Ostentions, thousand-year-old processions

Ostensions Saint-Junien © D.Morand
From March to October, twenty towns and villages of the Limousinregion organize processions to honour their founding Saints. Called Ostensions and unique in France, these religious events attract thousand of people coming to watch the parades and worship the Saint’s remains kept in precious gold and silver reliquaries.

[ Practical ]

Getting there
- By road
390 km from Paris to Limoges on autoroutes A6b and A71
- By train
Teoz train from Paris Austerlitz to Limoges. Journey takes 3 hours.
- By plane
Flights to Limoges from Paris, Nice, Londres Stansted, Liverpool, Nottingham-East Midlands and Southampton.
Getting around
TER trains and buses serve most of the towns celebrating the Ostensions, but they are scarce on weekends. A car is more convenient.
Information : www.ter-sncf.com/limousin
- Limoges
Bienvenue Hotel
Mercure Royal Limousin
Hôtel de la Paix
Ibis Centre
- Le Dorat
La Promenade
- Saint-Junien
Le Relais de Comodoliac
Le Bœuf Rouge
- Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat
Hotel Grand Saint-Léonard
Relais Saint-Jacques
- Limoges
Le Versailles
Les Petits Ventres
Chez Alphonse
La Cuisine
La Maison des Saveurs
- Le Dorat
La Promenade
- Saint-Junien
Auberge du Lauryvan
Le Relais de Comodoliac
Le Bœuf Rouge
- Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat
Hotel Grand Saint-Léonard
Relais Saint-Jacques
- Abzac : March 26th
- Limoges : April 3rd
- Saint-Just-le-Martel : April 10th
- Nexon : April 17th
- Saint-Victurnien : April 24th
- Javerdat : May 5th
- Aixe-sur-Vienne : May 7th
- Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat : May 8th
- Rochechouart : May 15th
- Esse : May 16th
- Le Dorat : May 22nd
- Charroux : May 29th
- Saint-Yirieix-la-Perche : June 5th
- Chaptelat : June 12th
- Eymoutiers : June 19th
- Saint-Junien : June 26th
- Aureil : July 3rd
- Crocq : July 10th
- Pierre-Buffière : October 2nd
- Guéret : October 9th
- Maison du Limousin
30 rue Caumartin, 75009 Paris
Tel : 0140070467
- Limousin Tourist Office
Tel : 0555110583
- Haute-Vienne Tourist Office
Tel : 0555790404
- Limousin Ostentions
For more than ten centuries the ritual has been immutable. At regular intervals towns of the Limousin region honour the memory of their first bishops, evangelists or hermits who are their founding Saints. Listed on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity since December 2013, those events are called Ostensions – a word coming from a Latin verb meaning to show – and on this occasion the relics of these Saints are exceptionally shown to the public. They are also taken out in streets full of flowers and garlands during colourful processions gathering together thousands or even tens of thousands of people.

Ostensions © CDT Haute-Vienne
 Masterpieces of Limousin art
Moreover it’s then possible to see the magnificent reliquaries and boxes holding the remains of the Saints. Made up of gold, silver or copper, they are adorned with precious stones and enamels. You will be able to admire these masterpieces of Limousin art this year on the occasion of the 72nd Ostensions,…. or within seven years when the next ones are scheduled.
The very first event of this kind took place in 994 while the population of the area was suffering from Saint Antony’s Fire. Nowadays known under the name of creeping sickness, this dreaded illness was caused by a fungus that contaminated the rye grain used in making bread. Called together in council in Limoges, bishops, abbots and lords of Aquitaine decided to show Saint Martial relics to the faithful…. And the epidemic ceased!!!
Following this miracle the ceremony was rehearsed each time a danger threatened the city and also when a high-ranking person was visiting it. Besides, soon other towns also borrowed this custom leading to a slightly anarchic abundance of these events. So, in 1518 authorities decided they should be held only every seven years.

Ostensions Limoges © CDT Haute-Vienne
 Symbolic number
It’s a highly symbolic number because in the Book of Leviticus that’s after this period of time that punishments and debts are forgiven. Seven years that’s also the age children enter adolescence. Lastly, that’s an interval big enough to avoid too frequent rehearsals and short enough to keep the transmission of the knowledge” explains Father Jean-Marie Mallet-Guy, priest in the diocese of Limoges.
However, the Ostensions are not only religious events. They also express a strong sense of identity. “Civil and religious authorities attend them and participate in, but they are organized by the people for the people. For some inhabitants, preparations are more important than the procession itself. Lasting one year or even one and half year, they are made by brotherhoods or committees existing for centuries”. That’s maybe one of the reasons why the Limousin Ostensions have survived in spite of many vicissitudes.

Ostensions Saint-Junien © CDT Haute-Vienne
 Each one on a different date
They have disappeared in some towns, appeared in other ones. The period of the year when they take place has changed. They were suspended in 1547 due to the plague and forbidden during the Revolution. Numerous treasures and works of art from the Church were then given to the State but the parishioners hid and looked after the precious relics.
Nowadays twenty towns and villages perpetuate the tradition of the Ostensions, each one on a different date in a more or less sumptuous style. One in the Vienne department, two in Charente and in Creuse, and fifteen in Haute-Vienne where they all but two take place in the valley of the river Vienne.
In Limoges, where are held the oldest one, that’s not one but four Saints who are honoured. Saint Martial, the most popular, who came from Rome to evangelize the region, Saint Aurélien, Saint Loup and Sainte Valérie, the first ever martyr of the town. Thousands of people flock into the streets to watch or follow the two processions carrying the relics, including one held on the evening by torchlight.

Ostensions Le Dorat © CDT Haute-Vienne
 Spectacular processions
But the two more spectaculars are without contest the ones of Saint-Junien and Le Dorat. The first one hosts a splendid parade made up of 1 500 people wearing historical dresses and featuring the Christ and his relatives, the Apostles, martyrs closely watched by Roman soldiers, and historical characters from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Going in front to precede it are brotherhoods and relics from the other towns celebrating the Ostensions. It ends with porters carrying the relics of the three local Saints – Saint Junien, Saint Armand and Saint Théodore – escorted by guards named the Swiss. This impressive procession follows an itinerary scattered with temporary chapels showing scenes of the Saints’ life and all streets are adorned with flowers and garlands. One of them is even covered by greeneries to recreate the former forest of Comodoliac where Saint Armand lived.
At Le Dorat, the Ostensions present the particularity to have a strong military character. The relics of Saint Israel and Saint Théobald are protected by musketeers of Louis XIII riding horses and soldiers from the army of Napoleon I. Featuring sappers, grenadiers and voltigeurs, they also defend the fortified entrances of this little town where stands one of the most beautiful Romanesque churches of Limousin : Saint-Pierre du Dorat.

Reliquary © CDT Haute-Vienne
 Foreign delegations
Several other towns hosting the Ostentions have also an interesting architectural and artistic heritage. Limoges has a beautiful gothic cathedral as well as few streets lined with ancient houses. The church of Saint-Yrieix mingles Romanesque and Gothic styles as do the one of Nexon that keeps its fortified aspect. Rochechouart spreads around an elegant late 15th century castle and nearby are found the well-preserved roman spas of Chassenon. Being the only town where the Ostensions are dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Aixe-sur-Vienne is arrayed with thousands of roses and hundreds of fir trees and displays two beautiful 16th century statues in polychrome wood. Lastly, Saint-Léonard-du-Noblat keeps a charming old medieval neighbourhood and its collegiale church is one of the masterpieces of Romanesque architecture in Limousin. Saint Léonard being famous and worshipped in other countries, it welcomes many foreign delegations and brotherhoods during the Ostensions. That’s also the case of the village of Chaptelat that honours another internationally known religious figure : Saint Eloi. Otherwise a vast majority of the people attending the Ostensions are French and it including many natives from Limousin returning to their hometown at that time to find their roots.

December 25, 2015
Thierry Joly