Église Saint-Nicolas in Civray (Dennis Aubrey)

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.

Nave, Église Saint-Nicolas, Civray (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Nave, Église Saint-Nicolas, Civray (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

North side aisle, Église Saint-Nicolas, Civray (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Altar, Église Saint-Nicolas, Civray (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Crossing dome, Église Saint-Nicolas, Civray (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

West portal, Église Saint-Nicolas, Civray (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Column swallower on west front, Église Saint-Nicolas, Civray (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Crossing and north transept, Église Saint-Nicolas, Civray (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

For a more complete list of churches that are featured in our Via Lucis blog, please follow this link.

41 thoughts on “Église Saint-Nicolas in Civray (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. At first glance, I thought the painted arches were tiled. There is almost a Moorish feel here and there. Was the church bare stone prior to Brouillet’s painting?

    1. Elliott, I think that there were probably remnants of earlier painting here as there is in Sainte Radegonde in Poitiers, Saint Austremoine in Issoire, Saint Julien in Brioude and so many other churches. In the 19th Century, the restoration preference seemed to involve painting churches in this fashion. It seems to be out of favor now, although I’m not sure why. Some of the 19th Century work is, however, quite gaudy.

    1. Richard, the churches are far too large to light so we use available light. Our primary lenses are the Canon tilt-shifts, the EF TS-E 17mm f/4L and the 24mm f3.5 TSE LII. You can see that they are not fast lenses, but perform beautifully in the architectural spaces. We do long exposures with tripod-mounted cameras.

      You can see a page on our equipment at this link. Thanks for your comments.

      1. Thank you so much for all of the information. Your equipment list is truly impressive – as are your photos. Great equipment is just a start – you use it to produce excellent artistic work with inspired vision.

      2. Richard, thanks for your kind words. This project is our passion and we are very concerned with the quality of the photography. The equipment that we use helps us meet those objectives.

    1. Thanks, Arnel. I like PJ’s shot as well, showing the windows of the crossing dome. The vibrant colors were common in medieval churches which were highly decorated.

      1. Thank you Dennis! I would love that! I’ve started a reading list on my computer that saves the sites so I can refer back to them if I get them mixed up! 🙂

  2. This type of Photography takes more than common photographic tools to produce, and even more than that expertise. The photos are beautiful with all the detail and are the essential element of your story. It is such a great read and photo perusal.

    1. Joseph, thanks for your kind words and observations. PJ and I are passionate about this project – she is more of the artist and I the documentarian, but our goal is to find the sources of the inspiration that drove the builders of these churches. We are compelled to take care and consideration to respect their magnificent works.

  3. Your blog is great and informative. Thanks for doing it. I was intrigued that you appear to be using HDR for some of your shots. If so then I’m not sure that you’re getting everything out of it that you wish. I took a screen grab of one of your Civray shots and reprocessed it with HDR Efex Pro. You can see it here if you’re interested: https://picasaweb.google.com/edificia00/Civray?feat=email
    It’s rough and grainy, of course, but it’s lighter and more visible and the colors aren’t muddy.
    I realize that this is your property and I’ll take it down in a day or so but it was just to illustrate how dark some of your shots are. The originals would look spiffy if processed to be lighter. For an example of what HDR can do go to http://www.squinchpix.com and search for ‘germigny-des-pres’.
    I’m sincere when I say that your blog is great; it really is. I’m already linking to it.


    1. Bob, thanks for your comments and your link – I had not heard of Squinchpix before (love the name) and will spend some time there. The link to the Civray shot does not work, could you repost that?

      We do use HDR on some images, and I routinely shoot six to nine exposures so that we can do it if we choose. PJ does not use HDR, however, on her shots.

  4. I can post it on SquinchPix (which I didn’t want to do with someone else’s work). It would be easier to e-mail it to you but I need an e-mail address. I probably shouldn’t have criticized your shot (lots of mine are FAR from perfect) but the HDR thing intrigued me. Your photography is generally wonderful.

    1. Bob, saw your image. I think we merely have a difference in style here. PJ and I try to preserve the visual aspect of the church the way our eyes perceive it (impossible task, I know), so we tend to like the shadows and dim recesses. Even in our HDR processing we tend in that direction. Thanks for this discussion. If you are interested in our processing, here is a link where we discuss it in more detail.

      1. Hi Dennis,
        I read your entry on post-processing and found it informative. You say that “we tend to like the shadows and dim recesses”. You are certainly entitled to your own vision but I can’t resist noticing that photography should reveal, not conceal. Best to you and keep up the great work!


      1. I love architecture, especially that of churches, some of the greatest artist worked to make these houses of worship the most beautiful places, since the church had the funds to help artist be who they wanted to be. It was symbiosis which worked perfectly most of the time. Btw, I’m not at least religious, I just appreciate art…

      2. I think we share this appreciation for the builders of these great Romanesque churches. I do believe, however, that the term “artist” is a bit premature for these times. The emerging class of builders and masons were working to express a deep religious sensibility that they shared with the monastic orders who sponsored the construction. I think that the concept of personal artistic achievement emerged over time as the religious sensibility diminished.

  5. Interesting pictures and comments, thanks! Actually, I also agree that “shadows and light” are a matter of style and preference. Personally, I like the feel of your images since they capture the atmosphere inside the churches so well. –
    On another note: I find it very interesting and new that much (or most) of the painting in this church took place in the 19th century. Was this generally the case with French Romanesque churches? I ask because I know that in the German Rhineland Romanesque churches used to be decorated in bright colours (exterior as well as interior) as part of the original building process.
    Thank you very much again for sharing your art work – as always I am looking forward to the next instalment!

    1. Michaela, thanks for your comments on this post. The reason that these were painted in the 19th Century is that in 1834, Prosper Mérimée was appointed to the post of inspector-general of the Monuments Historique, the first systematic national program to protect the patrimony. There was tremendous activity in first identifying and then restoring many of these churches. It was clear from some of the existing churches that the originals had been brightly painted (Saint Julien de Brioude, for example). These became models, I understand, for the work that was done by the architects and designers associated with the Monuments Historique. Here is a post and a followup that discuss some of the issues associated with the restoration of these churches.

      1. Thank you for both your quick reply and the links. I’ll head right over.

  6. Pictures and text magnificently complementary. Those pillars and the decoration of the apse absolutely blew me away.

    I learned a lovely new word, too: squinch. I don’t know what it means yet, but the sound of it grabbed the poet in me. And now I’m off to the dictionary.

    1. Viv, architecture is full of words like that. And the best part, is that we can do it in two languages. I’m in trouble when we spend more time in Spain. Or Italy. Or Germany.

  7. Dennis,
    As always a wonderful set of photographs of St. Nicolas from you and PJ, which captures the spiritual and spatial essence of the church so well!
    I wonder whether Monuments Historiques would let a modern day Brouillet paint the interior of St. Nicolas in such a full charge mode today?

    1. Thanks, Jong-Soung. Regarding your question, it is extremely unlikely. I know that the architects have a great deal of influence, but free rein? You know, of course, the story of Saint Austremoine in Issoire. In 1857 Anatole Dauvergne was paid 60,000 francs to whitewash the structure. He was possessed of some kind of inspiration, because he came up with an astonishing result.

  8. Fabulous photos, we visited this Church today for the first time, and we only live 1/2 hr away. I tried to take photo with my small Camera a Lumix, my bridge Camera that I usually use is a Canon SX40, I hope I can take some photos like those. Brilliant. You captured the Church perfectly.

    1. Marguerite, how lucky you are to live in one of our favorite areas of France! Thank you for the kind words about our work – as you probably know, this Via Lucis project is a passion for PJ and myself.

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