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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.