Just a 15 minute drive from our lodging near Carcassone, we found the beautiful and historic Abbey of Saint Hilaire, the site where the first sparkling wine was produced.
The abbey is first mentioned in writing in 825 CE. The monks in the abbey of St. Hilaire are the ones that actually discovered the original technique to produce sparkling wine in 1531 CE.
Monks no longer live in the abbey but the caretakers were exceptionally friendly as they showed us the beautiful cloister added to the abbey in the 14th century. Our guide was especially eager to show us the east gallery where restoration work on the intricate 16th century paintings on the ceiling and rafters of the apartment were underway. I also spotted and photographed the remains of a lovely painting of an angel in the hallway.
The caretakers also invited us to photograph the lovely chapel that now serves as the village church. The altar is sculpted marble from the 12th century and depicts the life and martyrdom of St. Sernin, the first bishop of Toulouse in the 3rd century CE. St. Sernin was tied to a bull then the bull was goaded into a frenzy. When I first saw it I thought it was a converted Roman sarcophagus as it looks very similar to those I have seen from the third century but it is too small for an adult human body. The curator speculates in the brochure that it must have been produced as an altar. There are several other explanations, though. After the martyrdom described, I doubt if St. Sernin's body was intact so what was left could have fit in the sarcophagus. The other possibility is that St. Sernin, like many Romans, could have been cremated or reduced to bone because of the destruction of his body. His remains obviously must have been kept in some other container then later placed in the sarcophagus after it's completion in the 12th century. These are my speculations, though, not the official position.
The sarcophagus was carved by a sculptor known only as the Master of Cebestany. This artist is thought to have produced other works in Spain, Italy and at other sites in France. His style is noted for triangular faces, low foreheads, high ears, hands with long fingers and very detailed clothing.
The abbey has a tumultuous history. It had much of its lands confiscated by the Cathars and was ransacked by the heretics during the Albigensian Crusade in the 12th century and the monks had to defend the abbey again from the ravages of the 100 Years War. The surrounding village was burned by Protestant forces in 1574 CE. So it is almost a miracle in itself that much of the structure still remains standing. Ongoing restoration has revealed additional paintings covered over by whitewash in subsequent years. It will be fascinating to see what is revealed when the restorations are completed.
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