Category : France


Sens France – Saint-√Čtienne Cathedral

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Today was the last day of the Burgundy tour – seven days filled with beautiful sites.  There is a lot to digest, but it is now easier to understand the differences in French and English church architecture.  Most obviously, French transepts are much shorter than what one finds in England, the naves and east ends are much taller, French east ends have a apse shape, and the rib vaults in England are far more complex.  It was all wonderful, and the Carolingian wall paintings were a real highlight.

We return to London in the afternoon and I will spend a couple of days doing laundry and gearing up for my solo tour to five English cathedrals.  My goal is to spend some time at each location, reflecting on its art, architecture, and history.  But stay tuned, as I will send more photos and writings before moving on to the next cathedral. Starting July 1, the second group tour to northern France begins where we will see Gothic structures.

Thanks so much for listening to my rambles on this first part of our five week tour.  I do hope you enjoyed it.  

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Abbey of Saint Germain

Saint-Étienne Cathedral

We visited only two churches today and both were stunners.  That said, my clear favorite was the Abbey of Saint Germain.  When people ask me to name my favorite cathedral or church, it is a bit like asking someone to name their favorite child.  One loves them all and they are all different.  But the Abbey of Saint Germain has a crypt with wall paintings from the Carolingian era, images I have never seen even in a book.  It was quite moving to view this worship area, built between 841 and 859.       

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Frankish tribes ruled the area then called Gaul.  The chieftain Merovech became founder of the Merovingian dynasty and was eventually succeeded by Clovis, who converted to Christianity around 500.  Clovis’ descendants later became figure head kings and although they retained their titles,  power shifted to “Mayors of the Palace.”  One of these mayors, Pepin the Short, deposed the Frankish king and successfully petitioned the Pope to grant him the crown.  Pepin was succeeded by his son Charles, who became known to history as Charlemagne (748 – 814).  Charlemagne’s era is referred to as the Carolingian era and includes the time when his sons and grandsons ruled.

It is within this context that the crypts at the Abbey of Saint Germain were built and painted.  Far from being the dark ages, the period after Rome’s military fall left us beautiful mosaics and wall paintings, for the most part representing the spiritual life so central to the early Middle Ages.  Mosaics can better survive the challenges of time, but most wall paintings have long ago deteriorated or been destroyed.  Hence, this crypt is a very special place.  One must always remember that the goal of early medieval art was to communicate a spiritual truth, rather than provide a natural or realistic representation of the physical world.  That was left to later centuries when the Renaissance artists mastered the beauty of the flesh.


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Saulieu, Avallon, and Vezelay

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Today we visited the Basilica of St Andoche in Saulieu, the Church of St Lazarus in Avallon, and the Basilica of St Mary Magdalene in Vezelay.  They are all known for their Burgundian Romanesque style and whether the elevation is two story or three story, the architecture is splendid.

Focusing on the Basilica of St Mary Magdalene, we enter a church that is important to several chapters of history in addition to its architectural features.  In recognition of this, the church and the hill on which it stands are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Around 1050, the monks at this basilica claimed to have the relics of Mary Magdalene, a very important saint.  Relics are the physical remains of a saint’s body or possessions, or something that has touched the relic.   A relic is often kept in a beautiful container called a reliquary.  In medieval times, the faithful flocked to churches housing relics, believing that a close proximity would facilitate the saint’s intervention on their behalf, or perhaps result in a miracle.  Pilgrims would bring gifts and the relics of a principal  saint such as Mary Magdalene could provide generous resources to the church.

This church was also important as it was the beginning of one of four major routes through France to a most important medieval pilgrim destination, Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. Santiago de Compostela is known for housing the burial site and relics of the Apostle St James.

Historical events taking place at the Basilica of St Mary Magdalene include when Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, chose the location to announce the excommunication of supporters of England’s Henry II in 1166.  In 1190, Richard I of England and Philip II of France met at the basilica before embarking on the 3rd Crusade.   The basilica’s importance to the crusades is reflected in the portal sculpture where the “ungodly” are represented with physical deformities (illustrating the deformity of the spirit) while Christians appear well proportioned. 

The fortunes of Vezalay changed when a church in Provence, France claimed that it had the true relics of Mary Magdalene in 1279 and received official recognition of this claim.  The church in Vezaley suffered from reduced pilgrim revenues and subsequently was damaged by the Huguenots and during the French Revolution.  Fortunately,  much needed repairs were started in 1834 and maintenance continues to this day.

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Basilica of St Andoche in Saulieu
Church of St Lazarus in Avallon

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Basilica of St Mary Magdalene in Vezelay

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A Full Day in Dijon – Church of Notre Dame, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture

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We spent our entire day in Dijon, the former capital of Burgundy.  Our first visit was to the Musee Archeologique that is housed in a former Benedictine monastery.  The conversion from medieval monastery to museum is remarkable in that they left much of the original architecture intact so one is able to appreciate the progression of the early Romanesque undercroft to the 13th century Gothic lightness of the upper levels.  Just ignore all that 21st century museum lighting in the photos.                         

The next stop was at Dijon’s St Benigne Cathedral.  Since our focus is the Middle Ages, I did not photograph some of the more modern sculpture.  After the French Revolution (and all the damage done to too many churches), sculpture of Enlightenment intellectuals and writers was added to some churches, including this one.  In modern terms I suppose we would call this “rebranding” as the churches were now viewed as “temples of reason.”                         

 The Church of Notre Dame was next, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture.  Look closely at the outside view of the Rose Window  and you will notice small squares holes.  These were for the scaffolding used during construction.         

The last photo is Le Palais  des Ducs et des Etats de Bourgogne.  I didn’t even try to pronounce that one!  It is a former Dukes Palace turned into a museum of beautiful objects from 1384 – 1477.  Since this is late Middle Ages, you can see the influence of the Early Renaissance artists where images take on a more natural appearance.  During the Middle Ages, natural representation was never the point, so was not considered important.  Early Renaissance painters created images better representing what people looked like in the terrestrial world and this influenced sculptures.  You will see this in the beautiful faces of the altar piece and the alabaster monks represented in the last photo.

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Section 1 - Musee Archeologique - Benedictine monastery

Section 2 - Dijon’s St Benigne Cathedral.

The Church of Notre Dame

Section 4 - Dukes Palace Museum


Dijon, Semur-en-Auxois, Fontenay

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Christian monasteries originated in the desserts of Egypt with monks living as hermits.  Eventually, some monks came together and formed small groups that provided mutual support and a structure for communal services.   We fast forward to 529, when Benedict of Nursia created what would become known as the Rules of St Benedict, a guide for monks articulating how they should worship, behave, and eat.  Again, we fast forward to medieval Europe where the Cluniac Orders prospered, providing much needed support to the secular community through hospitals, schools, and meals for the poor.  The Cluniacs originally believed in a strict adherence to the Rules of St Benedict and were known for wearing a black habit.

Some monasteries became quite wealthy, owning vast estates and receiving substantial gifts from nobility who believed that such gifts would be favorably viewed by God and assure eternity in heaven.  Power followed this wealth, creating an environment ripe for departure from the original intent of living a life of poverty that focused on work, worship, and charity.  The Cistercian movement emerged from this,  as some wanted a literal return to the rules of St Benedict.  This reform-minded group became known as the White Monks as they wore a white robe over their habit.  Cistercians located their communities in remote locations, separated from the secular world and lived a life of strict discipline.  Preferring isolation and self-sufficiency, they became accomplished agriculturalists and were leaders in hydrology. 

Hopefully, this briefest of introductions to the Cistercians helps one to understand the elegant and restrained architecture of the buildings found in the Abbey of Fontenay.  The monks did not want the architectural embellishments to distract them from worship.  The only sculpture in the church is one representing Mary holding the infant Jesus.  Throughout the Middle Ages, ecclesiastical architecture changed and evolved, reflecting the changes in theology and religious practices.  The Cistercian abbeys are beautiful manifestations of the religious life these men strived to create.

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Beaune, Autun, in France

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We have left Tournus and are now exploring churches in Beaune, and Autun. If you are listening to the audio portions of this blog, I do apologize for the butchering of the French names of our destinations.  Foreign languages are most definitely not my strength.
Our first visit was to a relatively smaller church, the Collegiate Notre-Dame in Beaune.  This was a collegiate church, meaning that it was staffed by priests rather than monks.  The building is a mix of Romanesque (semicircular arches) and Gothic (pointed arches, larger windows) and quite beautiful.  The highlight is the collection of medieval tapestries showing the life of Mary.  Having been raised a Protestant, Mary’s life was not emphasized in my religious upbringing, so it was quite interesting to view the scenes in these tapestries.  The story starts with Mary’s mother, Ann, finding out she is pregnant with Mary.  Another tapestry shows several suitors vying for Mary’s hand in marriage, followed by a view of her wedding to Joseph.  The annunciation, the birth of Christ, Christ’s circumcision, the slaughtering of the innocents, and the flight to Egypt all follow.  The final tapestries show Mary’s death and crowning as Queen of Heaven.  
There was one  “feature” of this church that was disturbing to me.  The Huguenots (the French Protestants) were in a “War of Religion” with the Catholics, beginning around 1562.  This tragically culminated in what is known as the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in August of 1572 where thousands (estimates range from 5,000 to 30,000) of Protestants were murdered.  What I did not know is that Beaune had a large population of Huguenots, and at some point they had entered the Collegiate Notre Dame and destroyed many of the statues and sculptures.  These treasures are now lost forever, and empty platforms remain.
On a happier note, we next went to the Hotel-Dieu.  It is not a hotel at all, despite its name.  Rather, it was a medieval hospital for the sick, disabled, and destitute.  A prime example of medieval Burgundy architecture, it is a reminder that organized religion – even in medieval times – could perform great acts of charity and kindness.  Those who had no where else to go could come here to heal – or to die – in dignity.  The Hotel-Dieu is also home to the great Roger van der Weyden’s Last Judgement, commissioned for this hospital.  
Our last destination was the Cathedral in Autun.  The inside has been extensively cleaned and it looks quite odd at first.  That said, it allows us the opportunity to see what these cathedrals might have looked like the first hundred years or so, before their walls were stained with the smoke of candles and incense.  Gislebertus, a French medieval sculptor, created many beautify Romanesque capitals that have been remarkably preserved.  But once again, one is faced with the harming of a treasure.  The west entry tympanum (the semicircular sculpture above  a door) was deemed to be in “poor taste” by Voltaire, the famed Enlightenment intellectual of the 18th century.  As Voltaire’s opinion mattered, the Bishop had this area plastered over, so as not to offend.  Fortunately, better judgement eventually prevailed and the plaster was later removed, allowing us to enjoy this beautiful representation of the Day of Judgement.

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Cluny Abbey, Chapelle des Moines, Church of St Philibert

June 9th in Burgundy France Region

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As usual, we are off and running early. Our first visit was to  the Cluny Abbey.  William I, Duke of Aquitaine, gave this site (actually, it was his wife’s property) to the church.  The Abbey was founded in 910 and grew until it was the largest church in Christendom for 200 years and was an important training ground for monks following the rule of St Benedict.  The first two churches were eventually replaced by what is called Cluny III, consecrated in 1130.   Much of the funding came from conquered Spanish Muslims.  This Cluniac order, initially a reform movement, eventually suffered from corruption and excess, so a Cistercian movement formed as a breakaway group.  Sadly, not much of this important abbey is left, as it was taken over by the state during the French Revolution.  The state broke it into sections, which it sold to those who needed (and could afford to buy) stone and timber.  Thus, you will mostly see pictures of ruins.  Fortunately, one of the transepts remains, as the state could not find a buyer for this section.   Here one can catch a glimpse of how spectacular the main church must have been.  What a tragedy that we have lost so much of this important medieval abbey.

Our next destination was to Chapelle des Moines in Berne-la Ville.  This small chapel dates from the 11th century and was originally part of a Cluniac monastic priory.  It also served as the Abbot of Cluny’s private retreat.  Located in the beautiful Burgundy countryside, it is known for its Romanesque wall paintings.  As soon as one enters this small chapel, one can see the wonderfully preserved wall paintings filling the apse.  In the center is Christ in majesty, surrounded by a mandorla (a sort of body halo) with St Peter on one side and St Paul on the other.  From above, the hand of God the Father reaches down.  It is our good fortune that someone had whitewashed the wall paintings, as they remained covered and preserved until 1887. 

Our final destination was the Church of St Philibert in Tournus, right next to our hotel.  This church the the primary surviving building of a former Benedictine Abbey.  It was one of the older monastic centers in France and an influential 11th century monastery.  The building is a striking example of Romanesque architecture, with its groin vaults and massive pillars.  The outside of the pillars are made of stone, with the interior filled with rubble and mortar.  We went down to the crypt and the electric lights went out.  It actually made for a great atmosphere as we made our way around using our cell phones for light.


Eurostar to Burgundy

After a few days of adjusting to Europe time, finally we are off to Burgundy on the Eurostar. Most people go to Burgundy with dreams of food and wine, but no vineyards on this tour! Instead, we spend the week studying the art and architecture of medieval churches, abbeys,…