PJ and I love the town of Auxerre for many reasons. It is the closest thing to a city to our beloved Vézelay, it has a lovely medieval center and is the home to our favorite soccer team, AJ Auxerre, brought to prominence by the iconic Guy Roux. It was amazing that a town of 40,000 could support a Ligue 1 team; it is like Tupelo, Mississippi with an NFL franchise. We always try to work our schedule so that we can see the team play. Last year was disastrous and Icaunais were relegated from the top French league to Ligue 2 for the first time in 35 years. It was a heavy blow.
Auxerre is typical of medieval French towns – sited on a hill over a river crowned with churches. On the hill to the right is the Abbey of Saint-Germain d’Auxerre. On the left, surviving the damages of the Hundred Years War, a sacking by Protestants in the Wars of Religion, and the humiliations of the French Revolution, the Cathédrale Saint Etienne still stands proudly atop the hill overlooking the Yonne River.
Auxerre was an important episcopal site in the Middle Ages, and renowned for learning and the sanctity of its bishops. Of the thirty-seven bishops between the years 330-1030, twenty-four became saints of the Church. No other church of France glories in a similar list of bishops honored as saints. The cathedral is the fifth Christian structure on this site – the first was outgrown and replaced, two were destroyed by fire, and then a Romanesque cathedral consecrated in 1057. In 1215 the bishop William Seignelay demolished the Romanesque church and built the present Gothic structure, named after Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr. William started the construction at his own personal expense and the cathedral was substantially completed in only thirty years.
Saint Etienne was recognized early by the Patrimoine de France and classified as a historical monument in 1840. There have been some programs of restoration over the years, but the cathedral looks today as it did in this photograph from 1851. Saint Etienne was never completed and the south tower is built only up on the first two levels. It gives the exterior a strange, incomplete look.
The sculpture and the stained glass windows (including forty from the school of Chartres in the choir) that fill the cathedral are remarkable, as is the interior architecture. As might be expected from a church that was built in so short a time, the architecture is altogether of a complete, harmonious design. The interior is majestic, almost austere.
The nave is composed of five bays, but there is an interesting fact about this. The Gothic church was constructed in an unusual way. The eastern apse and the western portal were constructed at the same time, connected by the Romanesque nave. Only when the two extreme elements were completed were the remaining four connecting bays of the nave rebuilt.
That nave is 12 meters wide and 30 meters high. The elevation features a main arcade to the side aisles, a blind triforium and massive clerestory windows. We can also see the well-proportioned columns, which feature a central column with engaged shafts to support the various elements of the nave arcade and vaulting.
The roof of the nave rises 30 meters above the floor and terminates in a quadripartite rib vault. The original design was for sexpartite vaulting but this changed once the nave construction began.
The elegant side aisles are 13 meters high and feature a vista past the spacious, well-lit transepts into the curve of the ambulatory. Each bay of the side aisle features a chapel.
The double-bay transepts are deep and each features a superb rose window. In the picture below, the closest bay is actually the entrance to the ambulatory.
The apse features a seven segment hemicycle leading to the ambulatory beyond. It is from this vantage point that we can best appreciate the stained glass windows from the Chartres school.
There is one remaining vestige of the Romanesque cathedral, the crypt. The crypt has a set of superb murals including a rare figure of Christ astride a white horse, called the Christ of the Apocalypse. (CORRECTION: THIS MURAL IS IN THE CRYPT AT THE ABBAYE SAINT GERMAIN IN AUXERRE. THANKS TO JAN ROGOZINSKI FOR THE INFORMATION).
Because the Gothic cathedral was built on the footprint of that crypt, the apse has an unusual feature – there is only a single radiating chapel at the back of the ambulatory, corresponding to the chapel in the crypt below.
When PJ and I did our talk at Harvard in March, we attended a dinner at the home of the French consul in Cambridge. During that dinner, PJ had a conversation with a distinguished academic and the subject of Auxerre came up. He belittled the town as a backwater with a “bunch of empty churches.” We both bridled at this patronizing attitude. It brought to mind the verse of the Burgundy poet Alphonse de Lamartine who wrote:
Je sens que dans ce vide une oreille m’écoute,
Qu’un invisible ami, dans la nef répandu,
M’attire à lui, me parle un langage entendu,
Se communique à moi dans un silence intime,
Et dans son vaste sein m’enveloppe et m’abîme.
Saint Etienne does envelop us and communicate in the intimate silence. To us, Auxerre is a vital town with direct links to past greatness and respect for those who preceded. The Cathédrale Saint Etienne is evidence of this and, along with Guy Roux, is a jewel in her crown.
By the way, this is not the first time that we have discussed soccer in the same breath as our beloved churches. If you are interested, here is another featuring Two Graceful Vaults.
Location: 47.797867° 3.572721°