Saint Etienne de Nevers (Dennis Aubrey)


The Église Saint Etienne in Nevers is an 11th century church that was constructed between 1068-1097. The structure, built with ocher limestone, is one of the finest and best preserved Romanesque churches in France, but surprisingly is not well-known. It was consecrated in 1097 as a priory church attached to Cluny and used for the offices of its community. Despite its hemicycle and ambulatory, it was not a pilgrimage church.

From the plan it can be seen that there are six bays in the have, groin vaulted side aisles, a crossing covered with a dome, two transepts each with an echeloned chapel, and an apse with an ambulatory and three radiating chapels.

Plan, Saint Etienne de Nevers (Viollet-le-Duc)

Plan, Saint Etienne de Nevers (Viollet-le-Duc)

The high nave is topped with a wonderfully preserved banded barrel vault, supported by engaged columns rising from the piers supporting the arcades. This is the first medieval church to rise to three stories under a stone vault.

Nave, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The six bays of the nave have three vertical levels – the rounded arches of the side aisles, the tribunes, and the narrow clerestory windows. These clerestory windows, the first to be raised above a tribune level in a wall supporting a vault, let in an enormous amount of natural light into the nave.

Nave elevations, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave elevations, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The tribunes feature double bays and are covered by half-barrel vaults. We can see in this shot that the first bay of the nave is covered by a transverse gallery, creating a narthex-like space below. Today, a great organ occupies that gallery.

Nave looking northwest, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave looking northwest, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

The side aisles feature groin vaults that permitted large windows in the thick exterior walls. As with the rest of the church, the lines are clean and spare.

Side aisle, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Side aisle, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The transepts feature a stunning five-windowed diaphragm arch leading to the crossing, just before the opening to the ambulatory. This arch lets the light from the windows in all three walls of the transept shine into the chancel.

Transept, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre)  Photo by PJ McKey

Transept, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

The crossing has a fine cupola supported by pendentives and we can see the diaphragm arches clearly.

Cupola and vaulting, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Cupola and vaulting, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

For a church that was not on the pilgrimage route, Saint Etienne has a superb ambulatory surrounding the hemicycle. The paving stones of the walk are beautifully laid in a pattern radiating outward from the hemicycle.

Ambulatory, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre)  Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

The ambulatory is covered with groin vaulting and has three radiating chapels.

Ambulatory, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre)  Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

The first time we went to Saint Etienne, we were with my parents. The visit happened to coincide with the Journées du patrimoine, the weekend where all French monuments are opened for visiting. A group of school children approached Don and Lucille and asked if they could tell them about the church. Of course my parents agreed and received a multimedia lecture from the group. I always loved this moment and how excited the children were to talk to the Americans.

Lucille and Don learning the history of Saint Etienne de Nevers  (Photo by PJ McKey)

Lucille and Don learning the history of Saint Etienne de Nevers (Photo by PJ McKey)

Saint Etienne de Nevers is one of the few Romanesque churches in France to survive without major alterations of its original internal structure despite being deprived of its two western towers and central octagonal tower of the crossing by the French Revolution. From the inside, however, we can appreciate the intent of the original builders and their skill in building this wonderful church. They chose to concentrate on proportion, volume, and balance instead of formal decoration, and the result is a pure example of French Romanesque architecture.

Location: 46.991806° 3.164585°

16 responses to “Saint Etienne de Nevers (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. That took me back years to visiting Nevers – and this church – on one of my early visits to France. I wish I’d had either those delightful children or yourself to open my eyes to it then.

    • Helen, it is one of my fondest memories of so many traveling with my parents. The kids approached with the greatest respect, and when they found out that Don and Lucille were Americans, they were so excited.

  2. What sprang to mind when I saw these photos was the interior of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostella (sadly in the news recently for tragic reasons!). The barrel vault, wall elevation and the galleries crossing the ends of the transepts are just like Santiago. One would give much to know what the portal looked like before the demolition of the western bays of the nave.

    • The builders of the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela were probably French, so that makes sense. As far as the west front of Saint Etienne, I have searched for drawings from before the Revolution but have had no luck yet.

  3. Dennis, another excellent post. Before I saw your description, all I could think of was how clean and spare the lines in this church were! It’s curious that St. Etienne contains an ambulatory despite not being on a pilgrimage route though. Any ideas (beyond pure aesthetics) for why they put one in?

    • Thanks, Nathan. Not sure why they built the ambulatory, except that it was a Cluniac church (and in fact many scholars think it was the immediate model for Cluny III). BTW, you leave this week, right? Bon voyage, Nathan, and keep in touch.

  4. Seeing photos of tribunes and the gallery are very helpful for my Gothic translation. Thanks very much! Your parents must think you’re the best!

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