Les Eglises Jurassiennes

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The churches:
Baume l'abbaye
Baume l'église
le Frasnois
Lons le Saunier
Pont de Poitte
le Vaudioux



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Ancienne église abbatiale Saint-Pierre (former abbey church of St Peter)

The 13th century tower of Abbaye de Baume.

Through the gate, the main way into the Abbey. Up the slope, the west entrance to the abbey church. The west doors. Christ the King of the World. Inside, looking east.
Inside, looking west. The great Flemish altar piece. North arcade. St Catherine. Saints on the tomb of Aimé de Chalon.
The crossing, facing north. The great Easter sepulchre. 15th century St Michael to the north of the chancel. St Michael detail. Note the Abbot on his shoulder. Abbey square. Note the springing for vaulting on the wall beyond.
Abbey square after a sudden shower. Passeages interconnect the squares. Jimmy in the chapel passage. Entrance to the parish chapel. Inside the Parish chapel.

  Tourists tend to come to the Jura for the lakes, the mountains and the summer sunshine rather than for history or architecture. Tourist sites are few and far between, and are relatively unspoilt. They are never terribly busy, even in summer, although you must assume that most of the people there are visitors, not residents.

One of the few tourism honeyspots in the south of the Département is the tiny village of Baume-les-Messieurs. This sits just to the east of Lons in a dramatic gorge, le Cirque de Baume. There are several of these gorges along the ridge between Lons and Pontarlier, but Baume is in the deepest and grandest. Roads descend to it at crazy angles, doubling back and forth before reaching the valley floor beside a mountain river. Honey coloured cottages with stone slab roofs, a mill, farmhouses and a vinery are as pretty as a postcard. But even in the height of summer, the sun has descended behind the ridge by 4pm. Who on earth would want to build a village here, and why?

Visiting France from England, there is a tendency to think of the Jura as being out on the edge. But civilisation did not come from England; it came from Rome.

The missionaries that headed north from the Holy City in the 6th and 7th centuries established monasteries - or more properly minsters, to spread the gospel in the surrounding villages. But increasingly these institutions became more complex, and took on other functions. They also had to be self-sustaining, and this created an introspection that led to contemplation being as important as evangelisation. For contemplative orders, removal from the everyday world became more important than immersion in it. They sought solitude. As they headed north, they reached the Alps, always a barrier except for those determined enough to cross it. Beyond the Alps, they came into a strange, lightly-populated land of meadows and forests. This was the Jura, and in this distant land, remote from Rome and the world, they settled. They really were out on the edge.

Here in the Cirque de Baume was established one of the great abbeys of the Middle Ages.

The abbey is first mentioned as a new cell of the convent of Chateau-Chalon in 869. I had thought the village name meant 'balm', which would have been lovely, but in fact the place was known as 'Balma', or 'grotto' in Old French. In 890 it was given to the abbey at Gigny, and in the course of the next half century two key events shaped its history. Firstly, a new abbot of Gigny developed the rule of St Benedict that he had learned at the monastery in Autun. Secondly, this rule began to spread widely in the west after the foundation of the nearby abbey of Cluny in 909. Baume's future as a Benedictine foundation was sealed.

In the 11th and 12th centuries, the buildings here today began to take shape. The great abbey church of St Peter was built in the second half of the 11th century in almost exactly the form we see now - only the east end is later. The Abbey buildings began to form the two great courtyards to the south of the church. A massive building programme at the start of the 13th century made it the glorious amalgam we have today. Much of this was the work of the abbot Aimé de Chalon, who is buried in a grand tomb in the north transept.

In the middle of the 18th century, the Order was secularised, and a great reconstruction took place - it was at this point that the cloisters were lost. In 1791 the church was given parish status, and the last monks left.

Today, you walk into the abbey through the main gate. There is no charge; if you want to spend some money though, the second-hand bookshop at the gate is splendid. I finally found the Pierre Lacroix book I had been hunting for nearly two years. Ahead of you, an archway leads into the main abbey buildings, but you will first want to turn left and up the slope to the west door to the abbey church.

SImilar in scale to the more famous Fontevraud and Vezelay, the abbey church here is amazingly complete for one simple reason; at the secularisation of the monastery, Baume abbey church became the new parish church of the village. The old parish church has also survived, becoming a cemetery chapel. You step into a vast, cathedral-like nave; baroque altars flank the entrance, reminding you that in the 17th and 18th centuries this was one of the few places in the Jura with money.

There are none of the grand capitals you might expect if you have visited Autun or Vezelay. There is none of the white light that infuses those two buildings. Instead, the arcades are low, the thin clerestory windows doing little to lighten the vaulting. There is something primitive and earthy about all this bare stone. At the crossing, you step into a lighter space, because the 13th century chancel is higher than the nave, and the open 15th century apse is full of glass. Ahead of you is a glorious Flemish altar piece, which unfortunately you can only approach if a guided tour is running. In the north transept is a huge Easter Sepulchre, rather dramatically filled with 18th century statuary, and behind the grill to the east of it the tomb of Aimé de Chalon. Look also at the 15th century statue of St Michael here - he has an abbot sitting on his shoulder.

You can explore the other Abbey buildings by going back out of the west door, or by using the door in the south transept. Note how the vaulting of all the cloisters has been destroyed; only the springing remains. This appears to have been done to enlarge the squares, possibly so that temporary buildings could be built against the walls. The squares have become squares of the village, their fountains similar to those in the villages around, although there are now no brown cows here. The buildings of the Abbey have become houses and offices, although in a corridor connecting the two main squares you will find a pretty little chapel, now used by the parish for daily worship.

If you have no tight schedule to keep to, wander on foot to the north of the village, where away from the houses but among the vineyards you will find the old parish church of St John the Baptist.

The abbey church of St Peter is in the middle of the village, which is just to the north of the D471 between Lons and Champagnole.