Cathédrale Saint Front de Périgueux (Dennis Aubrey)


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.

Cathédrale Saint Front de Périgueux, Photo copyright Christian Foucher

Cathédrale Saint Front de Périgueux, Photo copyright Christian Foucher

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.

Crossing to south transept, Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne) Photo by PJ McKey

Crossing to south transept, Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Ground plan, Cathédrale Saint Front de Périgueux

Ground plan, Cathédrale Saint Front de Périgueux

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.

Cupolas, Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Cupolas, Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Side aisle, Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Side aisle, Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Today, the altar has been placed under the chancel crossing so the effect is somewhat like “theater in the round”.

Chancel crossing to apse, Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Chancel crossing to apse, Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Apse and retable, Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse and retable, Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Apsidal chapel through nave pillar, Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Apsidal chapel through nave pillar, Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Chancel crossing, Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Chancel crossing, Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Nave, Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Nave from west porch, Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave from west porch, Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Side aisle, Cathedrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle, Cathedrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne) Photo by PJ McKey

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°

21 responses to “Cathédrale Saint Front de Périgueux (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Oh dear a baddie indeed, from your tale. And you are very magnanimous in admiration of his work, when from your experience you can imagine just so well what must have preceded it. Ah well.

    • John, the reason that I am torn about Abadie is that he is a marvelous architect, in my opinion, and also, as a restorer, he was among the first, before there were any clear guidelines. As such, he made choices that are easy to dispute after the fact. Some of the restorations that he made (and Viollet-le-Duc – can we say Pierrefonds?) showed us that those choices often had nothing to do with the original subject and that, unfortunately, those same choices can not be undone.

      • I share your mixed feelings, Dennis–viewed outside of this context, the restored Saint Front is magnificent (and I wish I had entered it when I was in Perigueux)–but it is a shame that Abadie had a bit of an ego trip and more or less rebuilt the church to suit his tastes.

      • Nathan, no question that Abadie had an ego, but in fairness, there were no established guidelines at that time. It just goes to show that we always have to be wary of imposing current artistic sensibilities on the past. BTW, PJ and I enjoyed your trek in Iceland! Makes us want to go back even more.

    • Joel, no problem with the question, of course. Saint Front was the first bishop of Périgueux. Most of what is known of him comes from the 10th century Martyrology of Ado. He was supposedly one of the first apostles to Gaul along with Saint Martial of Limoges.

  2. It certainly is an exercise in contained volume. I do wonder what it would have looked like before being restored (remodeled). The cupolas give a very different aspect to the interior. Interesting even if no longer as originally built.

    • Aquila, thanks for giving me the opportunity to show this drawing of the church prior to restoration. While it is superficially the same, we see immediately that the cupola arches are ogive instead of round, as are the far barrel vaults. Structurally, this is an enormous difference. We can also see that the springing of the pendentives are much larger in the current church – there was clearly an offset in the original. (My shot of the Chancel Crossing in the post presents a similar view for comparison). Finally, this early 19th century drawing by Edmund Sharpe does not make it clear that the church was in such dire shape that it required near-demolition to save it.

      Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne), Illustration by Edmund Sharpe

  3. Dennis and PJ,
    The genius of the original master builder was in building the cupolas slightly larger in diameter than the “lips” which receive the cupolas, making the slightly darkened domed surfaces appear to connect over the massive arches, instead of defining five separate domes. (Your photos of Cupolas and the Chancel Crossing). To his credit, Abadie must have valued this architectural detail, and maintained it in the restoration.
    Jong-Soung

  4. Pingback: 2015-07-12 Brantome – Villeneuve-sur-Lot | Tour de Travoy

  5. I happened across this building while driving in the region, and I’m still asking: how did the Eastern church archetype of domes on pendentives come to this region of France??

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