Saving Face: Some of the Less Obvious Gems in SW France

Disrespectful stone carving in Caylus.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so I’m following the example of fellow blogger Midi Hideaways, who wrote a recent post about the statuary and carved stone faces on buildings in the towns of the Languedoc. In this post I look at some of the less flamboyant, but often charming, architectural patrimoine in our area.

If you look upwards in French towns or villages with old buildings, you’ll notice a variety of faces and figures staring out into space. Some of them look as if they were incorporated when the house was built; others seem to have been stuck on later, perhaps as a result of pillaging stone from a ruined building. By the way, it’s also a good idea to watch where you’re walking. Dog owners in France have not yet wholeheartedly embraced the idea of the plastic bags provided by many communes.

Gargoyle or chimera?

Now, I have a question for you. Do you know the difference between a gargoyle (gargouille) and a chimera or grotesque (chimère)? I didn’t, until quite recently. A gargoyle is a waterspout carved in the shape of a figure or animal, which channelled rainwater away from the wall of a building. A chimera is a mythical beast, used principally for decoration. Both were said to frighten off evil spirits and thus protect the inhabitants of a house or the congregation of a church.

The château de Puylagarde has examples of both:

Chimera on the facade of the château de Puylagarde
Gargoyle on the château de Puylagarde, although this one may have been moved from its original site.

On a guided tour of our local village a few years ago, the guide drew our attention to a number of these figures. La Maison des Loups (the house of the wolves) probably dates from the 13th century and is celebrated for its variety of carved stone faces and animals. The latter could actually be dogs, but wolves sound more dramatic.

La Maison des Loups, Caylus
Maison des Loups detail
Another face on the Maison des Loups

She also showed us something I had never noticed before. High up on the wall above the road between Caylus and Saint-Antonin, sits the figure below, poking its tongue out. The guide explained that, during the Wars of Religion and the Huguenot Rebellions (late 16th/early 17th centuries), Caylus was staunchly Catholic, while Saint-Antonin was steadfastly Protestant. Louis XIII even stayed in Caylus in 1622, while his troops laid siege to Saint-Antonin. The figure is supposed to represent the burghers of Caylus showing their contempt for the people of Saint-Antonin.

What the Catholic Caylusiens thought of the Protestant folk of Saint-Antonin

The twisting alleyways of Saint-Antonin itself are also adorned with carved figures.

Saint-Antonin – one of many stone carvings in the town

Preserved for posterity

Sometimes the figures represented local VIPs, whose faces are preserved for posterity. And you don’t always have to look up. The massive fontaine des consuls in Najac dates from 1344. In addition to the face of the Bishop of Rodez and a bearded king, it bears the names of the consuls who commissioned it and some unidentified faces who might well represent them.  

Fontaine des Consuls in Najac
Detail from fountain, possibly one of the consuls. Formerly a waterspout.

Perhaps my favourite in the whole region is this jolly couple above the door of the 15th-century church of Sainte-Corneille in Puycelsi, Tarn. They don’t look very religious. Perhaps they were local bigwigs who endowed the church in some way? I haven’t been able to find out.  The pigeons seem to have been less than respectful to the one on the right.

Figures above the church porch in Puycelsi

If you’d like to read Midi Hideaways’ post, please click here. It’s a very interesting blog and worth following.

Carved stone face on a house wall in Caylus. Time and weather have not treated it kindly.

You might also like:

Five Curiosities in Caylus

Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val: Haunting and Historic Town

Najac Revisited – and a Couple of Conundrums for You

Copyright © Life on La Lune 2019. All rights reserved.


    • I like that one, too! But my favourite remains the couple above the church door in Puycelsi. They look a bit cheeky. I’d love to know who they were.


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