The Plywood Saints of Saintes

Last April I came across some of the famous Santons de Provence in a shop window in Vence, Départment Alpes-Maritimes. No doubt you fondly remember that post and its follow-up. Imagine my surprise, when I discovered a Santon crèche arrangement of epic proportions right here in Saintes in the cathedral of St. Pierre, which, by the way, boasts an unbroken succession of bishops from the 2th century through 1792, when the French Revolution through a spanner in the religious affairs hereabouts, as I’ve previously mentioned in regard to L’Abbaye aux Dames across the river.

La Cathédrale Saint-Pierre avec les Santons de la crèche crée par l'abbé Michel Coirier
La Cathédrale Saint-Pierre avec les Santons de la crèche créés par l’abbé Michel Coirier

Father Coirier (1940 – 2012) created his plywood santons over many years. The collection of about 200 figurines contains not only the usual crèche cast members but a wide variety of walk-ons from as far afield as the creation story itself. Adam and Ev, complete with a prettily curled snake and oversized bright red apple, interestingly carried jointly by the miscreant couple, lead the crowd in adoration. Since the priest cum artisan believed that there wouldn’t be any Christianity without the Scriptures of the Old Testament, he honored Sarah and Abraham, the Hebrew Prophet Ezekiel, as well as Kings Salomon and David, and, of course, Moses and a few others with representation in his tableau.


John the Baptist on the left and a (contemporary?) local woman with her donkey on the right. Several donkeys in the tableau were outfitted with chaps in wild designs. I don't know why.
John the Baptist on the left and a (contemporary?) local woman with her donkey on the right. Several donkeys in the tableau were outfitted with chaps in these wild designs. I don’t know what that means.
About 10 years before his passing, Father Croisier was questioned by children, why there were only white people among his santons. He added other ethnicities in his remaining years.


King Salomon and Ezekiel the Prophet overlooking the procedings
King Salomon and Ezekiel the Prophet overlooking the proceedings

And then there is the evangelist, Luke, without whom, according to Father Coirier, we wouldn’t know anything at all about Christmas today.

Coirier.15-1310267Naturally, the focus of any crèche is the Holy Family and this one is no exception. People and animals have come from far and wide to pay their respects to Le Bébé Jésus.


The angle's sign reads "Paix aux Hommes"
The angel’s scroll reads “Paix aux Hommes” – Peace to Men.

Coirier.09-1310251Mixed in among the traditional figurines one expects to see, like the Magi,

Coirier.10-1310268many local people and their trades are also represented here.

Coirier.11-1310269 Coirier.12-1310263 Coirier.13-1310264

The following Santon reminded me most strongly of its provençal counterpart, where an umbrella-toting village priest caring a goose by the neck, is invariably part of the lineup.


Moving over to the left section of the display table, I immediately recognized another one of Saintes major churches. Positioned on limestone cliffs, just like in real life, we find the Basilica of St. Eutrope. This section has an especially intriguing mix of celebrities and locals. We see a child being carried to be baptized, we see a mail carrier of La Poste, plus a sweet, elderly couple with a Picnik basket, could they be pilgrims? There’s also a lecturing priest and a nurse and then we recognize Mother Teresa among the neighborhood folks.

Coirier.17-1310257Two of the most important effigies, however, are Saint Eutrope himself positioned in front of his namesake Basilica and the Curé d’Ars, who stands near the mailman. At first I erroneously assumed that the Curé d’Ars was a member of the once powerful family of the Marquis d’Ars, who ruled in Aquitaine since the time of Charlemagne and who still have a townhouse, the Hôtel de Brémond d’Ars here in Saintes. But the Curé, born Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney (1786 – 1859) was of much humbler origin, who, through his utter and complete dedication to the teachings of the Church, mostly in and around the town of Ars-sur-Formans [sic] was eventually elevated to patron saint of all priests.

Saint Eutrope, on the other hand, on the cliff above, is a historical figure of true local importance. His origin was indeed noble, either Roman or Persian, and he was sent to the Saintonge to convert the Gauls. He may have been sent on his mission by Pope Clement I, who in turn was consecrated by Saint Peter himself, which is Peter the Apostle, you know ‘the rock’, just to clarify. In other words, this is around about the end of the first century CE, during which time Saintes, was called ‘Mediolanum Santonum’ (‘chief town of the Santones’, the local Gaulish tribe) and it was under Roman governorship. As it happened Bishop Eutropius did convert at least one person, a certain Eustella, who was, unfortunately not a Gaul, but the young daughter of the thoroughly displeased Roman governor to Mediolanum Santonum. It is said that after her conversion Eustella ran the bishop’s household as his live-in virgin. Sometimes one is stupefied by the complete absence of any common sense sensibilities by people in leadership positions! Predictably daddy dear came after both of them and condemned Eutropius to death by stoning. One wonders if our beautifully preserved Roman amphitheater might have been used for such events as the execution of errant clergy? Anyway, legend tells that someone took pity on the mangled Christian and killed him outright by splitting his skull with an ax. Eustella had just enough time to bury her bishop before daddy had her killed also, throwing her corpse in with Eutropius’ remains. I suppose she was no longer useful as a marriageable bargaining chip for him to wrangle a better position closer to Rom. Since Saint Eutrope is understood as the first bishop of the cathedral of St. Pierre here in town, he is a saint of true local importance.

As is another Santon shown with the palm frond symbolizing Christian martyrdom, Jean-Baptiste Souzy.

Coirier.16-1310255More recent history. More tragedy. Jean-Baptiste Souzy (1734 – 1794) was a local boy from La Rochelle. He became a devout priest and when he was required to swear a constitutional oath to the new secular government during the French Revolution, he went into hiding rather than forsake his faith. He was caught and incarcerated under unspeakable conditions on a former slave ship outside Rochefort, a coastal town only about 20 minutes drive from Saintes. More than 400 priests and monks died in the summer of 1794 during imprisonment on two ships, which were supposed to deport the religious to Guyana, but never left the harbor. Souzy and 63 of his fellow priests were beatified in 1995 by Pope John Paul II for their exemplary behavior aboard ship and their extraordinary succor with which they supported their sick and dying fellow prisoners.

I’m amazed how much regional history I learned by stumbling across the plywood Santons in the cathedral of Saint-Pierre!


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