The Terror of Crashing Stones (Dennis Aubrey)


Ruined by Huguenots are the terrible words which mark the XVI-century history of innumerable churches in France. To the Catholics of those times, they meant the coming of stern, determined foes, the terror of crashing stone and blazing fires. At the setting of the sun a Cathedral stood in beauty and splendor; with the dawn its great towers had fallen, the naves were filled with the blocks of the vault, and statues of Christ and his Saints lay broken in an hundred pieces.

Elise Whitlock Rose, “Cathedrals and Cloisters of the South of France”

Cathédrale Saint-Apollinaire, Valence (Drôme), Cathedrals of Southern France (1904), Illustration by  Blanche McManus

Cathédrale Saint-Apollinaire, Valence (Drôme), Cathedrals of Southern France (1904), Illustration by Blanche McManus

Like so many of her sisters in France, the Cathédrale Saint-Apollinaire de Valence suffered great violence during the Wars of Religion, particularly at the hands of the notorious François de Beaumont, Baron des Adrets. The madness of sectarian violence destroyed humanity as well as stone buildings, but at least the latter might be repaired. Valence’s cathedral was substantially renovated in the 17th century, as Ms Rose states in a manner “more or less satisfactory” and faithful to the original.

Saint-Apollinaire was built in the 11th century and consecrated in 1095 by Pope Urban II. The interior of the church is very mature Romanesque, although there is no evidence of Cluniac ogive arches anywhere in the structure. In this way, it closely resembles its southern sisters like Saint Trophime of Arles. There is a local children’s song that goes “Valence is the town, Where the South first is seen” and that is visible in Saint Apollinaire. The seven bays of the nave feature soaring arcades – reaching to the vault with no clerestory level. The nave itself is covered with a banded barrel vault.

Nave, Cathédrale Saint-Apollinaire, Valence (Drôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Cathédrale Saint-Apollinaire, Valence (Drôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is a story associated with that barrel vault. When the Baron des Adrets destroyed the church, he set it afire. The vault would have survived if built properly, but the original builder took the shortcut of using wooden beams as supports. Again according to Rose, “… during four centuries they had dried and seasoned until they made excellent kindling for the Huguenot flames.” The church stood roofless for forty years until the townspeople could rebuild the vault.

In the nave elevation, we can see that thin arcade piers have an engaged column on each face, topped with small, elegant capitals. The effect is of lithe strength and grace, a characteristic that is not always present in Romanesque churches.

Nave elevation,  Cathédrale Saint-Apollinaire, Valence (Drôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave elevation, Cathédrale Saint-Apollinaire, Valence (Drôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The two side aisles are quite narrow and as high as the nave arcades with their round arches. Each bay is covered with a groin vault, which allows for the windows that pierce the thick walls and let in streams of light to the interior. The blind arcades in the transept are a nice touch.

North side aisle, Cathédrale Saint-Apollinaire, Valence (Drôme) Photo by PJ McKey

North side aisle, Cathédrale Saint-Apollinaire, Valence (Drôme) Photo by PJ McKey

The eastern end is splendid. Where the nave and side aisles remind us of Saint Trophime, the apse is almost pure Auvergnat, as can be seen from this exterior view.

Chevet, Cathédrale Saint-Apollinaire, Valence (Drôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Chevet, Cathédrale Saint-Apollinaire, Valence (Drôme) Photo by PJ McKey

The modern altar is located in the crossing beneath a dome carried by pendentives. Beyond is the oven-vaulted apse with its two levels of windows. The ambulatory and nine-bayed hemicycle are beautifully proportioned.

Apse, Cathédrale Saint-Apollinaire, Valence (Drôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse, Cathédrale Saint-Apollinaire, Valence (Drôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The ambulatory is well illuminated by windows at eye level and features three radiating chapels in addition to the echeloned chapels, one at the end of each transept.

Ambulatory, Cathédrale Saint-Apollinaire, Valence (Drôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Cathédrale Saint-Apollinaire, Valence (Drôme) Photo by PJ McKey

One of the most interesting characteristics of any Romanesque ambulatory is the complexity of the groin vaulting. Normally a groin vault covers a square area. In order to cover an extended semicircular surface in an ambulatory, the vaulting must be continuously adjusted into trapezoidal segments. This required constant flexing and warping of the surfaces to make the vault functional. The aesthetic solution to this complex engineering problem awaited the development of the Gothic rib vault to work properly.

Ambulatory and chapel, Cathédrale Saint-Apollinaire, Valence (Drôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory and chapel, Cathédrale Saint-Apollinaire, Valence (Drôme) Photo by PJ McKey

The ambulatory opens directly into the transept, with the echeloned chapel just to the outside. In this north transept, then entire space is used as a side chapel decorated with a gilded retable. There is a clerestory level and the two sections of the banded barrel vault lead to the chancel crossing.

North transept with chapel, Cathédrale Saint-Apollinaire, Valence (Drôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

North transept with chapel, Cathédrale Saint-Apollinaire, Valence (Drôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Today we find the peaceful city of Valence perched on above the Rhône, one of the great rivers of France. To me, the town, although charming, seems to lack the character of others with histories equally distinguished. Perhaps it is because the town has been under the rule of Romans, Goths, Burgundians, Franks, Saracens, the Emperor of Germany, the Counts of Toulouse, and the Kings of France, among many others. Many of these rulers laid waste to the town and we are lucky that the Cathédrale Saint Apollinaire de Valence has survived today. Fortunately for us – and for France – the terror of crashing stone is a distant echo.

Location: 44.931546° 4.889707°

14 responses to “The Terror of Crashing Stones (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Thank you so much for the photographs of churches of my own country. I am so pleased when I receive an email telling me that you have added a new church ! I love the pictures and the text as well. Your site is the best I know about French churches. Thank you for your generous sharing.
    I hope your health is 100% now !

    • Thank you for your kind words, Evelyne, it is so nice to hear comments like this, especially from the French. We have always had such a remarkable cooperation from the French people who love their churches and are so proud of them. They talk to us about them. We were once photographing at the Église Abbatiale Saint-Amand-du-Coly when a gentleman came up to us who was waiting for us to arrive, since he had heard that we were in the area photographing. And thank you for the wishes about my health. I am better now than I have been in years!

  2. The concept of religious wars of any kind are so depressing. They accomplish nothing except to bring distress to millions of people. The crashing stones have been repaired; the French wars of religion appear to be over, but all we have to do today is watch television to remind us that all is not peaceful in our world.
    I am so glad you are feeling better, Dennis. Your wonderful blogs highlight my day.

    • Thanks, Kalli. I know all is not peaceful in this world, and it seems like it gets worse all the time. The barbarism of religious warfare knows no bounds – somehow even the most cruel and violent acts are sanctioned in the minds of the fanatics.

    • Mike, we are just now starting our planning for a trip next Spring … part of it will be to finish what we missed when I was ill and part will be new. Can’t wait … feel like we didn’t go this year.

  3. Really interesting affect of the groin vaulting in the ambulatory–as you point out, it was definitely a problem waiting for the introduction of Gothic ribbed vaults.

    And such a shame that I just missed seeing this church!

  4. Dennis,

    Seeing these (and many of your others) has made me wonder: have you ever considered shooting these with a large-format camera or a Gigapan-style system? I think that a 4:3 or 4:5 aspect ratio would make your already impressive work even more timeless.

    • Brett, thanks for this. We have experimented in two churches with the gigapan technique. We rented the head and photographed in Providence. Here is a link to a couple of test images. The problem is, of course, the amount of equipment that we have to take in order to get the shots. Right now, we just can’t bring any more. We do plan to have a home in France, so maybe then we’ll resume the experiments. It was fun. I think I’ll post a link to these on the blog, so thanks!

  5. Nothing reminds us more clearly of the cultural significance and communal meanings of architecture than wars of religion. This is worth remembering.

    We may bemoan what is lost and, in their very different ways, honour what is attempted in reparation (whether from civic-minded locals or scholarly experts from Paris who know better), but in all that we are still walking forwards facing backwards.

    Let it also remind us to take care of the culturally significant forms of our own time – more usually destroyed by private avarice than a shared public fury, and this is a process less easily cast as an evil. (“Ruined by capitalism” are not seen as terrifying words regarding our patrimony.)

    • A caveat omitted: my thoughts just now were, if not just Francophile, at least Euro-American. The world is much larger – and the unending tale is exemplified where the Wahhabi iconoclasts remain in power, even now fearlessly threatening the tomb of the Prophet in Medina.

      • John, this is such a huge issue. The proposal has been made to avoid shirq, idolatry and recommends that the Prophet’s remains be buried anonymously in al-Baqi cemetery. This already held the remains of his family and in 1924 all the grave markers were removed to prevent pilgrims from venerating them individually. And even now, ISIS militias are destroying religious sites in Syria, including this Armenian memorial church.

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