A Carolingian Marvel (Dennis Aubrey)


When I was thirteen years old, the family lived in the small Poitevin town of Chauvigny, a town with a hill crowned by several chateaux and the wonderful Collégiale Saint Pierre. My brother David and I climbed all over that hill and explored every inch of the medieval town. We heard about a building where Charlemagne had slept when he passed through the area and of course we had to find it. Charlemagne was part of our pantheon of heroes in those days, the great king of the Song of Roland. We discovered that the “building” where he stayed was little more than a small stone hut, not over five feet high. This experience certainly introduced a sense of proportion to our hero worship.

Last September, PJ and I got to see another Carolingian relic. In all of France, there are but two remnants of the 8th and 9th Century revival of church architectural that we call the Carolingian – Germigny-des-Prés (805) and Saint-Philibert-de-Grand-Lieu (814-47). We have written of the French architect Jean Juste Gustave Lisch’s desecration of the Église de la Très-Sainte-Trinité in Germigny-des-Prés. The slightly later Église Abbatiale Saint Philbert-de-Grandlieu has survived today, in better condition, even though it went through terrible times during the Viking invasions.

North side aisle, Église Abbatiale Saint Philbert-de-Grandlieu, Saint Philbert-de-Grandlieu (Loire-Atlantique)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

North side aisle, Église Abbatiale Saint Philbert-de-Grandlieu, Saint Philbert-de-Grandlieu (Loire-Atlantique) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The story of this church is also the story of the Gascon-born Saint Philibert, one of the most important monastic figures of his age. In 654 he received a grant of land from Clovis II and founded the abbey of Jumièges in Normandy, but after censuring an important court figure, he was exiled. He later founded the great abbey church of Noirmoutier on an island on the border of Brittany in 675 and died in 684.

Noirmoutier became one of the most prosperous abbeys in France but in 814, the monks began to fear a Viking attack on their exposed island. They built an abbey on the mainland, close to the lake of Grandlieu, which they completed in 819. The construction was authorized by Ludwig I, son of Charlemagne. By 836, abbey at Noirmoutier was attacked by the Normans and eventually abandoned. The monks moved themselves and the precious relics of their founder to the new abbey church at Grandlieu, which became Saint Philibert-de-Grandlieu. There were several miracles associated with the translation of the relics from Noirmoutier to Grandlieu and a pilgrimage began to develop.

Église Abbatiale Saint Philbert-de-Grandlieu, Saint Philibert-de-Grandlieu (Loire-Atlantique)  Photo by PJ McKey

Église Abbatiale Saint Philibert-de-Grandlieu, Saint Philibert-de-Grandlieu (Loire-Atlantique) Photo by PJ McKey

In order to accommodate the pilgrims, the relics were placed in a ground level crypt with the apse raised above it. A narrow ambulatory with echeloned chapels was built around the crypt, a development that heralded the Romanesque architecture that would shortly emerge in Europe.

Apse and crypt, Église Abbatiale Saint Philibert-de-Grandlieu, Saint Philibert-de-Grandlieu (Loire-Atlantique)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse and crypt, Église Abbatiale Saint Philibert-de-Grandlieu, Saint Philibert-de-Grandlieu (Loire-Atlantique) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

By 847, the Normans had reached the new church and it also had to be abandoned. The monks moved to Cunault, in the Anjou, leaving the relics behind. In 858, some monks returned to Saint Philibert-de-Grandlieu and recovered the relics. They put them in a leather bag, leaving the sarcophagus in place, and relocated the relics of Saint Philibert to Tournus in Burgundy, where they remain to this day.

The Normans destroyed the nave in their 847 raid and it had to be rebuilt, with four bays instead of six, but otherwise in the same style. This is the nave that we see today.

Nave, Église Abbatiale Saint Philibert-de-Grandlieu, Saint Philibert-de-Grandlieu (Loire-Atlantique)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Église Abbatiale Saint Philibert-de-Grandlieu, Saint Philibert-de-Grandlieu (Loire-Atlantique) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Many of the arches are original and feature a masonry style of alternating limestone and brick.

Église Abbatiale Saint Philibert-de-Grandlieu, Saint Philibert-de-Grandlieu (Loire-Atlantique)  Photo by PJ McKey

Église Abbatiale Saint Philibert-de-Grandlieu, Saint Philibert-de-Grandlieu (Loire-Atlantique) Photo by PJ McKey

One significant change in the nave was made, however. In the 19th century, the abandoned church was used as a market and the walls were dropped three meters. The wooden roof was rebuilt during the restorations of 1896-1903. Despite this truncation of the walls, we see a church that is a fairly accurate reflection of the one built by the Noirmoutier monks in the 9th Century.

Église Abbatiale Saint Philibert-de-Grandlieu, Saint Philibert-de-Grandlieu (Loire-Atlantique)  Photo by PJ McKey

Église Abbatiale Saint Philibert-de-Grandlieu, Saint Philibert-de-Grandlieu (Loire-Atlantique) Photo by PJ McKey

We are lucky that Saint Philibert-de-Grandlieu remains in such good shape considering it is really the only authentic Carolingian church remaining in France. We can see much in that architecture that would be adopted and adapted by the Romanesque builders who followed shortly afterwards. The ambulatory which funneled pilgrims to the relics of Saint Philibert became the model for Conques, Toulouse, Saint-Benoit, and all of the other great pilgrimage churches of the Middle Ages.

Oh, and on a curious note, the filbert, or hazelnut, was named after Saint Philibert. The reason? In England, the hazelnut ripens about August 20, which is Philibert’s Feast Day.

8 responses to “A Carolingian Marvel (Dennis Aubrey)

    • Thanks, Anne. This was a wonderful church, the first we shot last year. There were two issues with this – as usual PJ was afraid that she did not do it justice because she had not found her rhythm. These shots show that her worries were unfounded. The second was that I did not completely review the camera settings after we got the instrument back from Canon Professional Services and I found that I had shot the entire church at a lower resolution than normal! What a dunce!

  1. Another exceptional trip into the far distant past. As often as possible, please share your awareness of smells and scents that you find, especially inside these ancient structures. I can close my eyes and sense the monks in prayer. Vann

    • Thanks, Vann! Interesting that you ask for smells and scents as well, because they play an important part of what we find there. PJ is probably better at this, so I will ask her about this! Happy New Year.

  2. Lovely description and unfolding photo-essay, as ever.
    A question and a thought.
    Question: Wasn’t it normal for a pilgrimage centre to have space for the pilgrim hordes to circumnavigate the relics or shrine? It seems very bold, but fascinating, to suggest S Nutty-at-Bigplace was the first. (I imagine pre-Christian pilgrimage spots were circular at their core for just this reason, no?)
    My thought: I try to imagine the bishop and his prelates in their robes solemnly takintg their seats around the ambulatory – these are sure high steps!

    • John, S Nutty at Bigplace 🙂 Great way to start the New Year!

      The pilgrim spaces like this are, as far as I can glean from Conant, derived from Saint Peter’s in Rome (the original) and slowly spread throughout the rest of the Christian world. Remember that this was before the great era of pilgrimage in Europe so most of these were fairly localized. The whole idea of the ambulatory was to have a space for the pilgrims to move around and view the relics without disturbing the monastic or ecclesiastical offices that would take place on the altar, so I’m not sure that the pre-Christian plans were applicable.

      Now, to address the main consideration of your post: Do the bishops hike up their robes when climbing up to the apse? Actually, at the far right there is a more accessible stairwell, but it is far less fun to consider the problem using the easier steps.

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