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The Spectacular Subterranean Rock Church of Saint Jean

The Subterranean Church of Saint Jean is an impressive rock-carved church located in the village of Aubeterre-sur-Dronne, which is officially designated as one of the most beautiful villages in France. As this ancient church was carved out of the face of a cliff, it is often referred to as the Monolithic Church of St Jean, however, this is a misnomer, as the church is not in fact carved entirely out of a single rock.  Nevertheless, it is one of the largest rock-hewn churches in Europe, and among the most impressive in the world.  It was built to house religious artifacts, which were kept in a series of pits and in a reliquary. Later on, the church became a cemetery.

The Subterranean church of Saint-Jean ( Sara Hattie / Flickr )

Some historical sources suggest that the people who carved this church directly from the limestone cliff may have been inspired by returning crusaders bringing accounts of the rock hewn temples and underground cities in the region of Cappadocia in Turkey. However, other historians argue that the church, or more specifically, a part of it, was built several centuries before the Crusades. For example, it has been suggested that the baptismal pool in the centre of the nave was probably built between the 4 th and 9 th centuries.

It was during the 12 th century that the Subterranean Church of St Jean, known in French as L’église souterraine Saint Jean, attained its present shape and size. During this time, there was a community of Benedictine monks living in Aubeterre, who were disciples of St. Maur / Maurus, the first disciple of St. Benedict of Nursia, the founder of the Order of Saint Benedict. It was these monks who not only used, but also enlarged the church when they had their community in Aubeterre.

Interior of Monolithic church of Aubeterre-sur-Dronne ( CC by SA 4.0 / Lamiot )

Apart from its use by the Benedictine monks, this subterranean church also functioned as a place to store religious artifacts. In the floor of the church, a series of pits may be found where the relics were once buried. The most important relics, however, were kept in a reliquary located in the apse of the church. This stone reliquary is said to have been a replica of the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Alternatively, this stone structure may have been used as a mausoleum. It has been argued that the relics were kept in this church as the village was located along the famous Camino de Santiago (Road to Santiago). Hence, pilgrims would stop at this church to pray before the relics before continuing their journey to Santiago de Compostela.

Interior of Saint-Jean monolithic church ( CC by SA 4.0 / Lamiot )

On the west side of the church, there is a door carved in the rock separating the nave from another structure. It was reported that in 1958, a necropolis was discovered behind this door. Within this necropolis were 80 sarcophagi hewn from the rock by human hands. It is unclear as to which period this necropolis belonged to, but it has been speculated that it dates to the pre-Christian era. In addition, there are also hundreds of stone tombs in the church, though these contain the remains of the Benedictine monks who once lived there.

Top image: The reliquary of the Monolithic Church of Saint Jean. ( CC by SA 4.0 / Lamiot )

By Wu Mingren