Souvigny in the modern department of the Allier was one of the most important towns in medieval France. It was the capital of the region known as the Bourbonnais, and the home of the royal House of Bourbon. Henry IV became the first French king from this lineage, which descended from the Capetians.
In 915 Adhemar, provost of Deneuvre, made the donation of land to the Abbey of Cluny at the instigation of his feudal lord, the Duc d’Aquitaine. Adhemar (also known as Aymar) was the father of Adhemar I de Bourbon, the first lord of the Bourbons. This donation of land resulted in the foundation of a powerful Benedictine abbey, one of the “five eldest daughters of Cluny”, quite befitting the status of the town of Souvigny. The importance of the abbey was also demonstrated by the fact that Saint Mayeul, the fourth abbot of Cluny (died in 994) and his successor Odilo (died in 1049), ended their life in retreat at Souvigny and were buried there. The abbey church has also served as the necropolis for the families of the Ducs de Bourbonnais.
The Prieuré Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul de Souvigny is a structure commensurate with its importance to the Auvergne and has been enlarged and expanded several times in its history. The original 11th century church featured a three-bayed nave with a narrow side aisle on each side leading to the transepts and the ambulatory. These side aisles still feature the original barrel vaulting.
The nave elevation shows the orderly procession of the six Romanesque bays towards the choir. Engaged columns rise along the arcade piers to support the vaulting and to frame the recessed clerestory windows. These windows are quite large and let in significant natural light to the sanctuary. We also can see two parallel side aisles on the other side of the nave arcades.
In the 12th and 13th centuries, the demands of the pilgrimage necessitated the expansion of the church. Usually a nave was expanded by adding bays to the west end, leaving the rest of the church intact. At the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, when the new bays were added, the entire western facade was moved to accommodate the addition. At Souvigny, however, the nave expanded to to the east and was revaulted. It is this Gothic restoration that we see today with a nave of six bays, four side aisles, and rib vaulting. The apse was rebuilt and new transepts were added. As a result, the rebuilt sections are Gothic and only the original sections of the nave and interior side aisles are Romanesque.
One effect of the multiple building campaigns over the centuries is that the areas where the principal works come together is less organized and a bit cluttered architecturally. This shot shows the welter of columns that support the various intermediary structures of the transept area.
Notice that the outer Gothic side aisles are much wider than the original inner ones and that they are covered with rib vaults instead of barrel vaults. One feature that PJ and I both like is the the repetitive pattern of the blind arcades along the outer side aisle.
The nave and side aisles were given a preservative treatment in 2009 which accounts for the dreaded yellow and white plaster look. This is the result of the application of a special paint which protects the stone from damaging organic processes like black mold. We have seen this same look at the Basilique Saint Nectaire, Notre Dame du Port in Clermont-Ferrand, the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur de Paray-le-Monial, and several other churches. The color is disconcerting at first, but will eventually fade and harmonize better with the untreated portions of the church.
Another result of the 13th century work was the odd orientation of the apse; it is clearly angled to the north, far more than the usual. It appears from the irregular shapes of the nave extensions and the transepts that the new work was improperly fitted to the old.
The Gothic choir is consistent with most important pilgrimage churches with a hemicycle separating the altar from the ambulatory with five radiating chapels. Seen here from the crossing, we can see the distant apse, separated from the crossing by a large choir.
The ambulatory follows the trajectory of the original inner side aisle and carries the entirety of the crossing, the massive choir, and then back through the apse.
The choir proceeds from the transept to the apse and is almost cathedral-sized. There must have been a sizable Benedictine community to require such a space at the height of the monastic life in Souvigny.
The north transept is much smaller than the south, but is nevertheless impressive. Seen here from the ambulatory in the choir, we see the inner side aisle and the nave beyond. This is also a good angle to appreciate the Gothic arches in the crossing and the choir and how stunning the patterns of light from the modern stained glass look on the bare stone of the untreated arch.
The vaulting of the church is quite magnificent. Here in the crossing we see the rib vault leading to the nave and the choir (the vertical axis) and the two transepts (the horizontal axis). The condition of the nave vaulting at the top shows the results of the recent campaign of restorations carried on in the church.
There is a fine sculptural program in the nave capitals, but this deserves a post of its own. We’ll try to get to this in the near future.
There is one sad note to report about the Prieuré Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul. After centuries of monastic life, the community was disbanded during the French Revolution. Various attempts were made to re-instate the practice, the latest by the Community of Saint John who came to Souvigny in 1990. The last three brothers just left the Prieuré on August 24, 2014. This not only affects the Prieuré, but the local religious community, since the three monks served as priests in the nearby parishes of Besson, Chemilly, Meillers, Noyant-d’Allier and Chatillon.
Location: 46.535° 3.19333°