Sainte Radegonde of Poitiers and her Church (Dennis Aubrey)


I have loved the Église Sainte-Radegonde since I was a boy living in Poitiers, but especially since our family friend Thérese Gayet from the nearby town of Vivonne took me up to the clerestory level in the mid-1980’s. From there I could look down to the simple hall church terminating in the magnificent heptagonal apse with the raised choir, the radiating chapels in the semi-circular ambulatory, and the mysterious 10th Century crypt below the altar with the sarcophagus of Saint Radegonde herself.

Saint Radegonde retires to the convent (Source: Bibliothèque municipale de Poitiers)

Radegonde was a Thuringian princess who was born around 520. She became the wife of Chlothar I and was known for her piety and good works. After Clothar assassinated her brother, she left him and founded a nunnery in Poitiers. She was friend and confidante to some of the most influential religious figures of her time, including Gregory of Tours. Radegonde died on August 13, 586, beloved by her companions and friends.

The importance of the crypt in the layout of her church, the size of the ambulatory and the radiating chapels all testify to the importance of the church to the medieval pilgrimage that venerated her.

Nave, Église Sainte-Radegonde, Poiters, (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This shot shows the raised choir with Radegonde’s crypt below. We can also see the controversial 19th Century repainting of the choir by Honoré Hivonnait. Hivonnait received the commission in 1849 to conserve the 13th Century paintings in the church, but instead he recreated them in a neo-Gothic style. His intent was to provide a clear liturgical message to the 19th Century pilgrims to the Church. While the original paintings were destroyed, apparently there was consistency in their iconographic message. The artistic license was not appreciated – Hivonnait’s work provoked the wrath of Prosper Mérimée, the inspector of the Monuments Historique.

Apse and crypt, Église Sainte-Radegonde, Poiters, (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Hivonnait was a very accomplished artist who was involved in many projects restoring murals through the Poitou region (I know of his work in the town of Colombiers and in Châtellerault, as well as multiple projects in Poitiers). But he also founded an atelier for stained glass to compete with the workshops that had developed in Paris and Tours to provide glass to the churches in the region.

Oven vault, Église Sainte-Radegonde, Poiters, (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Hivonnait’s restoration work, however, illustrates the conundrum that underlies all historic restoration. Should the restoration merely take the building as it exists and repair it so that it will continue to exist in the form to which it has evolved over the years? In other words, should the building look like it did yesterday, only in better condition?

Or should, for example, the restorer remove additions that were made to a structure in the years since it was originally built? Often these additions are disastrous failures and aesthetic blunders. Should the restorer attempt to understand the minds of the original builders and re-create that structure?

Like Viollet-le-Duc, Hivonnait tried to reconstruct the totality what he thought would have existed at some key point in time. I believe that his work has resulted in something rare and beautiful, but we do not know what was lost. That fact in itself confirms the conundrum.

Steps to choir, Église Sainte-Radegonde, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

The church shares unique features with Saint Hilaire just a mile away in Poitiers. Both have the crypt of the saint below the raised choir, with a stairway to lead down to the crypt. Each raised choir has a hemicycle surrounded by a large ambulatory. But the ambulatory of Sainte Radegonde is singular with its central ambulatory chapel that supplements the radiating chapels.

Ambulatory, Église Sainte-Radegonde, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

This central ambulatory chapel of Sainte Radegonde meant that as the pilgrims moved slowly through the ambulatory, they would have seen altars and relics on their left and their right. They might also have admired and studied the Adam and Eve capital on the column.

Ambulatory altar, Église Sainte-Radegonde, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

Poitiers was important in medieval times because of its importance as the seat of one of the oldest bishoprics in France and as home to the powerful Counts of Poitiers. But it was also the site of two important pilgrimages, Saint Hilaire and Sainte Radegonde. Saint Martin of Tours who is arguably the most revered saint in France was a disciple of Saint Hilaire and had strong ties to the city. This made Poitiers a pilgrimage in itself, and not merely an adjunct on the route to Santiago de Compostella.

Ambulatory chapel, Église Sainte-Radegonde, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

Signs of that devotion of the faithful are plenty in Poitiers. There is the great 12th Century Angevin Gothic cathedral of Saint Pierre, blessed with the famed Resurrection window donated by Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. There are three 11th Century Romanesque churches – the magnificent Notre Dame la Grande in the heart of the city, the basilica church of Saint Hilaire just outside the old city walls but now surrounded by modern Poitiers, and Saint-Jean de Montierneuf. To further testify to the importance of the town, there is what is thought to the oldest surviving Christian structure in France, the 4th Century Baptistère Saint-Jean and an extraordinary Merovingian necropolis called the Hypogée des Dunes.

And to the west of the town, overlooking the River Clain, is the modest but beautiful Église Sainte-Radegonde, one of the finest jewels in the crown of Poitiers.

35 responses to “Sainte Radegonde of Poitiers and her Church (Dennis Aubrey)

    • Thanks, Vann. Sometimes I feel like we just skim the surface. So many times we have visited a church and have been approached by local aficionados and scholars who have delved deep into their local monuments. We learn much from them and appreciate the time they give to us.

  1. Thank you for all of this, it is very helpful to me. Especially the photo of the crypt.
    In the story I’m translating the hero has to lift a stone over the tomb of a long-dead abbot and descend the stairs to his coffin. So looking at your photos, on this page and others, helps me imagine my scene.
    Actually, what I should do is go to see these churches myself. Saving, saving…

    • Worth saving for, Trish. There are so many amazing places in France – as I’ve said so many times before, I believe that there are 5,000 Romanesque churches there. Astonishing. We’ve shot about 450 of them, so we have much to do!

  2. Your photographs capture the Poitou architecture of Sainte-Radegonde wonderfully, inspite of Hinnovait’s questionable restoration work. The sturdy proportion of columns, elongated capitals and polychrome decorations on structure as well as paintings themselves all add up to the unique feel of the church.
    Jong-Soung

    • We have a high appreciation of the Poitou style and Sainte Radegonde is one of the most unique. It was the parish church for some of a dear family friend who lives in Vivonne but was raised in Poitiers. So I have visited it over the years and marveled each time. Thanks again for your comments.

  3. Thanks a bunch for your ‘likes’ on my humble travel posts… your own work is incredible and an inspiration! I could spend hours looking back through everything you have there. This is a fantastic archive. I just love that Romanesque!

    • Thanks, Kirsten – enjoyed your post. Glad you like these Romanesque churches, which we study and photograph with a passion. Lots of the Romanesque in you’re area, Koln has a dozen within the city walls.

    • You are, unfortunately, correct. In France and Spain we know it is because there is such a shortage of priests. On the other hand, we have gotten fairly adept at locating the keys in the towns and villages, which often leads to impromptu tours and conversations. Thanks for your visit and comment.

  4. Cette église est magnifique et pourtant on a tendance à l’oublier dans les rétrospectives de l’art pré-roman et roman. Peut-être Notre-Dame de Poitiers lui fait-elle un peu d’ombre.

    • Je crois que la cathédrale Saint-Pierre et l’église Notre-Dame la Grande mettent Sainte Radegonde dans l’ombre. Mais la richesse des églises merveilleuses à Poitiers en font une ville spéciale.

      • Je suis tout à fait d’accord avec vous, cette ville a un patrimoine religieux remarquable. Outre les églises déjà mentionnées, ne pensons qu’au Baptistère Saint-Jean (un des rares subsistant en France si je ne m’abuse). J’ai eu la chance d’y demeurer 11 mois en 1992-93 et j’ai été étonnée par sa richesse architecturale.

  5. Whether Hivonnait was historically accurate or not, the light in this place is glorious, and brilliantly captured.

    • Craig, sorry not to have replied for so long, but we had a disaster on the site and I have only gotten access again today. I cannot agree with you more – sometimes these restorers seemed to understand the churches and give them life again in a way consistent with the original intention. Other times, this was a disaster. Unfortunately, it is a dangerous thing to leave the results in the hands of one person.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s