The Stone and Saint Sernin de Toulouse (Dennis Aubrey)


We have written a great deal about the pilgrimage churches of the Camino de Santiago – Conques, Vézelay, Le Puy and so many others. This post is about the great basilica of Saint Sernin in Toulouse and about the role that it played in the unification of France.

The dates of the construction of the basilica are not completely clear, but it seems that the work started about the year 1000. The choir was consecrated in 1096 and the church was dedicated to the city’s first bishop and martyr, Saint Saturnin (transformed to “Sernin”). Saint Sernin is one of the greatest of the pilgrimage churches and most likely was the model for the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. It has the same double side aisles and ambulatory with radiating chapels.

Nave, Basilique Saint Sernin, Toulouse (Haute-Garonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Basilique Saint Sernin, Toulouse (Haute-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The Basilica also played a small but vital role in the unification of France. In the course of the Albigensian crusade, the “crusaders” led by Simon de Montfort confronted Raymond VI, the Count of Toulouse who was allied with Pedro II of Aragon.

To this day, the name ‘Simon de Montfort’ rouses both enthusiasm and detestation. Nobody contests that his personal morals were exemplary and that his troops adored him. The leading men of Christendom regarded him as an instrument of Heaven and religious justice. But his brutal plundering of the Midi caused his victims to execrate him, and their descendents continue to do so to this day. Montfort was a great military leader and decisively defeated Pedro and Raymond at the Battle of Muret in September 1213. Pedro was killed but Raymond kept up the struggle and Toulouse, the capital of the kingdom of Tolosa, was occupied successively by both sides suffering a great deal in the process. In 1215, Raymond took advantage of Montfort’s absence and returned to take command of the city.

Nave elevation, Basilique Saint Sernin, Toulouse (Haute-Garonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave elevation, Basilique Saint Sernin, Toulouse (Haute-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Montfort immediately returned and besieged the city. On the 25th of June 1218, however, the fortunes of the toulousains revived. Exiting from mass at Saint Sernin, still uncompleted because of the ravages of the ongoing wars, Montfort was killed by a stone thrown from the roof of the church. Legend has it that the stone was thrown by donas e tozas e mulhers (ladies, girls, and women).

Side aisle, Basilique Saint Sernin, Toulouse (Haute-Garonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Side aisle, Basilique Saint Sernin, Toulouse (Haute-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Montfort’s death changed the character of the so-called crusade. His son Amaury de Montfort was incapable of holding the lands won by his father and passed his claims to the King of France. From this time on, the struggle became political. Blanche of Castille, regent of her son Louis IX solved the problem with the Treaty of Paris-Meaux in 1229. Raymond’s only child, Joan, Countess of Toulouse, wed Alfonso, Count of Poitou in 1237 in fulfillment of the terms of the treaty. Part of the treaty stipulated that if the couple died childless, Languedoc would revert to the French crown.

Both Alfonso and Joan died returning from Louis IX’s ill-fated crusade and the Capetian crown inherited the province of Languedoc as part of the French lands.

Side aisle, Basilique Saint Sernin, Toulouse (Haute-Garonne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle, Basilique Saint Sernin, Toulouse (Haute-Garonne) Photo by PJ McKey

It is interesting that just a couple of years prior to the death of Montfort, Philip Augustus won an important battle at Bouvines (27 July 1214) against the English, Flemish, and Imperial German troops arrayed against him. The battle effectively ended the Angevin empire on the mainland of France and brought Anjou, Brittany, Maine, Normandy, and the Touraine into the French kingdom. The battle also had a curious effect in England itself – the next year English barons forced King John to sign the Magna Carta.

In the course of just a few decades, the holdings of the Capetian monarchy grew from a small area into the land we recognize now as France.

Map of the Capetian kingdom expanded during the reign of Philippe Augustus (Source Wikipedia.fr; GNU Free Documentation License.)

Map of the Capetian kingdom expanded during the reign of Philippe Augustus (Source Wikipedia.fr; GNU Free Documentation License.)

Today the great basilica of Toulouse shows no trace of the horrific wars that ended the Cathar movement in the land of the langue d’oc. The barrel-vaulted Saint Sernin stands as a beautiful monument to the more peaceful aspirations of our ancestors.

Ambulatory, Basilique Saint Sernin, Toulouse (Haute-Garonne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Basilique Saint Sernin, Toulouse (Haute-Garonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Saint Sernin is known for its wonderful pink stone and the magnificent sculpture that adorns the church. Hundreds of superb capitals top the capitals, tympana highlight the entrances, and some of the finest Romanesque carvings are featured in the ambulatory.

Altar detail, Basilique Saint Sernin, Toulouse (Haute-Garonne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Altar detail, Basilique Saint Sernin, Toulouse (Haute-Garonne) Photo by PJ McKey

These sculpted plaques, built into the ambulatory, are carved of marble. The ‘Christ in Majesty’ is the most famous, and dates from the early 12th century.

Christ in Majesty, Basilique Saint Sernin, Toulouse (Haute-Garonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Christ in Majesty, Basilique Saint Sernin, Toulouse (Haute-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The tympanum of the Miègeville portal dates from the first or second decade of the 12th century and was influenced by early Christian sarcophagi reliefs. This ‘Ascension’ ensemble marks the beginning of the revival of medieval monumental sculpture. Within a generation of its appearance in Saint Sernin, every great cathedral and abbey church in France received one of these defining sculptural compositions.

Miègeville portal tympanum, Basilique Saint Sernin, Toulouse (Haute-Garonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Miègeville portal tympanum, Basilique Saint Sernin, Toulouse (Haute-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Today the language of the south is experiencing a revival – occitan is found on signs and heard in the markets. My father recalls with relish a colleague who exclaimed enthusiastically, “on parle la meilleure franchese en Toulousa”. And Simon de Montfort is still held in the greatest contempt.

But nobody could have predicted such extraordinary results from the warlike acts of women and children standing on the roof of the basilica on that day in June of 1218. A great stone crushed the life out of the leader of the Crusade and paved the way for the medieval kingdom of Tolosa to pass into the hands of the hated French king.

Location: 43.608489° 1.442185°

21 responses to “The Stone and Saint Sernin de Toulouse (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Wonderful narrative Dennis. It looks like St. Sernin is lit up like the 4th of July though–shame, considering how beautiful the vaults would be regardless. Are you able to get those shots of the nave simply by erecting a tripod and limiting light sensitivity, or do you have to edit them first? Just curious, because whenever there is a lot of artificial light I usually get nothing out of my shots (granted, I’m also using a point and shoot). Cheers from Castilla y Leon.

    • Nathan, we are able to get the shots by carefully bracketing and editing. We expose for the different areas and use the best version for what we are trying to communicate. Sometimes we I use HDR techniques, although PJ never does. A tripod is absolutely a must in order to get the long exposures (we use small apertures to get best DOF). Glad to hear from you, and we follow your adventures avidly! Castilla y Leon, how exciting.

    • Thanks, Helen. The church is one of the finest in Europe (the sculpture alone is worth a book) – PJ and I are returning this spring to photograph. I’ll spend my time photographing the capitals and the exterior sculpture – probably for two days.

  2. Thanks again for all these wonderful stories with the exceptional photographs of Europe’s religious heritage. Over more than 50 years I have visited many if not most of these churches, to the point that my wife and son begged: “oh god, no more churches please”. But how can one stop, admiring these incredible expressions of faith, power and riches?

    • Ted, how lucky you are to have visited these for so many years – you have seen them pre- and post-restoration in many cases. Am glad that you are part of this project – would love to hear some of your reminiscences and stories of the churches. I personally am lucky that my wife is equally fascinated by these churches and is a full partner in the project.

    • Glad it brought back the good memories, Ana. It is a wonderful city center isn’t it? PJ and I got lost there on our way to the church – it was marché day and the city had many multiple markets going simultaneously. We were trying to wend our way through the narrow medieval city center and found ourselves on a closed street filled with a Middle Eastern market. We couldn’t turn around and so slowly pushed our way through the vendors and shoppers. They were quite good natured about our automotive intrusion, but it was embarrassing.

  3. Interesting post, but I was always under the impression that Simon was killed by a stone thrown by a trebuchet from within the walls, which seems a far more likely scenario than women dropping a stone on him from the unfinished church. Wasn’t he outside the walls with the besieging army at the time?

    • Depends on which sources you read and choose to believe. The “Song of the Cathar Wars” says that Montfort was struck by a stone from a mangonel, which is like a trebuchet but powered by men pulling, not a counterweight. Another source says that a mangonel built by Simon’s force was captured while he was at mass and he was killed by it afterwards. The thought that women and children could operate such an engine of war in short order well enough to kill someone is a bit far-fetched. I had always heard of his death coming from the stone from the roof of Saint Sernin and it makes a great story. As to the walls of Toulouse, they had been destroyed earlier and been hastily rebuilt during one of the intervals of Simon’s absence. Saint Sernin was at the extreme north of those walls, next to the Porte Saint Etienne. Almost all sources agree that Montfort was at mass at Saint Sernin immediately before his death (although this may be the standard medieval tendency to have a hero die in a state of grace), so it may be likely that the walls had been penetrated to this extent.

      Thanks for your reply and the clarification – certainly the death of Montfort has multiple versions.

  4. Hi, Dennis:

    Your timing is wonderful for the pictures and history of this beautiful church. I have returned to my winter home in Arizona and just last evening started reading Jonathan Sumption’s The Albigensian Crusade.

  5. Pingback: Sunday Is Market Day In Toulouse | Life is a Camino

  6. Pingback: When Your Plans Are Toulouse, You Need to Plan More | My Blog

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