Église Saint Martin d’Ygrande (Dennis Aubrey)


The Allier department in the Auvergne is fruitful territory for discovering fine Romanesque churches. Some are in the historic towns like Bourbon-l’Archambault and others in small villages like Châtel-Montagne. Ygrande, population 808, is located where the waters of the Allier and Cher rivers separate and in that small historic town we found the Église Saint Martin. This 12th century church is dedicated to Saint Martin who was said to have stayed in Iguiranda during his tenure as Bishop of Tours in the 4th century.

The church was founded by the lords of Forest-Saint Martial and was subordinate to the diocese of Clermont. In the 11th century it was gifted by the Bourbonnais lords to the Bishop of Nevers. The church we see today was built of the local sandstone and capped with a fine two-story clocher in the 15th century. Saint Martin appears to always have been a parish church and not associated with a monastic community, although I cannot say this for sure.

Side aisle arcade, Église Saint Martin, Ygrande (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle arcade, Église Saint Martin, Ygrande (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

The nave consists of four bays and is covered with an ogive barrel vault (although the western-most bay is covered with a round barrel vault) that scholars are not convinced is original. There are signs that the space was once covered with a groin vault which subsequently collapsed. Close investigation of the capitals of the nave piers shows signs of diagonal springing for transverse arches that would serve as ribs. If this indeed was an example of the original groin or rib-vaulting, Saint Martin d’Ygrande would have the distinction of being among the earliest churches in the Bourbonnais to have this covering.

Nave, Église Saint Martin, Ygrande (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Église Saint Martin, Ygrande (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The groin vaulted side aisles are low in comparison to the nave and each bay features a large window centered across from the arcade opening. These windows show the immense thickness of the side walls, a feature that is characteristic of the Romanesque church. We can also see some examples of the fine 12th century capitals topping the nave columns.

Side aisle, Église Saint Martin, Ygrande (Allier)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Side aisle, Église Saint Martin, Ygrande (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The very short apse is covered with an oven vault decorated with a 19th century fresco of the crowning of Virgin. We can see the attractive painted decoration of the choir arch and the walls inside the apse. It is astonishing that we could even photograph the apse at all. It was a cloudy day and while the nave was fairly well lit, the apse was so dark that we could not see any details at all with our eyes. This shot, for example, was a 60 second exposure at f/6.3 with a 100 ISO. We would normally shoot for 15 seconds or so at f/16. Because of our experiences in this – and other – dark churches, we have added to our kit. We know have small headlamps that we can wear to help us out. These will be particularly useful when working inside the wall passagess of the great cathedrals.

Choir, Église Saint Martin, Ygrande (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Choir, Église Saint Martin, Ygrande (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The crossing dome is supported by pendentives, which is a rarity in the Auvergne. Across the chancel at the end of the north transept we can see a small chapel, which is original to the church. The twin to that chapel on the south transept was destroyed and today the door on the right opens onto a rectangular sacristy built onto the original structure.

Crossing from transept, Église Saint Martin, Ygrande (Allier)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Crossing from transept, Église Saint Martin, Ygrande (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The side view of the crossing reveals the beautiful proportions of the little church and the painted decoration in the apse. All of the crossing arches are quite beautiful and the capitals nicely detailed.

Choir from north transept, Église Saint Martin, Ygrande (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

Choir from north transept, Église Saint Martin, Ygrande (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

PJ’s moody shot of the nave reflects both the conditions of the light on that sunless day as well as the sober face of the church itself. The pier pier arrangement on the north side clearly is intended for more than to support the simple ogive barrel vault that exists today. It seems that whatever ribbed vault that originally existed did not survive the years and was replaced by a simpler alternative. There is no record, however, to clarify the mystery.

Nave arcade, Église Saint Martin, Ygrande (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

Nave arcade, Église Saint Martin, Ygrande (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

As I mentioned earlier, the church was dark and poorly lit while we were shooting, but just as we were wrapping up, the sun broke through and the church changed completely. This shot of the south entrance door shows the difference. We debated going back in and reshooting completely, but another look at the sky convinced us that the sun would not last. Alas.

South entrance, Église Saint Martin, Ygrande (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

South entrance, Église Saint Martin, Ygrande (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

Saint Martin d’Ygrande reminded me of a moody old scholar in a dusty library, lost in deep reflection and prizing his quiet. We were the only people in the church, which is clearly in use as a parish house of worship, but we dared not disturb the silence. Perhaps if we return on a sunny day, Saint Martin will feel more welcoming, but on this fall afternoon, we were reminded once again that we are outsiders.

Location: 46.552506° 2.944233°

7 responses to “Église Saint Martin d’Ygrande (Dennis Aubrey)

    • Thanks, Kalli. It was literally a last-second addition. While proofing the post and reading the final “Alas”, it suddenly came to me how I felt about the Saint Martin d’Ygrandes.

  1. I suppose that, considering it’s a church in France, saying the whole interior is very Zen in feeling. However, that is how it strikes me. The austerity is calm and comfortable. I suspect from the look of those nave capitals that it indeed was originally groin vaulted, maybe even wood, they’re far too large for the vaults there now. Love the door shot. Stunning as always.

  2. Saint Martin d’Ygrande seems an ideal place for quiet reflection. You mention that this church has 12th century capitals decorating its columns. Is the design for the capitals specific to the 12th century?

    • Definitely a place for reflection, as are many of these churches. The capitals are not specific to the century, but more to the region, which is the Auvergne. We are preparing a post now for a Norman church and there are capitals from the 11th century and others, far more sophisticated, from the 14th. Interesting contrast. BTW, Atreyee and Jesse, we very much enjoyed your post on the Cathédrale Saint-Léonce de Fréjus. Did you get a chance to visit the Merovingian baptistery there? We are hoping to visit there in a couple of weeks.

      • Thank you Dennis! We sure did get a chance to visit the Merovingian baptistry while we were there: it is superb in its simplicity. We were blown away by the fact that the locals today get baptized in the same font that baptized some of the very first Christians in the area! I think you and PJ will love the cathedral and the baptistry. Thank you for the explanation of the 12th century capital.

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