Postcard from Bordeaux, France: Churches, saints and bones for All Saints and Souls

Above, a carving of Saint Michel slaying the dragon tops the baldaquin in the Basilica dedicated to the Archangel.

And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent called the Devil, and Satan which deceiveth the whole world; he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.

Book of Revelation, Chapter 12

This part-time boulevardier does not just spend her time “going cafe to cabaret,” as Joni Mitchell sang, she goes to church. Well, sort of. That part of Mass, communion and particularly confession are all avoided. But I do visit tons of churches, appreciative of their architecture, art, role in history and stories of saints and miracles.

It’s pretty hard not to be impressed by the actions of Saint Michael in conquering the dragon and confining the defeated devil to a fiery new zipcode – hell. And Michael is the one you want on your side to serve as an advocate on your Judgment Day so you don’t get sentenced to dwell in that everlasting inferno.

So it’s not surprising that Bordeaux dedicated one of its most important churches to the saint, the Basilica of Saint Michel. Construction of the Gothic-style church was begun in the 14th century. A main chapel is dedicated to Saint Jacques, which helped secure the Basilica a role as a stop for pilgrims on the way to Santiago de Compostela throughout the Middle Ages. This led to its 1998 inclusion in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The adjacent 15th-century fleche, or bell tower, is about 11 stories high, the tallest structure in the historic center. Twenty-two bells send melodic tones outward from the campanile. One, not this one, can still scale its interior stairs to enjoy the view, but the tower has had a rough life. Damage was inflicted through the centuries by an earthquake, lightening strikes and a hurricane, prompting Victor Hugo to write in 1843, according to Spots Bordeaux:

The tower, although still crowned with an eight-sided block and eight gables, is rough and truncated at the top. We feel that she is decapitated and dead. The wind and the days pass through her tall arches, window-less and without mullions, as through large bones. It is no longer a steeple, it is the skeleton of a steeple.

The spire of the fleche was re-capitated in 1869 in a Gothic fashion as envisioned by architect Paul Abadie (1812-1884).

There’s another draw to churches – bones. This time of year, with its proximity to All Saints and All Souls Days, provides excellent cover, and in a crypt beneath this fleche a major repository of well-preserved corpses, mummies, was open to the public for years. During urban development in the 1790s, Saint Michel’s old cemetery was removed to create a spacious plaza. About six dozen of the bodies exhumed were well-preserved from their entombment in the clay soil, so they were arranged sensitively in an upright circle in the crypt – an immediate tourist attraction.

Following his visit, Victor Hugo described a ghostly family of seven who, by their expressions, must have perished after consumption of poisonous mushrooms. Contemporary squeamishness led to the mummies removal in 1979 to a more private spot in the Chartreuse Cemetery.

Sorry. Promise to pick up the pace of church-hopping. The Church of Saint Peter was one of Bordeaux’s earliest but was rebuilt under instructions from Pope Clement V in 1358. Much of this structure was transformed by extensive remodeling in 1882.

Saint Eulalie was named for a Spanish saint martyred at age 12 under the rule of Roman Emperor Diocletian in the year 304. The original church was consecrated in 1174, but it has undergone multiple modifications through the years. The church is noted for an 1821 Eucharistic miracle when a priest celebrating Mass held up a Host, and, behold, Jesus appeared in the host. His imprint remained for all the congregation to see for 20 minutes. It also attracts attention as the place where Saint Louis Martin (1823-1894) was baptized. While a saint in his own right, Louis Martin is famous as the father of the “Little Flower,” Saint Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897).

Saint Louis des Chartrons replaced an earlier Carmelite monastery and was begun in 1874 based on the design of Pierre-Charles Brun (1825-1902). The stained glass windows vividly portray the story of Saint Louis, King Louis IX (1214-1270). A fierce defender of the church against the “infidels,” he died from dysentery in Tunisia.

And finally, Sainte Marie de la Bastide is at the heart of a neighborhood on the right bank of the Garonne. Designed by Paul Abadie, the church was consecrated in 1883.

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