There’s one reason to make the trip to Moissac, but it’s a solid five-star reason: the Abbaye de St-Pierre, one of the crown jewels of medieval French sculpture. The town of Moissac, washed clean of most of its character in a tragic flood in 1930 which killed more than a hundred people and destroyed more than 600 buildings in Moissac alone, led the French president to declare the first ever day of national mourning.
Less than ten years later, a house at 18 Quai du Port was used to shelter 500 Jewish children from across France and Belgium – common knowledge in Moissac, but no-one ever gave them away; when the local police got wind that a raid was planned, all the children were dispersed among the locals and never found. Ten Moissagais and the entire town were recognised as Righteous Among Nations – hence the shock in 2020 when the usual left-wing town elected a mayor accused of antisemitism from the party of Marine Le Pen, mostly through resentment over fruit pickers from Eastern Europe undercutting local wages.
Today Moissac busies itself taking care of the 15,000 pilgrims who pass through the region every year (from the traditional starting point at Le Puy, it’s a quarter of the way to Compostela) and growing aromatic pale golden chasselas, ‘the caviar of grapes’, cultivated by the abbey in the Middle Ages and the first French fruit to attain AOC status in 1952.
What to see and do in Moissac
The first Benedictine monastery was founded here by Clovis in 506 AD, commemorating his victory over the Visigoths. The battle had cost him a thousand men, whom Clovis declared would be remembered by an abbey of a thousand monks. Exactly marking the spot of such an important religious foundation being a very serious matter, Clovis, as the legend goes, climbed a hill and hurled his trusty javelin, telling God to guide it where he saw fit. Gshshloop! went the javelin as it struck the gooey muck of a marsh. Never questioning God’s peculiar choice, Clovis ordered his builders to get on with it. He had to order them three times. In the end they had to sink deep piles to support the structure. No-one knows if the story has a germ of truth in it, or if the monks made it up to explain their annoying problems with rising damp.
Given Moissac’s record of trouble, the great abbot Ansquitil decided in 1115 to fortify the church with a tower. Sheltered underneath is the sublime porch, one of the most powerful and beautiful works of the Middle Ages; the men who commissioned it are remembered in the two statues on pilasters off on either side, Abbot Ansquitil on the left and on the right Abbot Roger (1115–35), who completed the work after Ansquitil’s death.
The tympanum, originally vividly painted, rests on a lintel recycled from a Gallo-Roman building, decorated with eight large thistle flowers and enclosed in a cable or vine, spat out by a monster at one end and swallowed by another monster at the other. The main scene represents one of the key visions of the Apocalypse, of Christ sitting in the Judgement of Nations, with the Book of Life in his hand (‘And he who sat there appeared like jasper and carnelian, and round the throne was a rainbow that looked like an emerald…and before the throne there is as it were a sea of glass, like crystal’). You might notice that this Christ has three arms, one on the book, one raised in blessing, and another on his heart, but please don’t ask for an explanation: no-one’s come up with a convincing one yet.
Inside the porch, the vaulted square of the narthex has some excellent Romanesque capitals, carved with voluptuous vegetation playfully metamorphosed into animals; one shows Samson wrestling with a lion. The church’s interior had to be rebuilt in 1430 and can’t begin to compete with the fireworks on the portal. You can see the foundations of the Romanesque church of 1180 (along the bottom of the Gothic nave), which like that at Cahors was crowned with a row of domes; unlike Cahors, they collapsed and have been replaced with Flamboyant Gothic vaults.
Only one chapel retains its 15th-century geometrical murals, which inspired the restoration on the other walls. Some of the church’s polychrome sculpture survives, especially a 12th-century Christ and, from the 15th century, the Flight into Egypt with a serious-minded donkey, the beautiful Entombment and a Pietà (the figure with the swollen head is Gaussen de la Garrigue, consul of Moissac). The Baroque organ consul bears the arms of Cardinal Mazarin, abbé commanditaire from 1644 to 1661 and one of the most successful grafters of all time.
Behind the church is the abbey’s serenely magnificent cloister, built by abbots Durand de Bredon and Ansquitil. After Simon de Montfort sacked Moissac, the arches had to be rebuilt, and were given a gentle hint of a Gothic point (1260), but all the 76 magnificent capitals, set on alternating paired and single slender columns of various coloured marbles, come from the end of the 11th century; they are the oldest in situ in France.
They also mark a major artistic turning point, away from the immobile, rather stiff, hieratical figures of the great Guilduin (as in Toulouse’s St-Sernin) towards more fluid, stylised poses with a sense of movement, exquisite modelling, and a play of light and shadow hitherto unknown in Romanesque sculpture. The capitals are carved with foliage inspired by Corinthian capitals, but with luxuriant virtuosity; others have birds and animals intertwined.
Some 46 capitals tell the lives of the saints – don’t miss the dynamic martyrdoms: St Lawrence burning on the grill while two Romans blow on the flames; St Martin dividing his cloak with the beggar; St John the Baptist and the feast of Herod; St Stephen being stoned; St Peter upside down on his cross next to St Paul’s beheading; a capital set near a little niche that once contained some of their relics. Other scenes are rare – the City of Jerusalem vs Unholy Babylon, the Story of Nebuchadnezzar, and Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the Furnace.
At the corners and in the centre of each gallery are square pillars, covered with the tops of Roman sarcophagi; the corners are carved with bas-reliefs of eight apostles, the ‘pillars of the Church’; the central pillar in the east gallery has an effigy of Abbot Durand de Bredon, while on the west there’s the dedication inscription: ‘In the year of the Incarnation of the eternal Father 1100, this cloister was completed in the time of Lord Ansquitil, Abbot, Amen.’