Saint Martin’s Church in the Auvergne (Dennis Aubrey)


The finest Romanesque churches seem to have a purity that speaks to the deepest and most fervent religious belief of Middle Ages. And the Église Saint-Martin de Cournon-d’Auvergne is almost pure Romanesque of the Auvergnat style.

The town of Cournon-d’Auvergne today is almost a suburb of the sprawling city of Clermont-Ferrand. The town boasts about 20,000 inhabitants, which is quite numerous for this lightly populated region of France. But lightly-populated though it may be, it is filled with superb Romanesque churches.

Église Saint-Martin de Cournon-d’Auvergne, Cournon-d’Auvergne (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Église Saint-Martin de Cournon-d’Auvergne, Cournon-d’Auvergne (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In the 10th century the monks of the église collégiale Saint-Martin de Tours established the community of monks in Cournon and provided precious relics of Saint Martin and Saint Hilaire. In the 12th century, those cournonnais built their church honoring Saint Martin out of the local stone.

Their church consisted of a narrow high nave with five bays and side aisles, short transepts and an apse with only two radiating chapels. Today, there are only four bays remaining in the nave and the radiating chapels have been rebuilt. The nave is covered with a long barrel vault with two arc-doubleaux supporting the vault. The supporting bands are rare in this region.

Nave, Église Saint-Martin de Cournon-d'Auvergne, Cournon-d'Auvergne (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Église Saint-Martin de Cournon-d’Auvergne, Cournon-d’Auvergne (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The nave elevation shows the arcades topped with a glorious triple-arched tribune. The engaged columns of the piers are topped with capitals, as are the engaged columns that carry arc-doubleaux. Notice how the barrel vault seems to spring directly from the top of the tribunes with no decoration or adornment.

Nave elevation, Église Saint-Martin de Cournon-d'Auvergne, Cournon-d'Auvergne (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave elevation, Église Saint-Martin de Cournon-d’Auvergne, Cournon-d’Auvergne (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The narrow side aisles are groin vaulted. It is odd that there are windows only in every other bay. In this north side aisle, there are traces of the 14th century murals that decorated the church. In the distance we can see the raised entrance to the ambulatory.

North side aisle, Église Saint-Martin de Cournon-d'Auvergne, Cournon-d'Auvergne (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

North side aisle, Église Saint-Martin de Cournon-d’Auvergne, Cournon-d’Auvergne (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

The tall, narrow transepts survived the destruction of the tower so the view that we see today is probably close to the original design. The terminus of the tribune is particularly attractive, leaving a gallery opening out to the crossing.

Transept, Église Saint-Martin de Cournon-d'Auvergne, Cournon-d'Auvergne (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Transept, Église Saint-Martin de Cournon-d’Auvergne, Cournon-d’Auvergne (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

When the crossing tower collapsed in 1742, significant damage occurred in the ambulatory. This ambulatory and its two radiating chapels were rebuilt during the reconstruction of the apse in the 19th century.

Entrance to ambulatory, Église Saint-Martin de Cournon-d'Auvergne, Cournon-d'Auvergne (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Entrance to ambulatory, Église Saint-Martin de Cournon-d’Auvergne, Cournon-d’Auvergne (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

The rebuilt ambulatory is particularly compelling at Saint Martin, particularly because of the survival of the original hemicycle. The floor of the choir and ambulatory are at the same height and there is no pediment that separates the two. But the six columns and their stilted arcades of the hemicycle demonstrate great purity of line.

Ambulatory, Église Saint-Martin de Cournon-d'Auvergne, Cournon-d'Auvergne (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Ambulatory, Église Saint-Martin de Cournon-d’Auvergne, Cournon-d’Auvergne (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

These pillars are topped with well-carved capitals, mostly of floral motives. The groin vaulted ambulatory is quite high for its narrow width. There is no evidence that confirms to us that the original ambulatory was covered with this kind of vault.

Ambulatory, Église Saint-Martin de Cournon-d'Auvergne, Cournon-d'Auvergne (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Église Saint-Martin de Cournon-d’Auvergne, Cournon-d’Auvergne (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

The narthex and its gallery can be seen in the distance of this shot looking west through to the nave. Both the narthex and the west facade of the church are creations of the 19th century restoration. This was necessary because sometime earlier the last bay of the nave had collapsed, perhaps at the same time as the destruction of the tower.

Nave looking west, Église Saint-Martin de Cournon-d'Auvergne, Cournon-d'Auvergne (Puy-de-Dôme)   Photo by PJ McKey

Nave looking west, Église Saint-Martin de Cournon-d’Auvergne, Cournon-d’Auvergne (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

As PJ and I reviewed our shots of the church, we were astonished at the beauty of the Saint Martin’s church in Cournon. The simple elegant lines and graceful curves remind us of why we love the Romanesque churches of the Auvergne so much.

Location: 45.742437° 3.197145°

5 responses to “Saint Martin’s Church in the Auvergne (Dennis Aubrey)

    • Thanks, Michelle. We were so struck by the elegance of the lines and curves. Sometimes I design these churches using Google SketchUp and am always amazed by how simple choices in the spatial relationships completely change the look of the church. And that makes me even more amazed at how many times these medieval builders got it exactly right.

      • Yes! I have been using medieval churches as source materials for my paintings for several years now, and I find that the more of these churches I study, the more possibilities there are in the combination of the simplest of design choices. Somehow, with a somewhat limited repertoire of construction methods and design elements (sophisticated, but not what later generations would have available) the medieval architects were able to create beautiful and unique structures ad infinitum (so it seems, anyway, from following your blog!!!)

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