Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Cathar Castles

Languedoc is known as the Land of the Cathars. Catharism was a dissident religious movement arising in the 12th century that mixed traditional Christianity with imported forms of Middle Eastern dualism, seeing the world as a perpetual combat between a good spiritual world and an evil material world. As fierce Occitan regionalists, the Cathars rejected the authority of the French king. As austere quasi-Christian ascetics, they rejected the efficacy of the sacraments and the authority of the papacy. Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) enlisted the support of northern knights to eliminate the separatist heretics.

The Albigensian Crusade (named for the city of Albi) was launched by the pope in 1209. Under the brutal leadership of Simon de Montfort, the Cathars were slowly eradicated in a series of genocidal campaigns characterized by various atrocities: sieges, famine, mass mutiliations, and outright massacres. After the military defeat of the Cathars, the papacy sought to win hearts and minds by establishing the Inquisition under the leadership of the newly established Dominican Order. Secret inquiries, torture, confiscations, and executions were common over the course of more than a century. The last execution of a Cathar by burning took place in 1321; the last community of Cathars (at the obscure mountain village Montaillou) was eliminated by the Inquisition in 1412.
Today, the most famous signs of these tragic times are the numerous ruins of Cathar castles, usually perched on steep cliffs in the remote foothills of the Pyrenees.

Return to St-Martin-des-Puits

The tiny chapel of St-Martin-des-Puits, perched on the side of an isolated one-lane road south of Lagrasse, exercises a magnetic attraction on our imagination. The snug rectangular nave is actually pre-Romanesque, divided from the small nave by a Visigothic outrepasse arch resting on a pair of marble columns rescued from some lost Roman building. The south transept, dating from the 11th century, has a single small arched window. The north transept has been demolished. The choir is decorated with damaged but still stunning 12-century frescos. The iconographic program is very unusual -- we're still working to decipher parts of it and to make sense of the arrangement as a whole. On our first visit (see blog entry from 11 February), we mostly took pictures of the extant architecture and artwork:

On our return trip this week, we spent more time examining and lamenting the state of disrepair. The abandoned building is badly damaged. The heavy wooden door is always unlocked and the windows have no glass, leaving this priceless gem exposed to potential damage from visitors and inclement weather. There are a few pathetic signs of attempts at stabilization -- it would be too much to call it restoration -- but the interior continues to deteriorate. Here are some pictures from our second visit. We hope the situation will improve, but the signs are not encouraging.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Limoux: Return to Carnival

Our blog post for 6 February describes our first trip to Limoux, a town of 9000 people nestled in a narrow valley about 20 miles south of Carcassonne. In the pre-Lenten season, the townspeople of Limoux celebrate their own distinctive form of Carnival. This weekend, we decided to go back and experience the event again.

Two troupes of costumed and masked "fecos" dancers enter the town square from opposite sides. Each troupe is accompanied by its own brass band that follows along behind playing a distinctive (and seemingly endless) tune. The masked celebrants move in a clockwise procession under the arcades around the square. Sometimes they dance with onlookers or shower them with confetti. This late-winter ceremony culminates with the ritual burning of the Winter King a few weeks from now.

St Papoul, Caunes-Minervois, Rieux-Minervois

Carcassonne is the perfect home base for taking day trips throughout the region. One day we drove up to Saint-Papoul, a twelfth-century monastery northwest of here. The exterior of the apse preserves two capitals carved by the Master of Cabestany, the late 12-century sculptor whose work we have tracked throughout Languedoc (St Hilaire, Lagrasse, Rieux-Minervois, etc).

Our travels northeast of Carcassonne took us to the monastery of Sts Peter and Paul at Caunes-Minervois, dating from the 11th-13th centuries. The most amazing building we visited, however, was at Rieux-Minervois. Rather than being rectangular, the beautifully preserved 12th-century sanctuary is septagonal. The domed vaults rest on seven pillars arranged in a circle. To top if all off, several of the columns have incredible carved capitals, including a masterpiece by the peripatetic Master of Cabestany.