The Basilique Saint Nectaire in the Auvergne rises from the hills of the Auvergne and looks out from its eminence down to the ruisseau de Frédet, the local stream that leads to the famous thermal springs of the lower town. Built of the local volcanic stone, the church seems to emerge from the puy – Mont Cornadore – on which it stands.
The exterior is a perfect representation for its type. The chevet is beautifully proportioned and adorned. The octagonal clocher rises up two levels, each of the eight faces are fitted with a double arcade, and the entire ensemble is capped with a steeple.
Note the oblong structure that sits astride the transepts – this is the massif barlong that supports the clocher. The massif barlong is one of the significant markers of the Auvergnat style and is found at Saint Austremoine in Issoire, Notre Dame d’Orcival, and Notre Dame de Saint Saturnin. In each of these churches, the polygonal mass forms a wonderful backdrop for the cascading effect of the chevet from the clocher.
The interior is very familiar to those who know the style of the region. Notre Dame is a cruciform church approximately 125 feet long, 36 feet wide, and 65 feet high below the dome. The nave is covered with a barrel vault while the chancel crossing is surmounted by a high dome carried by squinches. There is a tribune level with double arches over the nave arcade. Those double arches are supported by a slender central column topped with a beautiful capital.
In this long shot of the nave from the choir, we can see the squinches that carry the chancel dome. The transverse arch of that crossing is pierced by double windows high up on the wall.
The church has two long, narrow windowed side aisles leading to the transepts. Each transept has an echeloned chapel. The groin vaulting in the side aisles makes it possible to have the large windows that provide the only direct natural light into the nave. In this shot it is possible to see the extraordinary capitals that are the glory of this church. It takes a full post to do justice to these sculptures, so I’ll merely draw attention to them today.
The rounded apse is covered with an oven vault. The choir is surrounded by an ambulatory with three radiating chapels. Each of the columns of the hemicycle has a beautifully carved capital.
In the distant central chapel off the ambulatory we can see the vierge romane, Notre Dame de Mont Cornadore, which is one of the most important possessions of the notable treasury here. We can also see some of the extraordinary historiated capitals on the columns of the hemicycle.
Notre Dame de Saint Nectaire underwent an extensive restoration during 2008-2009. The difference in the church after the restoration could not be more dramatic, as demonstrated by this next photo. At first we were disappointed – the atmosphere of the church was certainly diminished. The deep shadows broken by light from the side aisles and narrow tribune windows was such an attractive feature when we first saw the church. But despite the somewhat garish yellow paint, the restoration allowed us to appreciate the purity and elegance of the design, and that may be ample compensation.
In retrospect, perhaps my initial disappointment in the restored church was due to the fact that it was filled with tourists with their little pocket cameras flashing uselessly at every turn. In the past, our visits had been to a quiet church with a few visitors. Now that the restoration has been completed, Our Lady of Mont Cornadore is like a tourist destination where a mass of people leave their bus and surge into the church, talking, and pointing and photographing, and then emerging blinking in the bright sun to return to their bus and the next site on the agenda.
At any rate, some day the paint will lose its annoying color and the sensation of volcanic stone will return. The tourists will move on to another destination and we will be left with our thoughts in the quiet of this Auvergnat masterpiece.
Location: 45.588254° 2.992326°