Saint Michel d'Aiguilhe Chapel Posted -25 Oct 2016
Le Puy and Getting to The Saint-Michel d'Aiguilhe chapel
Le Puy is a town in the Haute-Loire department in south-central France near the Loire river. It plays host to the starting point of one of the four main Camino de Santiago routes the Via Podiensis or Le Puy Route. It is a relatively small town with a population of around 20,000 people and is known for its Cathedral a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Cathedral is one of the oldest Marian sanctuaries in Europe and here you can visit the statue of the Black Virgin. Pilgrims can attend a pilgrim mass and get their walking sticks blessed here before setting out on their Camino journey. Le Puy is also know for green lentils that are native to the region and its lace making. However one of the most popular sites to visit is The Chapel of Saint-Michel d'Aiguilhe. The chapel is located on top of a volcano in the town and is a must see if you are beginning your Camino in Le Puy.
History of Saint-Michel d'Aiguilhe chapel
The Chapel of Saint-Michel was built in 962 by Bishop Godescalc and the deacon Trianus. Built on top of a volcanic rock needle that for centuries was regarded as a sacred place. In prehistoric times there was a dolmen and then during the time of the Romans the rock was dedicated to Mercury. When the area was Christianised it was dedicated to Saint-Michel. During the 12th century, the chapel was enlarged with two side chapels, a bell tower, and much more. Minor restorations were made through the centuries to bring it back to its former glory. In 1850 when plaster was removed from inside the chapel the discovered the original 10th and 12th Century frescos that they then restored. Then in 1955, archaeologists found a collection of sacred objects in the altar which are now displayed behind an iron gate for visitors to look at. The items displayed include an 11th-century wooden crucifix, likely belonging to a pilgrim and a metal Byzantine cross. Throughout the chapel's history it has and to this day attracts many pilgrims because of its location in the starting town for the Camino de Santiago.
What to see when visiting Saint-Michel d'Aiguilhe chapel
Before heading up the hill to see the Chapel of Saint-Michel d'Aiguilhe, it is worth to take a look at the Chapel of St. Clair. This octagonal chapel has a doorway with the phases of the moon carved into it. After seeing this chapel most people will then make the climb to the top of the 268 stone steps to reach the Chapel of Saint-Michel. Once you reach the top there are beautiful views of the town all around the chapel. This is a great opportunity to take out your phone or camera and take a picture of the stunning French landscape. The exterior of the chapel shows fine examples of the masonry joining the natural rock. You can also see an Islamic influence in the multi colored stone work and arches which are ornately decorated with religious reliefs. After admiring the exterior, you can enter the chapel and enjoy architecture from as far back as the 10th century. The interior is very atmospheric and reflects how the building was built on this unusual foundation. Many frescos can be found within the chapel although not all of these are in very good condition but you can make out the subject of the frescos clearly. If you plan on starting to walk the Camino in Le Puy, why not come a day early and see this quaint but historically powerful city.
Statue of the Virgin Mary in Le Puy
One of the main sights seen by followers of the Via Podiensis/Le Puy route of the Camino de Santiago is the pink iron statue of the Virgin Mary, Notre-Dame de France that overlooks the town of Le Puy. It sits on top of a 2,500-foot high hill and is constructed of iron from hundreds of melted Russian cannons taken in the Siege of Sevastopol (1854–1855). The statue was designed by Jean-Marie Bonnassieux a French sculptor who also has work at the Louvre in Paris. Pilgrims walking the Camino will climb to the top of the hill to get a closer look at the statue and enjoy the stunning views of the city. It has been said that this is one of the most breath-taking sights in the region and is a great way to start the long trek to Santiago de Compostela.
Significance and Construction
The statue was built using the plans of French sculptor Jean-Marie Bonnassieux, between 1856 and 1860. After it was constructed it became the tallest statue in the world until it was dethroned by the Statue of Liberty in 1886. The statue was constructed with the use of melted down Russian cannons donated to the town by Napoleon III. The cannons were taken during the Siege of Sevastopol between 1854-1855. They were then presented to the town in front of 120,000 people during September of 1860, making it one of the most unique and interesting statues in the region. Many pilgrims walking the Camino may not be aware of the history of the statue of the Virgin Mary in Le Puy. Knowing a bit about the history of the statue makes seeing it all that more special. It was recently fully restored in 2012 making the statue look like new for the pilgrims of today. This towering statue and base are recorded as historical monuments making this a must see for Camino travellers along the Via Podiensis Route.
Note that to visit the these sites there is an admission charge but you can buy a combined ticket for access to the Cathedral, Saint Michel Chapel and the statue of the Virgin Mary which will save you some money.
Find out more about the Via Podiensis route from Le Puy en Velay to St Jean Pied de Port.
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