A Thousand Years Frozen in Stone: The Abbey of Saint Sever

Arcade, Saint Sever

When you cross the threshold of this world and enter the Abbey of Saint Sever, time seems to have held the world still for literally a thousand years.

Cathedral of Trees

Before going back a millennium, let’s rewind a couple days so you know how I arrived in such a magical place. After my harrowing march to Roquefort I was fortunate to have a relatively easy walk to Mont de Marsan, a small city a little more than 20 km south; I followed the main road but as you can see it was still a beautiful walk.

Mont de Marsan at sunset

There wasn’t too much to do in Mont de Marsan because it was a Sunday, and after camping that night in a suburb of the city I walked to Saint Sever, a hilltop town that has an incredibly well-preserved Romanesque abbey church.

Central Portal, Abbey of St Sever

Amazingly, despite its excellent condition the French government is still paying almost 2 million Euro to renovate it even more. If only our own government valued the arts and culture as much as the French.

On Wings of Eagles, Saint Sever

This is but one example of some of the capitals inside the church which are still painted as they once were; people often assume that Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals have always been austere and unadorned, but they were usually covered with bright layers of paint.

Nave Elevation, Saint Sever

I walked slowly down the nave, craning my neck upwards to see the sculptures that occupied what is known as a blind triforium; in the case of Saint Sever it is the middle level between the main arcade and the occuli windows in the top level, known as the clerestory.

Perfect Composition, Saint Sever

This was when I noticed what has to be one of the most evocative and brilliant works of art I have ever beheld with my own eyes; above me was a man holding a bow tightly strung, on the verge of firing it at a pouncing tiger. Even thirty feet above the ground the tension in this sculpture is obvious: The coiled hind legs of the beast; the adrenalin-charged shift onto the back foot by the hunter; the dramatic shadows that fell behind them and highlighted them in relief against the wall. Whoever carved that piece was truly a master, and I am fortunate that I saw his work in person. I only wish my camera had a better zoom lens!


After emerging from the abbey church I spent the rest of the day in a little café nearby and caught up with Breaking Bad, probably the best TV show I have ever seen in my life. I know the Camino de Santiago is supposed to be about disconnecting from the world and finding yourself, but I’ve done a lot of that lately and it’s nice to turn my brain off for a little bit every now and then.

Full Window

This morning I walked the short distance from Saint Sever to Hagetmau and passed by fields of corn and a few small houses with lovely little gardens.

St. Mary's Church, Audignon

Not too far from Saint Sever is a village called Audignon. The place was dead quiet when I arrived around noon and unfortunately, the gate to the parish church was locked.

Fresh Fig

I continued on to Hagetmau and about 2 km before I entered the city I passed by a fig tree that was heavy from all the ripe fruit; lunch was cheap today, and delicious. I will be leaving Hagetmau after posting this, because tomorrow is a long walk to Orthez, and I’d like to get a head start and walk for at least an hour before dark today. I am much closer to Spain than I realized and should be crossing the Pyrenees by this Friday. France has been wonderful to me but it will be nice to have full conversations with people again!

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4 thoughts on “A Thousand Years Frozen in Stone: The Abbey of Saint Sever

  1. Nathan, the abbey church of Saint Sever is lucky that it was reconstructed at the end of the 17th century after lots of damage in the 100 Years War and the Wars of Religion. The Benedictines of Saint Maur did a wonderful job bringing it back, without modernizing. Good luck in Spain.

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