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Photo of the subterranean monolithic church of Saint-Jean

Visit the subterranean monolithic church of Saint-Jean

The subterranean monolithic church of Saint-Jean in Aubeterre-sur-Dronne is a huge church dug into the rock in the charming village of Aubeterre-sur-Dronne. It is one of the largest such churches in Europe.

Aubeterre-sur-Dronne is in the Charente department close to the Dordogne border and is about 50 kilometers west of Perigueux and about the same distance south of Angouleme.

Explore the subterranean monolithic church of Saint-Jean in Aubeterre-sur-Dronne

The subterranean church of Saint-Jean is an incredible site to visit. The church has been dug into the cliff in the village of Aubeterre-sur-Dronne. The first church was dug out here in the seventh century and enlarged by Benedictine monks in the 12th century.

Work in the 12th century was carried out at the behest of the Viscount of Aubeterre, Pierre de Castillon, who also had work carried out on the monolithic church of Saint Emilion. He carried out the work upon returning from the crusades and wanted somewhere suitable to house his religious relics. 

The subterranean monolithic church of Saint-Jean

Both churches were inspired by buildings in Cappadocia in Turkey where the techniques of digging such buildings from the top to the bottom was learnt, a much less dangerous procedure.

The church is about twenty-seven meters long and sixteen meters wide and is twenty meters high at its highest point. As such it is one of the largest subterranean churches in Europe. The monolithic church at Saint-Emilion in the Gironde is the largest but the church at Aubeterre-sur-Dronne is taller than that one.

One of the oldest parts of the church is the baptismal pool in the floor of the church which has a Greek cross carved at the bottom.

Dominating the apse is a large stone reliquary which is modelled after the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. This is six meters high and is carved from a single block of stone.

Pilgrims would come to the church as part of the 'Way of Saint James' the pilgrim route to the Cathedral of Santiago-de-Compostela in Spain. They would pray before the religious relics in the reliquary.

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Another striking feature of the church is the necropolis which contains about 170 tombs carved into the stone floor and each with the head pointing to Jerusalem. These are in an early part of the church carved in the seventh centuary.

At the side of the church is a stone staircase leading up to the arched gallery that allows some fabulous views over the church. There was once an upper entrance to this gallery from outside and also a passageway leading to the castle. The opposite walls has three 'windows' to the outside letting in some natural light to the church.

The church of Saint-Jean was the parish church until 1794 when it became a saltpeter factory to supply gunpowder to the revolution. It later became a cemetery until this was stopped for public health reasons. Incredibly the church was then hidden for many years by a rock fall and only rediscovered in the 1950s.

The subterranean monolithic church of Saint-Jean is open all year round except for Christmas Day and New Years Day. It costs 5 euros for adults and 2 euros for 2-12 year olds.

sarcophagus in the subterranean monolithic church of Saint-Jean

Places to visit nearby

Aubeterre-sur-Dronne is classified as one of the 'most beautiful villages of France' and is well worth a visit in itself. Combined with a visit to the subterranean monolithic church of Saint-Jean it is a memorable day out.

If you are inspired by this church to visit another monolithic church the Monolithic church of Saint-Emilion is only 60 kilometers away. Given how rare these churches are it is incredible to have two such fine examples so close together.

See also: 

Photos of the subterranean monolithic church of Saint-Jean

Click any picture to start the gallery

  • church
  • church1
  • church2
  • cross
  • entrance
  • reliquary
  • sarcophagus
  • sarcophagus1

Map of the subterranean monolithic church of Saint-Jean and places to visit

 
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the subterranean monolithic church of Saint-Jean places to visit

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