France has thousands of Romanesque and Gothic medieval churches, but there is just a handful built earlier than the 11th Century. The ninth century depredations of the Norsemen, Magyar horsemen from Hungary, and the Saracen wars played havoc on the Gallo-Roman, Merovingian, and Carolingian structures, and when rebuilt, they were in a later architectural idiom. The few that survived were mostly destroyed during the religious and secular wars and finally, the convulsions of the French Revolution. That anything remains at all is almost miraculous.
The inventory is meager; one Merovingian church (the Église Saint-Pierre-le-Bas in Vienne), five crypts and a handful of baptisteries. Among the very many crypts, numerous due to the importance of the cult of saints at the time, only those of the Basilique Saint-Seurin in Bordeaux, the Crypte Saint-Laurent in Grenoble (although it was originally a chapel), and the seventh century Abbaye Notre Dame de Jouarre survive.
I know of four baptisteries. In Provence, there are the Baptistère de Venasque and the Baptistère de Fréjus. The Baptistère de Fréjus adjacent to the Cathédrale Saint-Léonce de Fréjus dates to the Fifth Century, making it the oldest known Christian structure in Provence and among the oldest in France. In the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence there is the Baptistére de Riez. And in Poitiers, the Baptistère Saint-Jean is a rare combination of Fourth Century Gallo-Roman and Sixth Century Merovingian architecture.
Carolingian religious architecture has even fewer survivors – there are two Carolingian churches remaining in France, Germigny-des-Prés (805)and Saint-Philibert-de-Grand-Lieu (814-47). Given that there are only three pre-Romanesque churches in the entire patrimony of France, how is it possible that one was almost completely destroyed by its official “restoration?”
The oratory at Germigny-des-Prés was built by Theodulf, Bishop of Orléans, in 805 as part of his bishop’s palace. Theodulf, who was also abbot of the neighboring monastery of Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire, was a Spanish Visigoth and one of the most celebrated men of letters in the Carolingian Empire court of Charlemagne. The architecture of his palace complex at Germigny-des-Prés was modeled on Charlemagne’s Palace of Aachen. And like Charlemagne’s Palatine Chapel, the oratory is the only surviving remnant of the palace – everything else was destroyed by the Vikings within a century of construction. The great treasure of the church is the mosaic of the Ark of the Covenant, on the ceiling of the apse, the only surviving Byzantine mosaic in France. This mosaic was clearly close to Theodulf’s heart because he placed a two-line inscription below;
As you gaze upon the holy propitiatorium and Cherubim, beholder,
And see the shimmering of the Ark of God’s covenant,
Perceiving these things, and prepared to beset the Thunderer with prayers,
Add, I beg you, Theodulf’s name to your invocations.
In 1867 the French architect Jean Juste Gustave Lisch received the official commission from the Monuments Historiques to repair the fragile clocher of the oratory. You can see from Lisch’s own sketch the state of the structure in 1867.
While it is difficult to assess the structural condition from the drawing, it is clear that the oratory as a whole was intact. This did not seem to matter to Lisch. He removed two apses, lowered the tower and built a dome that may not be authentic. And in doing so, he destroyed most of the original construction and replaced it with his own work. The result may be handsome, in its way, but it was not the creation of the Visigothic Bishop Theodulf in 805.
The great Kenneth Connant commented on Juste’s efforts; “A brutal and ignorant restoration of 1867-76, carried over the protests of the Société Française d’Archéologie, has left us with an inaccurate modern counterfeit of this important Carolingian monument. Some fragments of the original were incorporated in the reconstruction. Interesting remains of its fine decoration in stucco were destroyed or denatured, the more regrettably because the rich fittings of the chapel – the furniture in white and colored marble, the metalwork, and the fabrics – have all been lost.” “Carolingian and Romanesque Architecture, 800 to 1200” by Kenneth John Conant
The protests of the La Société Française d’Archéologie, founded in 1834 with the mission “to discover and safeguard the architectural patrimony that is in great peril,” carried a great deal of weight but were ineffectual. They issued a scathing 1871 report on the restoration stating that “It is useful to foresee that travelers attracted by the familiar name of Germigny will have to contemplate, rather than the sanctuary of the bishop Theodulf, a design of Mr. Lich; instead of a building contemporary to the Emperor Charlemagne, a building of the reign of Emperor Napoleon III.” The destruction went on for another five years after this was published.
There are certainly more standards and safeguards governing the restoration of historical monuments in France and throughout the world, but that is not enough. What must be guarded against is the sense that our world today (at any time in history) knows better than the worlds that precede us. The arrogance of the human mind can do as much damage as a bomb, an earthquake or fanaticism. Juste Lisch was convinced that he was right in destroying so much of Germigny-des-Prés despite the manifest opposition of those who protested. Paul Abadie was convinced that he was right in rebuilding the Cathédrale Saint-Front in Périgueux. The fact that these two destroyed what was already in place in order to achieve their “vision” is all the evidence we need to alert us to this danger. There is no bringing back Saint-Front or Germigny-des-Prés. They have been sacrificed at that meanest of altars, human ambition.