Église Monolithe Saint-Émilion

Monolithic Church of Saint-Emilion


Useful Information

Location: In the center of Saint-Émilion, Place du Marché. Tickets are sold at the Office de Tourisme, Place des Créneaux.
Open: 08-FEB to 15-NOV daily Closed 25-DEC. [2020]
Fee: Adults EUR 9, Children (10-17) EUR 6.50, Children (0-9) free, Students EUR 6.50, Unemployed EUR 6.50, Disabled EUR 6.50. [2020]
Classification: SubterraneaMonolithic Church
Light: electric
Dimension: T=11°C.
Guided tours: D=60min.
Photography: forbidden
Accessibility:
Bibliography:
Address: Église Monolithe Saint-Émilion, Place du Marché, 33330 Saint-Émilion.
Office de Tourisme du Grand Saint-Émilionnais, Place des Créneaux, 33330 Saint-Emilion, Tel: +33-55755-2828, Fax: +33-55755-2829. E-mail:
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
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History

12th cty begin of construction.
1886 cave church declared a Monument historique.
1907 bell tower declared a Monument historique.
1996 placed on the Watch because of the severe structural problems.
2006 reopened to the public.

Description

The town of Saint-Émilion is world famous for its wine. It is the location of wines which age very well and wine from here has the special name Saint-Émilion Grand Cru. The use of this name is restricted to a well defined area of 4,160 ha of sandy soils with alluvial gravel deposits. The wines are red, mostly the grapes Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. And Saint-Émilion is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with an abundance of historic buildings. This is just a small digression, showcaves.com is dedicated to underground sites, and this is one of the more spectacular ones.

The Église Monolithe Saint-Émilion (Monolithic Church of Saint-Emilion) is a classical monolithic church, dug into a rock on the top of a hill. The main cave is 38m long and 11m high, which makes it the largest underground church in Europe. The church is called monolithitic from the ancient Greek, mono meaning single and lithos meaning stone. In other word it was cut out of a single block of stone.

A smaller cave nearby is called the Eremitage of Saint Émilion. As a teenager Émilion had performed miracles in Brittany and became quite notorious. He fled the commotion to live the life of a hermit in the small cave during the 8th century. The cave was enlarged by carving a bed and a chair into the wall, and there is a small spring, which according to legend has healing properties. The water gave sight to the blind, and women who want to have babies can sit on the chair.

The cave church was built by Benedictine monks during the 12th century for the increasing number of visitors to the hermitage. According to legend they worked in shifts for years, between 5 and 55 monks were working at any time. The caves were covered in the 13th century by a Holy Trinity Chapel to protect them, which was also built by Benedictine monks. It is notable for the frescoes, which were covered by the dust of centuries and were renovated some decades ago.

The main church seems to have some stability issues because of its size and the weight of the tower and chapel. There are two rows of columns which support the ceiling. They are covered with iron bars to make them more stable, the result of stabilization efforts between 1996 and 2006. Originally the walls of the church were covered by frescoes, but only a few faint remains are left. The church was used as a saltpeter factory during the French revolution which destroyed the frescoes. The regular cut of the arches and four-sided pillars is quite impressive. At the far end of the central nave is a bas-relief showing two angels with six wings guarding the gates of paradise. A hole in ceiling is according to legend where the souls can leave the church.

Beneath the cave churches there are the catacombs. They were used by the Benedictine monks to bury their dead.

The cave church is only accessible during guided tours. They are offered by the tourist office and include four sites: the hermitage, the trinity chapel, the catacombs, and the monolith church. The tours are offered in French, English and German. Many other languages are available on handouts, please ask at the tourist office.