In the Vaudois Jura, the church in Montcherand, built in the 11th century, has kept its apse intact. Listed among the Cluniac sites in Europe, this former priory dedicated to St. Stephen is located at the crossroads of the Via Francigena and the Via Jacobi.
“The treasure contained in this church was, so to speak, ignored until the 20th century,” says Jean-François Tosetti, founder of the Association for the Romanesque Church of Montcherand. In 1902, mural paintings were discovered which are among the oldest frescoes with figures of religious art in French-speaking Switzerland.
The fresco represents the twelve apostles, in half natural size, carrying a scroll, arranged in a semicircle, around a central figure whose identity is still unknown.
“This is the enigma of the Montcherand frescoes: is it the Virgin Mary, placed when it was discovered in 1902? Is it her son Jesus, in earthly form? Or Mary Magdalene, the apostle of the apostles? To make matters worse, during the Reformation, the Bernese people inserted a window in the middle of the apse,” emphasizes Jean-François Tosetti.
In the upper part is a fragmentary Christ in glory. He sits in the mandorla (oval or almond-shaped figure, in which sacred characters are inscribed), flanked by the four animals of the “tetramorph,” of which only the winged bull, representing the Evangelist Luke, remains.
The Latin inscription above the apostles' heads is taken from Matthew 19:27-28. “Then Peter answering, said to him: Behold we have left all things, and have followed thee: what therefore shall we have? And Jesus said to them: Amen, I say to you, that you, who have followed me, in the regeneration, when the Son of man shall sit on the seat of his majesty, you also shall sit on twelve seats judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” The text was completed during the third restoration, in 1992.
Archaeologists have concluded that the author of the fresco, at the beginning of the 12th century, was inspired by Byzantine art. Researchers have found his model in a monastery near Assiut, Egypt, on the edge of the Libyan desert. The illustration comes from an old manuscript representing a vision of the Apocalypse: God is enthroned in majesty in heaven, in the midst of the apostles and the Virgin.
Discovered in 1902, the frescoes were restored by the brothers August and Otto Schmid. In 1969, a second restoration was carried out by Théo Hermanes. The complementary additions were removed and so the murals are presented in the incomplete state in which they were found.
A third restoration, in 1992, by Thérèse Maurice, a graduate of the Istituto Centrale per il Restauro in Rome, in collaboration with the painter and lithographer Jacques Perrenoud, outlined in red chalk the figures of the apostles that we can see today.
Since 2008, the Priory of Montcherand has been a member of the European Federation of Cluniac sites, as are Payerne and Romainmôtier in the canton of Vaud.
The purpose of this Federation is to bring together the places in Europe which were created through the extraordinary influence of Cluny Abbey, from the 10th to the 18th century: spiritual, artistic, economic, political, and social influence. The monks of Cluny were at the origin of the construction of hundreds of towns and cities.