

Underneath the choir is a small cellar. Around 1945, for fear of a landslide it was walled up at the level of the altar step. Legend has it that an underground passage exists. It is a fact that the elderly people recall that they used to trudge across falling rocks from the ruined parsonage eventually to surface under the lime trees. Mystery…

An exception in the Chalon area, the bell towers of Saint Julien, Sennecey-le-Grand and Saint Martin de Laives have blunt, four?sided roofs made of lava and resting on the back of a dome on trunks. This type of roofing is the most ancient in our region. The stone steeple, more stylish, was probably introduced later on. Although this bell tower is only 20 metres high, its location at the top of a mount enhances its height, giving it a monumental aspect. On each side of the bell tower are three small primitive Romanesque windows. The twin windows that can also be seen were added on at a later stage. On the south side, above the twin windows, a blazon figuring a quadruped contemplating a tree can be seen. An identical one, with traces of painting, is present on one of the decorations of the altar dedicated to Saint Martin

. In 1793, the revolutionaries tried to take away the bells but the women of Laives opposed them. Nonetheless, two bells were melted; a third one was acquired by the community of Saint Marcel-lès-Chalon and in 1831, the fourth one was removed and placed in the village church. At about the same time, the 15th century Great Christ, the communion grille, the pulpit as well as statues and paintings were equally moved to the new church, where they can still be seen.

Looking up, one can see round orifices in the vaults of the dome and the nave. These are horns of pottery buried in the masonry which provide exceptional acoustics. This remarkable technique dates back to the very origin of this 900-year old building.

The chapel Perchey ends the right side collateral. It is semi?domed and lit by an ogival window. In this chapel, the big foundation stone set like a step was probably the choir’s primitive altar. In 1596, Sir François Parie, chaplain, requested to be buried there. His grave can be seen in front of the altar.

The apsidal chapel lit by an ogival window which ends the left aisle was altered in the 15th century. Marks of frescoes made over several periods of time can still be discerned on the walls. We are in the chapel Saint Peter. Two priests of Laives and one chaplain were buried there. The entrance to the sacristy overlooks this chapel. It is a square room with a fireplace and semi-circular arch which was built in the end of the 15th century and then demolished and rebuilt.

Let us now enter the North Chapel, known as All Saints Chapel, which was founded in 1476 by Jean Géliot, priest of Couches and native of Laives. It was then that the late Gothic architecture was introduced in the church of Saint Martin. The vault is ogival and the struts of the beam arches rest on four decorated bases. Three of them, representing a madman’s face, a feminine bust and a man with a priest’s cap on, were damaged in 1793. The fourth, representing a grape and the sun, is intact. To the right of the altar is a small pool between two consoles. Jean Géliot is buried in the centre of the chapel. He is shown wearing his priestly clothes. The keystone represents a Christ giving the blessing on an azure background. The symbols of the evangelists are sculpted on the relief. The North Chapel, like the one on the opposite side, used to be closed by stone grilles, similar to those existing in the cathedral of Saint Vincent de Chalon. These too were destroyed in 1793. It is to be noted that this chapel, built by a churchman, was severely damaged by the revolutionaries, whereas the South Chapel which we now are going to visit, built thanks to a layman, suffered to a lesser degree.

The same vaults as before can be seen in the South Chapel. Here the worked stone grille has been preserved.

Inside the chapel, we can see the hallmarks of the stonemasons on the pillars. This chapel, dedicated to Our Lady of Mercy, was founded in 1516, under François 1st, by a notary of the La Grange family. His blazon adorned the door and the consoles, supported by an angel with spread wings. The statue of a worshipped Pietà used to stand above the altar. It was knocked down by the revolutionaries but one can see its triangular place in the wall.

The keystone is impressive. It represents a Christ giving the blessing with both hands. On an azure background sprinkled with golden stars, four figures stand out: the eagle of Saint John, the bull of Saint Luke, the lion of Saint Marc and the human?faced angel of Saint Matthew. Each of them holds a banner with the name of the evangelist it symbolizes. The notary and his spouse lay underneath the paving.

In the nave a number of gravestones. can be seen among the paving. Most of them are anonymous; some others are engraved with a Maltese cross or inscriptions as can be seen around the gravestone of Marie Goujon, wife of Robert. Note also the gravestone of the Dureaul family “who died from plague circa. All Saints Day of the year 1586”.

Before ending our visit, let’s go to the cemetery. In the past, it entirely surrounded the church. The faithful who lay there are facing the altar whereas the graves of the priests are directed to the west. The cross of the Reverend Demaizière, erected in 1647, has been damaged over the centuries whilst the grave of Pierre Meaux, stonemason buried in 1644, still stands, among many others.

Looking to the south, traces of a former priory can still be seen on the walls of the church: chimneys and closets as well as a gate leading to the church.

This is the end of this guided visit. If you wish to contribute to the upkeep of Saint Martin de Laives you can do so through a donation or by becoming a member of our association.

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