Every once in awhile we look at the list of churches we have profiled and are astonished that we have missed something important – this most recent was the discovery that we have not written about the Cathédrale Saint Front in Périgueux, one of the most unique Romanesque churches. In the case of Saint Front, we have an example of a southwestern domed church with one of the most arresting profiles of any church in Christendom.
There are many descriptions of the cathedral that give its date of foundation as early 11th century (1010-1047). This seems to be based on the assumption that the church is modeled on Saint Mark’s in Venice and coincides with the journey of Gerald de Salignac, the Bishop of Périgueux, to the Holy Land (via Venice) at that time. But however good the story, it is not true. While there was definitely a church built by the Bishop Frotaire de Gourdon, begun in 990 and consecrated in 1047, that is not the present church.
I have found two chronicles of the church that reference the date of the destruction of the earlier church. The first is a document stating that Saint Madeleine of Vézelay was burned on the same day as Saint Front. It is a fact that the abbey church in Vézelay was burned in July 1120. The second reads “In the year 1120, 22nd of July, the Monastery of Saint-Front of Périgord was burnt with many men and women. William of Alba-Rocha, Bishop of Périgueux, in whose time the Monastery of Saint Front was burnt down, with all its ornaments in sudden conflagration, for the sins of the people, and the bells in the bell tower were melted in the fire. At that time the monastery was covered with timber roofs.”
Another reason that we can confidently date the cathedral to the 12th century is a comparison with the cupolas of the nearby Cathédrale Saint Etienne de Cahors, consecrated in 1119. The cupolas there are made of roughly hewn stone and required a coat of plaster for finishing. The stereotomy at Saint Front is finely worked and didn’t require plastering, indicating a period of time where the workmanship improved. It is very clear that this church was built in the 12th century.
The structure of the church, considered somewhat common in the east, is unique in France. Saint Front is built on the plan of a Greek cross with a center chancel surrounded by four equal areas. The five areas of the church are the central chancel, transepts on the north and south, the nave to the west, and the choir to the east. Beyond the choir is the apse. There are indications that further bays might have been intended for the nave in the west that would have changed the structure to the more prevalent Latin cross. Internal evidence suggests that the church was always intended to have the form of a Greek cross.
The five areas are defined by a dozen massive pillars and each is topped with an imposing cupola. Originally they were of different sizes, but in the restoration, Paul Abadie made them identical. The cupolas are 12.35 meters across and the crossing cupola is 27.25 meters high, slightly higher than the four on the arms of the Greek cross. Each cupola is carried by pendentives created by the pillars. Notice the chamfered ring around the base of each cupola.
One of the unique features of Saint Front are the double aisles through each of the colossal piers supporting the central cupola – there is an opening for the aisle in each of the four faces. There are also two windows on each face of those piers.
Today, the altar has been placed under the chancel crossing so the effect is somewhat like “theater in the round”.
The apse is covered with an oven vault and features a magnificent unpainted retable from the 17th century. The carving features the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven.
There are small side chapels on either side of the apse, almost invisible from most of the church. One of the interesting views is from a distance through the massive nave and chancel piers.
The twelve large piers also have another interesting design function – they divide each of the five volumes of the churches into the shape of a cross. In a way, this makes a puzzle that asks, “how many Greek crosses can be found in the plan of main body of Saint Front?” The answer is first, the five large spaces themselves, then an additional five spaces within each large space, but we must add eight more – the shapes inside the piers of the chancel and transepts. The intersecting aisles make these Greek crosses in themselves. We have eighteen Greek crosses in the plan of the church.
The western entrance to the church is through the remains of what is known as the vielle église, the old church, which is a remnant of the Carolingian church that burned in 1127. We can also see the impressive organ above the entrance.
Readers of Via Lucis should find it no surprise that the architect in charge of the restoration, Paul Abadie, made significant changes to the Cathedral when he restored it. The arched vaults that carry the pendentive were originally pointed. In order to make them more like Saint Mark’s, the putative inspiration for Saint Front, he made them rounded. He also completely altered the eastern end. The original apse was very shallow and was replaced in the 14th century by a large chapel dedicated to Saint Anthony that was over 18 meters long. Abadie removed this and replaced it with the apse we see now. In order to accomplish these changes, the architect actually pulled down much of the original church. What we see today is a copy, an interpretation.
I have read that women of Périgueux who saw the church after restoration wept for the destructions that they saw. John Henry Parker wrote that Saint Front has been “deprived of its value in the history of art,” and is nothing more than a “modern church studied from a Romanesque original.” All of the unique touches that made Saint Front unique in its differences from the eastern models from which it was probably derived are gone. In search of a perfection that never existed, Abadie destroyed the unique character of this great church. Today, we can admire the splendid Cathédrale of Saint Front de Périgueux created by Abadie and only speculate on what was destroyed.
For those who are interested, here is a link to a fine 360° immersive image of the Cathédrale Saint Front.
Location: 45.183721° 0.722982°