Île Barbe island of medieval castles and churches in Lyon


I first saw the Île Barbe for only a few milliseconds, when it whizzed by my window while we were driving around Lyon. That vision could have been part of my daydreams - from a small craggy rock in the middle of the Saône river, there appeared to be a growth of Romanesque stone structures and hidden gardens.

I resolved to find that mysterious island.

After two failed attempts  and twelve hours of walking, I had not given up hope. I set out again, backpack and notebook in hand, down the river Saône, against the flow of the current. A few hours later I crossed the oldest bridge in Lyon, and arrived onto the Île Barbe - for so my mystery island is named. This is what I saw...


My observations of the Île Barbe were made during two visits, during the months of May and June, 2014.
The island is separated into two halves: downstream, to the southwest, is the public section, whereas that section that lies upstream - northeast of Lyon - has been partitioned into a private area, accessible only by inhabitants.
To begin with the public side, I observed a number of charming details, such as the small copse of trees on the very western edge of the island, and the dusty pétanque courts.
It must be noted that the island remains unharassed by tourists, the only day-trippers appearing to be the locals from around-abouts the island, who come to picnic in the woods, play pétanque, or fish in the stream. And every so often, they will hold a market which sells antiques and food delicacies, as I observed one Saturday upon my second visit.
Proceeding eastwards, we arrive at the large wall that divides the island in half. In this wall, there is one gate, closed, and guarded by a concierge at most times of the day. The gate opens for shiny black cars driven by the inhabitants en île.
I was most fortunate, upon my first visit, to arrive at said gate just as it was closing, and I slipped through unnoticed, to conduct further investigations. 
For, it is on this private section that the beauty and former glories of the island can be found: large Romanesque stone buildings, which I am convinced are of various origins. The several parts which were met with lead me to conclude that the island has been inhabited for well over a millennium.
The first building to the right is chiefly remarkable, as it appears to be the hollowed remains of a twelfth century church, complete with a bell tower in the Romanesque style. When indicating the age of the building, I may mention as proof: the several rounded archivolts still imprinted in the stone walls, where the building has been ruined somewhat, the scarcity of windows in the edifice (the opposite of which would indicate a later Gothic style), and the square construction of the bell tower.
Nearby the old church, one may spy: a small Auberge of some renown, where they serve traditional meals; red roses climbing stone walls - reminiscent of the tale of Beauty and the Beast; many mullioned windows on the beautiful old buildings now used as housing; and tall stone fences covered in trailing ivy.
Somewhere, somebody was whistling.
These scenes were so beautiful, my heart just about melted clear down to my toes.
Now, if one was to curiously approach a wooden gate in one of the stone fences, and peer into the keyhole, they may see a family, sitting in their garden, eating croissants and reading the newspaper. 
Beyond the bell tower, there is a path between high walls and stone stairs, leading to an old tower fortress - a remnant of what may have been a fortified wall. And through an arch in the tower we may find an ancient port, where boats would be pulled to shore.
Further to the north lies a real treasure: a standing wall, a ruin of what may have been a church building, the details of which appear to me very interesting and worthy of attention:
In this wall there are several stone arcades, with pointed arches and ribbed vaulting, but in the middle of the wall is a Romanesque door, above which is a tympanum - a carved stone scene in a semi-circle design, as one might see above the door of a Gothic church.
The tympanum is carved with a scene of Christ and two angels, by their sides are two figures - possibly monks - and all are crushing allegorical animals underfoot; Christ himself is crushing a serpent or dragon. The inscription reads: EGO SUM LUX MUNDI - 'I am the light of the world.'


Altogether, the Île Barbe struck me as an incredible masterpiece, one which has remained largely unheard of, and one which retains its mysterious charm and a truly mystical feeling.

My observations and feelings were thus magnified when I learned the true history of the island - retold below in my own research notes.

The Romanesque church of Notre Dame on Île Barbe.
Romantic old house on the Île Barbe, with roses at the door
Ancient medieval wall of stone on the Île Barbe, Lyon, France



The Île Barbe held a mystical energy right from the very beginning…

700 BC – Celtic Druids organise processions on the island. At this time, the IÎle Barbe was simply a large boulder covered in vegetation, in the middle of the river. 

Then, during one of many Roman persecutions of Christians, a chap by the name of Peregrinus took shelter on the island.

5th century – A monastic Abbey is founded under St Andrew, making this the first Abbey in Lyon and one of the very first in all of Gaul.

9th century – The Abbey gains a Carolingian lustre, when Charlemagne donates an extensive library, which quickly becomes one of the greatest libraries of the age – the medieval equivalent of the Library of Alexandria.

9th century – The Abbey adopts the rule of St Benedict, and the affiliation of the Abbey’s church changes to St Loup and St Martin.

Thus, the Île Barbe was slowly becoming a spiritual centre, where artistic and intellectual influences combined with piety.

1075 – Fra Ogier, the new Abbot, becomes worried about the increasing numbers of pilgrims who come to observe the piety of the monks there. He commissions a small chapel to be built, outside the walls of the cloister, to make it accessible to the public without disturbing the tranquility of the monks inside. The chapel is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and is called Our Lady.

12th century – the chapel of Our Lady is finished, and pilgrims are welcomed onto the island by boat.

1306 - Pope Clement V grants 100 days indulgence to pilgrims who will offer at the chapel during one of the four celebrations of the Virgin. (The four celebrations are as follows: conception/ annunciation/ nativity/ assumption.)

The chapel becomes so popular that the monks begin to sing there instead of in their own private church of St Loup.

15th century – The ‘shady meadow’ downstream is noted in the records as a place ‘a little less pious’ during the pilgrim’s festivities. Later, the meadow is planted with trees (still remaining) to retain the land during floods.

By the 1400’s, the Île Barbe has become a centre of the divine feminine, and Marian devotees come from all over to worship the Virgin, and gain her generosity. The chapel of Our Lady is only overshadowed seven centuries after its creation, by the currently famous Notre Dame de Fourvière.
For six hundred years or more, the Virgin Mary has been revered in this place, and she has always shown generosity to those who have prayed.
— Claude Plowman, 1665

September 1630 – Louis XIII visits Lyon, and becomes deathly ill – even receiving extreme unction. A few days later, his internal abscess bursts and he is healed. To give thanks for the king’s healing, the two Queens of France – Anne of Austria and Marie de Medici – walk from Lyon to the chapel on the Île Barbe.

However, things have been going downhill ever since 1551...

1551 – The Abbey becomes secularized, and forms a college of canons.

1562 – The Reformation motivates local Protestants to slash and burn many churches, including parts of the Abbey.

Around the same time, the coming of the plague pushes officials to ban visits to the Île Barbe, and the partially ruined Abbey is temporarily abandoned.

1600’s – The centre of Marian devotion in the Lyon region shifts, as Notre Dame de Fourviére steals the limelight with lavish processions, supposed miracles, and greater accessibility.

1789 – The French Revolution devastates the Abbey and the island, after seizing the church property.

During these tough times the library of Charlemagne is mostly destroyed, and the many artefacts, stone decorations and silver chalices owned by the Abbey are sold and dispersed. The buildings themselves are sold to private buyers who take up residence on the island.

The monastery and college have been reduced to total ruin by these disorders.
— Guillame Paradin

Around this time, the Île Barbe becomes a haven for wealthy landowners like the Lyonnaise painter Revel, who placed his country estate on the island.

1801 - Catholic worship in France is restored and the new owner of the chapel of Our Lady applies for a decree to celebrate mass in the old building. 

1827 - the suspension bridge is built - what is now the oldest surviving bridge in Lyon.

1860 – The nave of the chapel of Our Lady is destroyed, to make way for a garden.

Red door and a keyhole in a garden gate
Spying through a keyhole into a garden of roses on a hidden island in France
An overgrown castle on a small island in the depths of Lyon


Today the island is still revered, so much so that boatmen still sometimes remain silent in veneration when passing the Notre Dame.

The island retains the separation of public and private spheres, put in place by the medieval Abbey when they welcomed pilgrims onto the shores. Now, though, the canonical houses are inhabited by private residents, and the former glories of the island are forgotten, locked behind those closed gates.

The chapel of Our Lady is undergoing restorations to ensure that the beautiful stonework and frescos therein do not undergo any more water damage from open the bell tower. Some gorgeous Romanesque features still remain - a 13th cent keystone in the roof decorated with a four fold symmetrical golden oak leaf design, and several of the grotesque beasts carved into the roman capitals - typical of cloister decorations.  About one meter of soil now sits above the original foundations, as evidenced by the column bases found in archaeological investigations.The covered gallery is being used as the nave, and on certain heritage days, the chapel is open to visitors!

One of the only remaining clues as to the incredible origins of the island is that beautiful Romanesque tympanum, above the wooden door in a ruined wall. Once upon a time, it formed part of the monastery’s Refectory, where the monks would have gathered to eat in silent reverence. 


A real life beauty and the beast - an island of chateaus, roses and churches hidden in France
If there is a heaven, and I am allowed entrance, I will ask for no more than an endless living world to walk through and explore.
— Edward O. Wilson