The Chapel that Rises 280ft from a Massive Lava Plug

Saint Michel and le PuyPhoto:
Image via gronze

Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe in Le Puy en Velay in southern France seems to grow out of the rock it was built on in the 10th century. The steep climb – 268 steps to the top, 85 metres (280 ft) up – did not deter pilgrims then and likewise doesn’t deter visitors now. The history of this well-preserved church is fascinating and the views are simply stunning.

Saint michelPhoto:
Image: Tom Maisey

A volcanic plug is created when magma hardens within the vent of an active volcano. Usually, the plug is thrown out in the eruption that follows the extreme pressure build-up the plug causes. Sometimes, a plug is preserved and while erosion removes the surrounding rock, the erosion-resistant plug remains and forms a distinctive landform.

Plug and play – the church at night:
At nightPhoto:
Image: pe_ha45

The volcanic landscape in the Auvergne in southern France produced just such a volcanic plug in the city of Le Puy. Because of its distinct shape and prominent location, the rock “needle” (aiguilhe in French) has been a special and sacred place since it was first spotted by humans. In prehistoric times, a dolmen was built on top of the rock, a single-chamber tomb made of three upright stones and a large, flat, horizontal one on top.

The Romans dedicated the rock to Mercury, the messenger god with the winged shoes. When the area was Christianised, the rock needle was consecrated to the archangel Saint Michael (Saint Michel). The chapel of Saint Michel was built by Bishop Godescalc and the deacon Trianus in 962 to celebrate the return of Saint James from the pilgrimage. It was a simple square sanctuary with two small apses and frescoes, all still visible today.

The cave-like interior of the church; no dogs, no flash, no talking, no mobiles allowed:
Inside the churchPhoto:
Image: Panoramas

Le Puy was the starting point for one of the main roads to Santiago de Compostela, the popular pilgrimage destination after Rome and Jerusalem, dedicated to Saint James. Many pilgrims started their journey with a visit to Saint Michel and the little chapel on top of the rock became quite famous, even in the 10th century.

In the 12th century, the chapel was considerably enlarged – no doubt to accommodate the growing number of visitors. The result is what we see today, though the prominent bell tower was destroyed in 1275 and not rebuilt until the 19th century.

Made it! Atop the stairs and in front of the 12th-century portal:
Atop the stairsPhoto:
Image: Panoramas

The portal’s multicoloured stonework points to Islamic influences:
Image: Giulio Nepi

In 1955, workers restoring parts of the church got quite a shock when they found sacred artifacts under the alter that had been there since the church was built, among them an 11th-century wooden crucifix and a metal Byzantine cross. It is said that in 1429, Isabelle Romée, Joan of Arc’s mother, came to the chapel to pray.

Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe, towering over Le Puy:
Saint MichelPhoto:
Image: Alexander Hoernigk

If you look at the above image as a thumbnail, you’ll see that the rock seems to form a smiley face.

What makes Chapel Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe so special is the harmony with which rock and chapel merge, creating a sacred site extraordinaire.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4