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France's Saint Hilaire Abbey contains sarcophagus of Saint Sernin

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
September 16th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Saint-Hilaire-d' Aude or the Saint Hilaire Abbey in France is a medieval Benedictine monastery of Carcassonne. The building's chief claim to fame is an essential work of Romanesque art inside the church, the sarcophagus of St. Sernin by the Master of Cabestany. The church also features copious amounts of artwork from the obscure - but highly venerated artist of the Romanesque style, the Master of Cabestany.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The Romanesque church dates from the end of the 12th century. Short, the abbey features a single nave, square transepts and a large semicircular apse at the east end.

The star attraction is on the right side of the apse: the marble sarcophagus of Saint Sernin, designed by the Master of Cabestany. Very little is known of this master. His unique style created several works of art in Southwest France, Tuscany, Catalonia and Navarre. The master's sculptures are distinctive for their triangular faces, weak chins, low foreheads, stretched cat-like eyes, long fingers and detailed pleating in their clothing.

The sarcophagus is carved from a single block of Pyrenean marble. The detailed sculptures tell the story of St. Sernin's ministry, arrest, martyrdom and burial in Toulouse. Sernin is believed to have died in 257 AD, the period of the Decian persecution.

The front panel to the right depicts the arrest of St. Sernin as he preaches in Toulouse, holding a book. To the left of this scene is the martyrdom of St. Sernin, who was tied to the hooves of a bull, goaded by persecutors with a stake in his hide and drags St. Sernin through the streets behind him. The bishop accepts his fate calmly, even finding the strength to bless two female saints as he passes them.

The left end panel depicts the burial of St. Sernin. A woman tenderly caresses his head while his soul -- represented as a small child leaves his body to be received by an angel above. On the far left, St. Sernin's tomb and shrine are shown.

The left transept, which is a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary, contains an altarpiece of gilded wood dating from the 17th century.

The earliest chapel here was built by St. Hilary, the first bishop of Carcassonne, in the 6th century. In the 8th century, an abbey was founded here and the monks replaced the small chapel with a larger church.

The relics of St. Hilary were discovered on February 22, 970, and the abbey was re-dedicated to him in place of St. Sernin, the first bishop of Toulouse.

What remains of the abbey today was built mainly in the 11th-14th centuries. The monastery was badly damaged during the Albigensian Crusade and restored by Abbot William (1237-60).

The abbey began its serious declined in the 14th century. The church experienced financial difficulties due to the devastation of the Black Death and Hundred Years' War. Saint-Hilaire began to be ruled by a succession of wealthy aristocratic abbots in the 16th Century who ignored their duties, bringing the abbey into further decline.

After centuries of such misfortune, the abbey was closed in 1748 by Monseigneur de Bezons, Bishop of Carcassonne. The abbey buildings were sold and, in 1758, the abbey church became the parish church of the town.

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