St Savin-sur-Gartempe, France

Few churches have such a perfect setting as this abbey, dominating its peaceful little town. Viewed from downstream, north of the river bridge, a cruciform Romanesque building stretches out; a central tower is overmatched by another at the W. end, with 14th c. spire. Enter through the W. door; the frescoes on the roof of the narthex with their apocalyptic themes are an hors d’oeuvre to those which cover the vault of the nave, the stories of Creation and of Noah, Abraham, Joseph and Moses. You will easily recognize the Tower of Babel, and Noah’s ark, but look for others, like Abraham meeting Melchizedek.

Down in the crypt is the legend of the martyrdom of Sts Savin and Cyprien. These are the most beautiful and completely conserved Romanesque murals in France, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.

Many commentators have compared the Church of England with Noah’s Ark, encompassing fish and fowl, but the Ark also means the Ark of God’s Covenant with Israel, and the Church is the New Israel. So St Thomas Aquinas says, ‘There is no entering into salvation outside the Church, just as in the time of the deluge there was none outside the ark, which denotes the Church’; earlier Saint Jerome said, ‘For this, I know, is the rock on which the Church is built… This is the ark of Noah, and he who is not found in it shall perish when the flood prevails.’ Trust in God, and trust in both the Church and her Sacraments: ‘Sweet sacrament of rest, ark from the ocean’s roar; within thy shelter blest, soon may we reach the shore.’

Simon Cotton