Église Saint Etienne de Vignory (Dennis Aubrey)

In the small town of Vignory, perhaps a dozen miles north of Chaumont in the Haute-Marne, is one of the oldest Romanesque churches in France. Built between 1032 and 1057 by Gui Vignory, the first Seigneur de Vignory, and his son Roger, the Église Saint Etienne preserves a nave, apse, and ambulatory that are essentially the same today as when they were built.

Saint Etienne has a simple layout; a nave and two side aisles lead directly to the chancel crossing and then to the apse and ambulatory. There are no transepts. The nave is a fine example of early Romanesque with nine bays under an open-timber roof, separated from the side aisles by a striking two-story arcade.

Eglise Saint-Étienne, Vignory (Haute-Marne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Eglise Saint-Étienne, Vignory (Haute-Marne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The arcade openings are quite wide, with solid square piers. Each arcade features a false tribune of twin bays with sculpted capitals, surmounted by large clerestory windows.

Elevation of arcade at Saint Etienne-de-Vignory, Viollet-le-Duc (Image in the Public Domain)
Elevation of arcade at Saint Etienne-de-Vignory, Viollet-le-Duc (Image in the Public Domain)

In this view from the south side aisle, it is very interesting to see the nave windows through the arcades.

Nave arcade, Eglise Saint-Étienne, Vignory (Haute-Marne)  Photo by PJ McKey
Nave arcade, Eglise Saint-Étienne, Vignory (Haute-Marne) Photo by PJ McKey

The visual charm of the arcade is clear when viewed from the side aisles. The narrow columns of the tribune bays contrast sharply with the heavy capitals that top them and the powerful pillars that support the arcade. The open effect of the false tribunes allows light to penetrate from both sides of the aisles.

North side aisle, Eglise Saint-Étienne, Vignory (Haute-Marne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
North side aisle, Eglise Saint-Étienne, Vignory (Haute-Marne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Some significant restoration work was done in the early days of the Monuments Historique. Prosper Merimée himself recognized the importance of the church in 1843 and selected the architect Émile Boeswilwald to oversee the work. The restoration took place from 1846 to 1863, during which time two Gothic arches at the beginning of the nave were demolished and replaced in the Romanesque style. The massive chancel arch was built at the same time with its seven windows above the perfectly rounded arch.

There is an interesting anomaly in the supports for the last arcade – notice how the piers have become columns. It is said that this is evidence that the eastern end – the chancel and apse – were of a slightly later period of construction than the nave itself. This can be seen as evidence that the nave is of an earlier Carolingian style and the east end more purely Romanesque.

Eglise Saint-Étienne, Vignory (Haute-Marne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Eglise Saint-Étienne, Vignory (Haute-Marne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Perhaps the most important feature of the church is the ambulatory, the oldest Romanesque ambulatory of its kind to be preserved today. There is one other that is comparable at the Église abbatiale de Saint Savin in Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe.

Ambulatory, Eglise Saint-Étienne, Vignory (Haute-Marne)  Photo by PJ McKey
Ambulatory, Eglise Saint-Étienne, Vignory (Haute-Marne) Photo by PJ McKey

In the following shot, the ambulatory can be seen past the rather primitive hemicycle with its alternating square piers and round columns.

Apse, Eglise Saint-Étienne, Vignory (Haute-Marne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Apse, Eglise Saint-Étienne, Vignory (Haute-Marne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

All in all, Saint Etienne is beautifully proportioned and fortunately preserved. The stonework is quite good and, despite its early age, the church has a number of sophisticated design elements carried over from its Carolingian predecessors. Because it was raining when we visited, we were not able to photograph the exteriors, including the fine chevet and 12th century crossing tower. Since we also need to go to the nearby Abbatiale Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul de Montier-en-Der, very similar in age and design to Saint Etienne, we have a great excuse to return to this area.

South side aisle, Eglise Saint-Étienne, Vignory (Haute-Marne)  Photo by PJ McKey
South side aisle, Eglise Saint-Étienne, Vignory (Haute-Marne) Photo by PJ McKey

12 thoughts on “Église Saint Etienne de Vignory (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Many of the small parish churches I visit seem to have a mismatch in columns. Some times it’s a North and South difference, sometimes there’s a change some way down the nave – it has always struck me as strange the builders haven’t tried to keep to the previous style to give a sense of continuity.
    I can’t help but notice that some of the floors seem to be have been wet – would this be down to washing, leaking (you mention the rain) or something else?
    I’m quite taken the ambulatory – but then I’m a sucker for curving stone walls, the effect of the light can be stunning.

    1. I’m not sure it’s the same thing that you see in your churches, Stephen, but there is an effect called Stützenwechsel – the rhythmic alternation of square pillars and round columns. It can be seen at Conques among others. The Vignory example is not the same, since it only occurs once in the last arcade before the crossing.

      It’s funny that you mention the wet floors. I remember well that it was raining that day in May, but I don’t remember the floor being wet, although it certainly looks like it from the photos. Thanks for your comments.

      1. Stützenwechsel is definitely not a consideration in ‘my’ churches – nothing so well conceived. Some causes will be restoration, widening, lengthening – less reason to break the form – perhaps a lack of skill/money has something to do with it.
        A couple of weeks back I had planned to do some landscape photography but it started to snow heavily so I changed to a local church. I was in one of the aisles when I found myself being snowed on, albeit lightly – very strange…a window vent was missing from high on a plain glass leaded window.
        My lad is studying architecture at uni – Stützenwechsel is something I will be dropping into an appropriate conversation – just to prove there ‘no flies on the old man’ – so thanks for that! 😉

      2. Stephen, you made me laugh. Just drop it in casually and let me know the reaction. Now, I’ve been leaked on in a church, had dust powder fall on my head and shoulders, but I have never been snowed upon. That’s a first.

  2. My guess from the over wetness and the obvious signs of maintenance and care – flowers being left -is that the floor has just been washed. The green algae here and there tells us that there is a dampness problem, howver given the age of the church it’s not a big problem. I really like the simplicity of the building.

  3. Regarding the mismatched columns/capitals: depending on the church, this could be due to the use of spolia. Some of the smaller churches I study obviously didn’t have much of a budget and used pieces of older structures (some of Roman origin, since certain areas had a lot of Roman architectural residue lying around during the 12th century building boom). So it may not be that the builders aren’t paying attention to style, but are using material they had available to them.

    1. This was certainly the case in the Roman centers of Gaul, and especially in Provence. Often it wasn’t even as much an issue of the budget but workmanship. In Vignory, I don’t think this was the case, especially since most of the arcades are so uniform. In this particular case, the argument made by Henri Focillon that the nave was slightly earlier than the apse makes sense. Apparently, the church was first a collégiale and then Gui tossed them out and invited in the Benedictines. One source I read makes the case that the clerics built the nave and the Benedictines built the apse.

      There is one other interesting take on this – that Saint Etienne was modeled directly on Bishop Fulbert’s Romanesque cathedral in Chartres! René Merlet, who was the historian of the cathedral, made this observation.

      Thanks for taking the conversation in this direction!

    1. Thanks, Michael. Seeming simplicity is right. I use Google Sketchup to model churches sometimes, and the Vignory-style arcades are my favorites. They are also found in some of the older churches, including the Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste in Château-Gontier, Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul de Montier-en-Der, and a few more in the Alsace. Some people refer to this as Ottonian, but I’m not sure about the designation.

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 )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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 )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.