I’m pleased to say that I have done one of the five items I listed in my January post of things to do in 2018. It’s now getting a bit late for the truffle market at Lalbenque, but that will resume in the late autumn, so all is not lost. Instead, we drove down to Montpezat-de-Quercy yesterday to see the restored tapestries in the Collégiale Saint-Martin and they are certainly worth the visit.
Montpezat is only about 30 km from us, but the countryside and the architecture are quite different. The landscape is more gently rolling and the climate and soil are suited to fruit growing. The trees were already in full blossom yesterday and we enjoyed warm sunshine – what a treat after a gloomy winter! The houses are built of white Quercy stone with Roman tiles. Many have colombage, or half-timbering.
We’ve been to Montpezat before, some years ago, but strangely neither of us had much recollection of it. The village is built on a hilltop with terrific views to the south and east and was once fortified. Only one of the five gates remains and an 11th-century château was demolished during the Revolution.
The 14th century appears to have been Montpezat’s nadir, when it was pillaged by the English during the Hundred Years War and ravaged by the Black Death between 1348 and 1361. Montpezat also suffered in World War II, when Jews were deported from the village and the Das Reich division burnt a number of farms in the area during their destructive march northwards in June 1944.
The village is riddled with narrow alleys and impasses, crammed full of quaint medieval buildings. It’s pleasant just to wander about and enjoy the views from the promenades. The main square, la Place de la Libération is dominated by an enormous Mairie and surrounded by pillared arcades, the former site of shops and taverns. A few shops remain but, like many such places, a number are empty. Montpezat also has a vast former Ursuline convent, established in the 17th century. The nuns were dispersed to other convents in 1921 and the building is now the school and Médiathèque.
Our main reason for being there was to see the tapestries. The Collégiale was founded by Cardinal Pierre Dés Prés, himself a son of Montpezat, and constructed between 1337 and 1352. Dés Prés served four of the Avignon popes, but unfortunately he didn’t escape the plague which devastated Avignon in 1361. He is buried in the Collégiale.
A later representative of the Dés Prés family, Jean IV, gave a series of tapestries relating the life of St Martin to the Collégiale at some point between 1517, when he became Bishop of Montauban, and his death in 1539. The tapestries are of Flemish origin, probably from Tournai, but it’s not clear exactly where they were made or by whom. They consist of 15 tableaux in 5 separate panels, which are hung around the choir end of the Collégiale.
The tapestries have been cleaned and restored several times, most recently in 2016, and the colours glow like new. You push various buttons to turn on the lights and open the curtains, but they were already open when we arrived. We had just finished looking at the tapestries, when the curtains closed automatically. It was slightly creepy and unfortunately reminiscent of a crematorium.
The 4th-century St Martin of Tours is one of the most familiar and popular saints in France, of which he is the patron saint. Scores of villages bear his name. There are also many legends and stories associated with him and he was adopted by successive royal houses of France.
If you’re in the area, Montpezat is worth a detour and the tapestries are a must-see while you’re there.
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