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SAINT-EMILION MONOLITHIC CHURCH
In the 8th century, a Breton monk named Emilion fled to southern France to escape persecution by the Benedictine order and adopted an eremitic existence, living in a cave. It is said that he established a strong Christian community in the area, performing miracles and attracting a following of monks. The region where he settled, which came to be known as Saint-Emilion, acquired wealth and prominence due wine production and to its strategic position along a pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. These fortunate circumstances gave rise to a number of religious monuments in the vicinity, including the Saint-Emilion Monolithic Church. Constructed in the early 12th century, the church is partly subterranean; its three naves, with a small catacomb beneath, were dug into a rocky hillside. Saint-Emilion also possesses a 53-meter-high bell-tower that creates a visible landmark. By the late 20th century, however, the 3,000 ton weight of this tower had shifted far off its supports and was thus susceptible to collapse.
HOW WE HELPED
In 1996, World Monuments Fund placed Saint-Emilion Monolithic Church on the Watch because of the severe structural issues, exacerbated by constant water infiltration, threatening this architecturally and culturally significant site. Cement columns had been erected to supplement the church’s pillars and reinforce the bell tower, but this solution was neither designed to be permanent nor aesthetically desirable. To begin, WMF undertook a technical study that identified and analyzed the specific problems at Saint-Emilion. An international experts meeting was convened by WMF in 1998. Geologists, architects, and engineers from universities across Europe produced recommendations for conservation strategies that were implemented with funding from the local and national governments. The church’s foundations were strengthened through the insertion of tensile bands into the pillars. A decade after Watch-listing, Saint-Emilion Monolithic Church was completely stabilized, restored, and opened to the public.
WHY IT MATTERS
The region of Saint-Emilion in the south of France is a beautiful and historic landscape filled with vineyards and fine architecture. Along the route to Santiago de Compostela, Saint-Emilion boasts many churches and monasteries, built from limestone quarried locally from the surrounding hills. When Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry Plantagenet in 1152 (soon to become Henry II of England), Saint-Emilion became a province ruled by the Angevin king of England. The territory changed hands several times in the following centuries but became part of the French kingdom permanently in 1453. The 800-year-old Saint-Emilion Monolithic Church is the region’s most prominent religious monument, rising dramatically against its rocky backdrop. The cultural landscape of Saint-Emilion, including its most famous church, was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1999.