Civray in the Vienne is a thriving market town almost sixty kilometers south of Poitiers. I lived in the area for two years growing up but never saw Saint-Nicolas until October 2011. We came into the center of town on market day, which meant that every inch of space in the square was taken with vendors, vehicles and pedestrians. We despaired of finding a parking place close enough to the church to haul our equipment when a car pulled out in front of us a mere hundred yards from the center of the action. This reminded me of my mother’s parking prayer – “Hail Mary, full of grace, help me find a parking place,” which she swears has never failed her.
The bustle of activity in the square belied the quiet interior of the 12th Century church, though, and we were able to shoot with almost no interruption for three hours. Saint-Nicolas beguiled us from the first view with its bright bold colors and beautiful and elegant Poitevin Romanesque structure.
The church has a nave of four bays covered by an ogive barrel vault. Each bay has an engaged column that supports a supporting transverse band.
The barrel vaulted side aisles are very narrow compared to the width of the nave. The ample windows enable us to enjoy the painted motives on the arches and columns.
The north and south transepts each feature a chapel in echelon. There is a central crossing dome and the apse terminates in a painted oven vault.
The wall and arch decoration and the murals were painted by Pierre Amédée Brouillet in 1865 and give the building an interesting iconographical progression – the squinches of the crossing tower feature the four evangalists, the barrel vault in the choir features Christ in Glory and the Virgin in Majesty accompanied the apostles is featured on the oven vault. As can be expected, the aggressive decoration by Brouillet is the subject of debate, but PJ and I both thought that it was pleasing and appropriate.
The crossing has a stunning dome supporting the great tower. The portraits of the four evangalists can be seen in the squinches, while the windows in the dome provide a lovely light to the crossing below.
The western facade is a masterpiece of Romanesque sculpture, with the same richness of detail found at Notre Dame la Grande in Poitiers or the Cathédrale Saint Pierre in Angoulême. The church was in very bad repair by the 19th Century, and after the 1840 classification as a historic monument, the Monuments Historique determined that something had to be done. In 1843 the facade was scheduled to be dismantled and restored. The project was carried out under the supervision of Charles Joly-Leterme, a Poitevin architect from Charroux who was also responsible for the restoration of several churches in the region, including Saint-Savin and Cunault.
For this project at Civray, each stone of the facade was numbered and removed. Unfortunately, this process resulted in the collapse of the first bay of the nave and a major restoration of the structure was required. When that reconstruction was completed, the facade was replaced stone by stone.
Among the details of the fascinating west portal is an example of one of our favorite motifs, the column swallower. This character is part of a pair that flank the door of the church.
Église Saint-Nicolas in Civray is a beautiful and elegant reminder of its past as an important priory church attached to the Abbey of Nouaillé. It is worth a visit if you are in the area; the west facade alone is worth hours of contemplation. We are always amazed at the number of these churches in France and in particular, in this region. Along with the Église Sainte Radegonde, Basilique Saint Hilaire, and the Notre Dame la Grande in Poitiers, Eglise Saint Pierre des Tours in Aulnay, Abbatiale Saint Pierre in Airvault, and the Église Saint Hilaire in Melle, they are among the jewels in the Romanesque crown of Poitou.
For a more complete list of churches that are featured in our Via Lucis blog, please follow this link.