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The ostensions (patrimonial of UNESCO)

The ostensions are a religious and popular tradition, deeply settled in the history of Limousin. They took place in Limoges and more than ten surrounding cities, mainly in Haute-Vienne, but also in Creuse, Charente and Vienne.


The ostensions are religious ceremonies, particular to the diocese of Limoges. The tradition dates them back to the 11th century during the “Saint Anthony’s fire”, an epidemic that touched the big Aquitaine in 994 and during big celebrations in presence of the highest religious authority we showed the saints’ relics to conjure the devil.


Celebrated originally occasionally during some events or particular circumstances, the usage was established in 1518 to do them every seven years. The relics of the limousine Saints are exhibited in the churches for the faithful veneration. Religious and historic corteges carried solemnly shrines and relics, sometimes pieces of art very old, along the cobbled streets of the ostensionnal cities. From April to June, they took place in the following places: Limoges, Saint-Victurnien, Javerdat, Saint Just le Martel, Nexon, Aureil, Aixe-sur-Vienne, Saint-Léonard, Rochechouart, Esse, Le Dorat, Chaptelat, Eymoutiers, Charroux, Abzac, Saint-Yriex-la-Perche, Saint-Junien.


Classified since 2013 as a world immaterial heritage site, the ostensions marked for a long time the history of Limousin.

Like every seven years in the Limoges region, around fifteen cities honored the relics of their patron saint, theirs skulls, named « chefs » in this sumptuary circumstance.


These relics were usually conserved, out of regards, in richly ornamented shrines, hidden in the churches walls and protected with strong iron grill, sometimes buried in heavy stone tombs. These years they were put “out”’ on the light, exposed on altars for the population veneration during the seven weeks separating Eastern and Pentecost. Then they were put “in” for seven years, after a big procession in the city or across the countryside of the communal land. This grand procession is designed to close the fests and also for the concerned population it is the occasion to put in scene the good neighbor relations with the presented honors to their saints and in accordance with their respective hierarchic positions.



The homage is given to the cities of ostensions with a unilateral way, with the ones symbolically independent (the closed cities didn’t have skulls, but second relics). Meanwhile the city of ostensions exchanged each other honored visits with their relic’s skulls. This ceremonial relations web between saints and communal structures, around Limoges, a regional space named at that occasion with exaggeration Limousin. For one year, every seven years, this big “outing” of relics and theirs ostensions brought luck to people, and prosperity, “blessings” to the local communities which, during these days, gave a representation of an ideal unity.


These celebrations took place in Limoges, regional and episcopal capital city, Saint-Léonard-de-NoblatSaint-Junien, Saint-Victurnien, Aureil, Nexon, Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche, Aixe-sur-Vienne, Le Dorat, Javerdat, Chaptelat, Saint-Just-le-Martel, Rochechouart, Esse, Abzac et Charroux en Poitou-Charentes. All this cities designed only a small part of Limousin approximatively around the Vienne valley but the region Limousin is much larger.


The ostensions celebrations were in the prolongation of a tradition as old as the Christians, maybe older, if we consider or not the relics ‘cult and the veneration of the heroes rests of the antic societies (Greek or Latin) as a same whole. Peter Brown (1984) noticed twenty years ago already the interest to see again the Christians analysis of the particular point of view of the saints’ cults. It should have indeed a lot to win to move the attention, usually fixed on the Christ himself (and so the fundamental stories of the Christian religion) to the rites involving the need of corporal rests of these particular dead defined as saints. The celebration of the Eucharistic constituted the first of those rites because the relics, religious objects, material subtracts of presence and power saints, played a fundamental role. First, they belonged the Christian altar: this receptacle of the divine presence, half convivial half funeral furniture which is indeed constituted with a stone table in which we find a saint’s bone.


The Christian ritual defined the divine presence with two ways: one according to a very abstract conception, uttered in the Eucharistic: the other proceeded of a less spiritual inspiration and took the relic form. In the first case, the priest’s action is necessary to actualize the divine presence in the support no more daily than the bread. In the second case, this presence is not inherent to the support itself, exceptional by nature that is to say the corporal rest of a dead saint (or the Christ himself). It happened sometimes for all during the relic fabrication ritual and didn’t need any mediation to be manifested. But except if it needed devotions to maintain the holiness of the relic and the proximity of Holly sacrament, and so the intervention of a priest, to insure this permanence.


The Christian sacrifice, generally considered as a commemoration has to be well done on the rests of a real man, killed in the name of the Christ like him and after with a violent way (at least ideally) spiritually closed to God but with a non-divine nature. The nature which had with the ritual inventions of relics an ambiguous definition (between humanity and divinity, moving the spatial and temporal borders which usually defined the existence conditions). As a relic, a saint is considered present as today as once, down there in the same than beyond. The transgression of categories conferred to the sanctuary which kept a relic, the property to locate with a permanent way a meeting between the human and divines spaces. In the 4th century this property was sometimes designed with this only term (Brown 1984 : 22). This place with very particular qualities played a considerable role in the territorial history development of the western Christian societies, in France in particular (Beaune 1985).


Like the « heroes cult » on the tombs accompanied in Greece the advent of new territorial, politic and social reforms of the City (as a territorial unity linking a urban center and its rural environment, ruled according to the first democratic principles), the “saints’ cult” on the tombs followed the institution of new communal and politics forms brought by the Christian religion.


Indeed, from the 2nd and the 3rd centuries, it was around the first Christian sanctuaries funded on the presence of the holly body rests that had been quickly developed in France the “cities out of the cities”, closed to the urban centers but out of the walls, on those the bishops tried to maintain the control, in order to establish and affirm their authority against the lords one. The episcopal authority was exerted on a determined territorial place, the bishop then strengthen those cities by establishing new monastic communities in strategic points of their territories, punctuated with holly presences susceptible to contribute to fix the local population and attract new ones.


Because these monastic communities were obviously gathered around a Saint’s tomb where the monks were instituted as guardians that conferred to them a hand on all the commerce (social, religious, economic) created then. The politic genie of these first church men was for a big part thanks to this strategy consisting of sit their authority on the popular craze created with the presence of the saint’s body rests. Around this macabre and powerful objects collectively owned had been development rapidly the popular part of the Christian religion, the one that permitted everyone to protect its own life and the ones of sick relatives, to delay the access to the eternal life promised by the communion with the glorious body of the Christ made by the priest, but that the mortal common represent to them as the inevitable end. The territorial expansion of the episcopal authority could be hit here and there the feudal prerogatives, like in Limoges, to be precise, where long centuries of rivalries between the lord and the bishop (each one master of his district, each one owner of a relic) created the actual topography of the city.


Today, during the ostensions celebrations, the itinerary realized inside the city with the relics of the supposed fonder, Saint Martial, their comings between the castle district and the cathedral one, rebuilt every seven years this original rivalry. The preeminence of the lord in the 10th century, his conquer of Saint-Martial relics even up to the bishop guard and the foundation of a monastery closed to the castle, shows the historical origin of the ostension in the region. The spectacular victory of Saint-Martial’s relics over the epidemic in 994 constituted the legendary origin.


From the counter-reform time until the Christian renew that preceded (15th-16th centuries) dates back the actual seven years periodicity of these celebrations. Along the history the mortuary rests of the saints circulated between the pretender in power hands, like the witness-sticks in races. Witnesses in their living of the god incarnation in the person of the Christ which means a very specific link between men and god, the saints appeared after their deaths under relic forms, as objectivities of the permanent link. It is this property that made them as a legitimacy tool of authority. Made by the first Christian communities members, then “invented” and “kept” by the ecclesiastic authorities, before to be conquered by the parish communities, the relics with their power and presence followed the big steps of the politic-religious formation of the France and the western Europe.


Today the region of Limoges offers the democratic and individualist context, in reality a bit marked by the catholic influence, more culturally and unequally imbued of a syncretic Christianity. The relics possession and the direct cult linked to it results of negotiated relations between the clergy and the population, either directly (with “organization comities) or by opposed brotherhoods. The ostension ceremonies of the saint patron’s relics constituted periodic rituals of reorganization, to the communal and regional levels, local communities considered as holly ancestors. We will see in what way these big celebrations reactivated the territorial dimension of the community definition of the concerned groups: how they conferred to these communities a transcendental dimension necessary to their political legitimacy reactivating symbolically the contact between their living space and the original beyond. And perhaps we will be able to constitute today the organization of veneration rites of the saints patron relics by the population, far away to constitute today a picturesque incongruity, manifest to the contrary and in a logic way, the politic vitality of this region et the vivacious attachment of its inhabitants to the democratic values.

I have to precise that most of veneered saints today in the region of Limoges really existed and, for some, played an important role in all the aspects of its history: religious, political, economic, social and cultural. The homage visits honored between the saints via the ostensions and with them the communities who hold them reiterated the exchanges they developed in their living across the region. Evangelizers and funder of religious communities, big cultural and economic developers, they appeared throughout the texts as a kind of saints’ society.

In the 6th century a big eremitic movement marked deeply the cultural history of the Merovingian countryside. It wass at that time that arrived in the Vienne valley the main civilizing hermits celebrated today as saints patrons like saint Léonard (à Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat), saint Amand et saint Junien or saint Victurnien (in Saint-Victurnien). Other monks funded at the same time big monasteries: among them saint Yrieix (Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche) and saint Éloi (born and veneered in Chaptelat, founder of Solignac abbey). For some of them, their history is closely linked to the ones of the Frankish kingdom formation: Saint-Léonard had a spiritual link with the first king Clovis, who he was the godson, baptized like him by Saint-Rémy. Saint-Eloi exercised for the king Dagobert well known political functions.


The 11th century marked a second step in the religious order development and brought, among other religious communities founders today celebrated: saint Gaucher (Aureil), saint Étienne de Muret (Ambazac), saint Israël and saint Théobald (Le Dorat). The first founder, Saint-Martial, belonged to the seven bishops sent by Rome to evangelize the Gaul in the 3rd century. He became the first bishop of Limoges and then the development of the cult of these relics resulted in the first big ostension in this city, origin to the actual celebrations.

Still today, it is the Saint-Martial cult that makes authority in the region, even if has to support the concurrence of Saint-Junien whose celebrations, particularly spectacular attract for years the journalists of the local press and even the national press since a few. Each of the fourteen cities which make ostensions has its own rite and from a place to another the atmosphere can change considerably : nothing comparable indeed between the countryside procession of Saint-Victurnien, guided to the holly source in the border of the village, and the military apparat developed by the city of Dorat to receive the delegation of the neighbored cities with their relics.


Also, in each place, the particular history of a saint and his legend can serve to mark the communal territory with a singular way. These esthetic forms of a ritual and its legendary variations allow to the different communities engaged in these rites to locate themselves amongst the others, to be positioned on the other hand according to the most prestigious rituals (Limoges, Saint-Junien, Saint-Léonard of-Noblat, Le Dorat). Nonetheless, the particular histories of the saints are conformed to an equal scenario and the rituals adjusting the relics’ veneration to a common schema. Among the required sequences, we see that it is easier to recognize the different steps of the relics’ fabrication by the religious authorities, at the time the church developed its territorial expansion: the Invention and the Recognition, the Translation and the Ostension of the relics.

(Source - LES RETROUVAILLES ANACHRONIQUES D'UNE COMMUNAUTÉ AVEC SON FONDATEUR / Saintes reliques et définitions territoriales dans la région de Limoges - Odile Vincent)


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