Saturday, 26 December 2015

Gallo-Roman Altar, Vendoeuvres

In 1856 a Gallo-Roman votive altar, probably 2nd century, was discovered during the demolition of the 12th century Romanesque church of Vendœuvres. It was buried in the ground where the first arcade on the left now is, as you enter the current church which was to be constructed shortly after the demolition of the old. The altar was then sealed into a buttress on the south side of the church.

The altar measures 1.02 m high, 0.50 m wide and 0.60 m long. It was sculpted and erected to honor the pagan gods and dedicated to the divine Augustus.

The Mars and Apollo face.
The main face has a half destroyed inscription at the top. Below that is a trophy decorated with a very simple helmet without crest and resting on a shield. In one of the corners there is the end of a bow. These are the attributes of Mars, the god of war. The bottom of the panel has a tripod around which a snake is coiled. This probably symbolises the god Apollo.

 The Juno face.
The face on the left shows a seated woman, wearing a loose robe. Her breasts are exposed and she is nursing a child. Next to her a smaller character is standing, naked, winged and holding a spear. Below, three large well executed acanthus leaves occupy the entire bottom space. My first impression on seeing this face was that it was Christian imagery, showing Mary with the infant Jesus, joined by an angel. However, this is Juno, goddess of marriage, fertility and mothers. The winged character may be a personal spirit, known as a genius.

 The Minerva face.
The right face, the one that was once hidden in the masonry of the new church, depicts two birds, one facing us and one in profile. They are probably owls, the symbol of Minerva, goddess of intelligence and the arts. This face was unfortunately very damaged when the stone was embedded in the buttress of the church building. It was visibly hacked about, probably to make its insertion in the new masonry easier.

The Concordia face.
The back shows two tightly clasped hands. This is the symbol of Concordia, the divinity who presides over the harmony of the imperial family. Underneath is a beribboned garland of flowers and fruits.

The altar was probably consecrated to all of the above -- Augustus, Concordia, Mars, Apollo, Juno and Minerva.

In 1864 a stone carved with Celtic images, including a seated antlered god, and two characters standing on snakes, was found in front of the church. On the back of this stone was a depiction of Apollo playing a lyre. Celtic gods were beginning to be merged with Roman gods.

In 1892 another Gallo-Roman altar was found in a garden in the middle of Vendoeuvres. This one now resides in the museum in Chateauroux. It appears that in Roman times Vendoeuvres was a place of some importance, a town rather than a village.

Vendoeuvres is built on a slight rise overlooking the surrounding countryside. Most likely it was a significant Celtic community before becoming a Gallo-Roman town. The parish church is dedicated to Saint Stephen (St Etienne in French) and this indicates that the population was Christianised in the 3rd century. The name Vendoeuvres is a corruption of the Celtic 'Vindo Briga', meaning 'white fortress'.

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