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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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°