Paul Abadie and the Restoration of the Cathédrale Saint Pierre d’Angoulême (Dennis Aubrey)


The French adore their history and patrimony and it should come as no surprise that they initiated the first national program of preserving their monuments. The government established the Commission des Monuments Historiques in 1837 and poet and writer Prosper Mérimée, author of Carmen and other works, was appointed the first Inspector General of Monuments. Many of the finest French architects of the day were commissioned to evaluate and restore France’s great architectural heritage.

Nave elevation, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Angoulême (Charente)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave elevation, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Angoulême (Charente) Photo by PJ McKey

But from the beginning, there emerged a dualism that has never been resolved. Should a restoration program merely take the building as it exists and repair it so that it will continue to exist in the form to which it has evolved over the years? In other words, should the building look like it did yesterday, only in better condition? Or should, for example, the restorer remove additions that were made to a structure in the years since it was originally built? Often these additions are disastrous failures and aesthetic blunders. Should the restorer attempt to understand the minds of the original builders and re-create that structure?

The first choice does little to improve the building, and the second can lead to irremediable damage and loss to the church. In some cases, the “restoration” creates something that never existed; indeed, Viollet-le-Duc wrote that restoration is a means to return a building to “a finished state, which may in fact never have actually existed at any given time” (Dictionnaire raisonné). In either case, there is little possibility of recovering from the changes made once they are begun.

Nave and pulpit, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Angoulême (Charente)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave and pulpit, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Angoulême (Charente) Photo by PJ McKey

Paul Abadie, Bibliothèque nationale de France (Image in the Public Domain)

Paul Abadie, Bibliothèque nationale de France (Image in the Public Domain)

In the history of French architects who worked for the Monuments Nationale, few are as controversial as Paul Abadie (1812-1884), who is best known for the church that he designed for Paris, the Basilique Sacré-Coeur on Montmartre. Abadie was a gifted architect, of that there is no doubt. Grandson of a Bordeaux plasterer and son of a famous architect, Abadie worked with Jean-Baptiste Lassus and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc on the restoration of Notre Dame de Paris and later directed the restoration of the four great domed churches of the French southwest – the Abbatiale Sainte-Marie in Souillac and the three cathedrals of Saint Front in Périgueux, Saint Etienne in Cahors, and Saint Pierre in Angoulême. They became his specialty and his passion.

The church in Angoulême that Abadie was selected to restore, the Cathédrale Saint Pierre, was built in the first half of the 12th century, consecrated in 1128 during the episcopacy of the legate Girard d’Angoulême. The church has a cruciform plan with an aisleless nave of three bays, a transept, and choir with radiating apsidal chapels. The nave and crossing are spanned by large domes supported by pendentives while the transepts and choir are covered with barrel vaults.

Nave, Nave, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Angoulême (Charente)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Nave, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Angoulême (Charente) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is an extensive sculptural program on the west facade, which we will talk about in a later post. This magnificent facade was, unusually, in the form of square, but that did not agree with Abadie’s concepts and he completely changed the profile by adding a gable and bell towers.

This is the crux of the matter with Paul Abadie’s work. His fine understanding of Romanesque architecture and his own artistic gifts meant that he seemed to have little patience for work that did not meet the standards of his refined and somewhat classical sense of beauty. His obituary in “The Builder”, Volume 47 (August 16, 1884) puts a positive spin on this by writing that his works “… indicate sincere research and a profound feeling for the architecture of the Middle Ages, imitated in its principals and broad lines, but wisely M. Abadie has repudiated whimsicalities and capricious exaggerations.”

While to the rest of us, whimsicalities and capricious exaggerations are often integral to Romanesque architecture, Abadie sought to remove them. But, in addition, he often did worse. In an edition of The Ecclesiologist from October 1855, there is a commentary of his restoration of the transitional church of Rioux-Martin in the Charente: “M. Abadie restores the apse, moves the sacristies from the east end to the new quasi-transepts, and adds angle-pinnacles to the tower at the base of an octagonal spire. This restoration seems to us less satisfactory than might have been wished.”

This tendency to re-create instead of restore is illustrated by two photographs taken by members of the Mission Héliographique, Gustave Le Gray and Adolphe Braun. The first photograph was taken immediately prior to Abadie’s restoration of Saint-Pierre d’Angoulème and the second soon afterwards.

Gustave Le Gray. La cathédrale Saint-Pierre d’Angoulème, France. 1851. Épreuve argentique à l’albumine à partir d’un négatif sur papier ciré, 31,6 x 24,0 cm. Collection CCA. PH1999:0094

Gustave Le Gray. La cathédrale Saint-Pierre d’Angoulème, France. 1851. Épreuve argentique à l’albumine à partir d’un négatif sur papier ciré, 31,6 x 24,0 cm. Collection CCA. PH1999:0094

In the first, we see the west facade of Saint-Pierre d’Angoulème as a square surface, with some rather unpleasant structures above the cornice, clearly unsuccessful later additions to the cathedral.

Abadie’s solution to the restoration was to remove these additions, but that was not enough for him. In order to meet his own conception of Romanesque architecture, he added the gable and the two towers, topped with his famous pine cone pinnacles that were featured in the clocher at Saint Front. He completely altered the original design of the cathedral.

Adolphe Braun. La cathédrale Saint-Pierre d’Angoulème, France. 1859 ou après. Épreuve au charbon, 50 x 38,9 cm. Collection CCA. PH1981:0441

Adolphe Braun. La cathédrale Saint-Pierre d’Angoulème, France. 1859 ou après. Épreuve au charbon, 50 x 38,9 cm. Collection CCA. PH1981:0441

However – and this is an important however – the resultant church that Abadie created in his restoration of Saint-Pierre d’Angoulême is certainly a finer structure than the one that submitted to his ministrations. I don’t think anybody would argue that fact. His removal of the ugly porch of the west portal and opening up of the doorway is much more faithful to the Romanesque intent. When I showed the “before” and “after” photos to PJ, she immediately noted that the “after” version was better.

But the additions of the gable and towers, while faithful to other Romanesque models, had nothing to do with this specific cathedral and the structure lost much of what once made it unique. Saint-Pierre d’Angoulême was changed to fit the conception of what was medieval by a 19th century restorer with refined classical tastes. There is no chance that Abadie would have indulged in the re-creation of medieval painted interiors as did some of his colleagues; his was the severe purity of white stone and elegant structure. Abadie was better served building his own church on Paris’ Mount of Martyrs.

Dome, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Angoulême (Charente)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Dome, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Angoulême (Charente) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The cathedral of Angoulème is a fitting successor to many religious structures sited in the same place in the past – a temple dedicated to Jupiter in Gallo-Roman times (almost certainly on the site of an even earlier shrine), a 4th century cathedral (subsequently destroyed by the Clovis shortly after he defeated the Visigoths at Vouillé in 507), a successor rebuilt in the 6th century (destroyed by Normans in 981), another consecrated in 1017 but only lasted a century because it was too small, and finally, the cathedral we see today dedicated to Saint Peter, which has lasted longer than all the others combined. Saint-Pierre d’Angoulème remains one of the great churches of France, one of a group of domed churches that are distinctive and elegant. The tides of history wash back and forth creating and destroying, and I guess that restoration is just one of those surges.

Nave to chancel crossing, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Angoulême (Charente)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave to chancel crossing, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Angoulême (Charente) Photo by PJ McKey

But there is mystery to great art and the contemplation of that mystery is one of the ways we examine our own lives. No man or woman ever penetrates the mystery completely. What is valuable is the contemplation, not the explanation. To recast the mystery into our own vernacular is like a translation of Shakespeare or Molière – we can understand the plot, but we lose the poetry. The mystery is lost. When we remove that mystery, for ourselves or more devastatingly for others, we remove the call to examine our lives. The church becomes merely an exhibition, cold and still. We have removed the life from the stone.

Location: 45.648920° 0.151790°

9 responses to “Paul Abadie and the Restoration of the Cathédrale Saint Pierre d’Angoulême (Dennis Aubrey)

    • WOB, thanks for the kind words. The medieval part of Carcassonne is like a medieval theme park these days, but how much of that is Viollet-le-Duc and how much is the tourist reputation. When I first went to the town, one could approach it from the distance and see its impressive skyline. Now, it is surrounded by car parks and bus tours. The details of the fortifications, especially the pointed-roofed towers, are certainly Viollet-le-Duc’s fantasy, although nothing like what he did at Pierrefonds. It is generally agreed to be a work of enormous importance. Here is a drawing of what it looked like prior to the restoration.

  1. Your photos are, as always, perfect examples of architectural photography, and your history lesson valuable to those of us who visit the old churches as often as we can! It seems that many of the Cathedrals, Basilicas and Churches we have visited particularly in Spain, had undergone updates, additions and restorations. There is always a plenty of discussion about the choices that were made. For me, these changes showcase the history of architeture, the congregation and of the community making the choices.
    I do appreciate your blogs for all I learn, and of course the great photography.

    • Janice, such kind words, thank you. Your Spain trip (filled with wonderful photos, by the way) showed you many churches that have been restored. It is a complex undertaking and often there is not enough money to do thinks “right”. So many of the churches are in condition where they are about to collapse and something must be done to preserve them. With limited means, that means that the result can be brutal. Economics always rears its ugly head as well. We visited the tiny 12th century Chapelle de Peyrousse in the Auvergne one year. In the apse were some superb (albeit a bit primitive) frescoes, an astonishing discovery in a hamlet of only 158 people. They were being restored by a graduate student from Italy at great cost (1000 euros)!

      • Hi Dennis, yes, the economic resources of the community, often cited as the reason for doing or not doing, but I think it is the skills, the talent and sensibilities of the people involved that determine if there is value for money. In your blog post it seems the sensibilities of the architect dictated the outcome.
        It is always a pleasure to read your blogs, and thanks for your kind words of my photography.

  2. Fascinating and beautifully shown post, of course. Thank you.

    I agree with PJ about the before and after sepia shots – but how can you be so sure that the gable and conical towers has “nothing to do with this cathedral and the structure lost much of what once made it unique”? Quite apart from the eminently sensible reparations lower on the facade, surely the top was never meant to be as the ‘before’ photo? “Nothing to do with” is pretty tough judgement – was Abadie such a baddie? Would you have left it with cornice and pepperpots? I’m not sure what I would have done…

    • John, I don’t consider Abadie a baddie, although in the past I did, perhaps over-influenced by the judgment of many of his contemporaries. I also have talked to people who live in the towns and some continue to hold a grudge over the “destructions” even after so much time. As far as the “before” photo not being the original intent, I’m not sure that I agree with you. It appears that it was a fairly common design in the southwest of France in churches like Notre Dame de Surgères which is very similar and has a simple gable above the cornice, as well as many others like those in Avy, Biron, etc. Admittedly these are not cathedrals, but I recall that Angoulème was originally a monastery church. Here is a link to an article that discusses these sculpted facades. It seems to me that Abadie was using Notre Dame la Grande in Poitiers as one of his models.

      As far as your question, what would I have done. Certainly removed the pepperpots – not sure about the cornice. And certainly eliminated the abomination of the western portal. But then, I’m not an architect and would not have to take my reputation on such decisions. Ah, how we amateurs can be so free to judge!

      • We could enjoy debating this (with a nice summer week, quiet roads and good wine at each stop) – thanks for your thoughts. I must say I find Surgères typically ungainly (with the tympanum triangle smaller than the ‘triumphal arch’) while Saint Martin, Chadenac, which I don’t recall seeing before, is absolutely charming (the west screen seeming to stand alone)… Abadie’s pepperpots are no less appropriate than Poitiers I guess – they both sense something must be done at the edges to hold the overall balance.

        Was the problem of the ‘Roman’ facade on a pitched roof ever satisfactorily resolved?

        I’ve just spent the last week finalising our cultural history tour to Edinburgh in 2015, and now you’ve got my head completely turned around. We must, obviously, do Romanesque France in 2016! Thank you.

      • John, that would be a lovely debate, especially as you describe. We’re going back to France in May and will be in the Limoges area for some time (Solignac, Le Dorat, La Souterraine, etc.)

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