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.
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.
In this view from the south side aisle, it is very interesting to see the nave windows through the arcades.
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.
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.
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.
In the following shot, the ambulatory can be seen past the rather primitive hemicycle with its alternating square piers and round columns.
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.