Émilion’s cell is small, dark and damp. It is fed by a spring, which he is said to have used to conduct baptisms (one of his key roles). The shelf that served as his bed is located between the spring and a chair carved from the rock. This chair is known both as his meditation chair and the chair of fertility. Legend says that any woman desiring to have a child sits on this chair and prays she will be pregnant within months. No, I didn’t sit on it …. I have my one child and he is more than enough. Liz couldn’t be persuaded either. There is another legend that a man who had become blind washed his face in Émilion’s spring and, miraculously, his sight was restored. Is this more middle-ages tourism hype, or did these things really happen? No-one will know, but there are many who travel to St. Émilion in the hope that their belief will bring about a miracle for them. Services are held there a couple of times a year.
Intriguingly, Émilion’s hermitage and the Church of the Trinity are privately owned; a result of the French Revolution during which the property was sold to a local cooper. Astonishingly this meant that the medieval wall paintings were preserved in extraordinary condition. Apparently the cooper used the church for burning the wood used to make oak wine barrels. The smoke that is an inevitable by-product of this process quickly covered the frescoes with a thick layer of soot, which protected them from light. It was only in 1997 when the church was being restored that the walls were cleaned and the paintings discovered.
Carefully locking the door to the church behind her, Audrey led us to another large door and produced an appropriately large key to let us into the Catacombs. It is believed that the carving of these underground burial chambers commenced after Émilion’s death, and that a local lord who had participated in the Crusade of 1099 sponsored the construction of a distinctive cupola just over the entrance to the catacombs and the Church of the Monolith. Carvings of three men with upraised arms decorate the base of the cupola and are said to represent the resurrection and have been inspired by the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which Peter of Castillon may well have seen during the Crusade.
Émilion and his disciple Valery are said to be buried in the catacombs, but this has not been established. What is known is that interment in them was reserved for important men of the church, the wealthy and babies too young to have committed any sins.
St. Émilion is situated on top of some 200 acres of subterranean quarries, which now provide an ideal environment and location for the storing and aging of the excellent wines produced in the vineyards around the village. The limestone taken from the quarries was used to build the town, the surrounding villages plus Libourne and parts of Bordeaux, and it was the town’s original source of wealth.
Audrey led us into the Monolithic Church as the final part of the tour. It is difficult to credit that this enormous space is carved out of one piece of living rock, but it is. Apparently, the walls of the church were once covered with paintings, draperies and sculptures but again, the French Revolution played a role in it’s survival. The church was abandoned and a lack of maintenance tied with humidity from the springs that run under the area created a perfect environment for saltpetre to develop on the walls. Saltpetre was a vital component of gun powder and so the paintings were slowly scraped from the walls. Faint vestiges of the original decoration can be discerned around one of the altars.
Now a few masses a year take place within the walls of the church, and the space is also used for some concerts. As a UNESCO World Heritage Landscape Saint Émilion, its environs and wines are well worth a visit. However, unless you’re a fan of crowds, try to go there out of season.