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”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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°