Saint Etienne de Nevers (Dennis Aubrey)


The Église Saint Etienne in Nevers is an 11th century church that was constructed between 1068-1097. The structure, built with ocher limestone, is one of the finest and best preserved Romanesque churches in France, but surprisingly is not well-known. It was consecrated in 1097 as a priory church attached to Cluny and used for the offices of its community. Despite its hemicycle and ambulatory, it was not a pilgrimage church.

From the plan it can be seen that there are six bays in the have, groin vaulted side aisles, a crossing covered with a dome, two transepts each with an echeloned chapel, and an apse with an ambulatory and three radiating chapels.

Plan, Saint Etienne de Nevers (Viollet-le-Duc)

Plan, Saint Etienne de Nevers (Viollet-le-Duc)

The high nave is topped with a wonderfully preserved banded barrel vault, supported by engaged columns rising from the piers supporting the arcades. This is the first medieval church to rise to three stories under a stone vault.

Nave, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The six bays of the nave have three vertical levels – the rounded arches of the side aisles, the tribunes, and the narrow clerestory windows. These clerestory windows, the first to be raised above a tribune level in a wall supporting a vault, let in an enormous amount of natural light into the nave.

Nave elevations, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave elevations, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The tribunes feature double bays and are covered by half-barrel vaults. We can see in this shot that the first bay of the nave is covered by a transverse gallery, creating a narthex-like space below. Today, a great organ occupies that gallery.

Nave looking northwest, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave looking northwest, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

The side aisles feature groin vaults that permitted large windows in the thick exterior walls. As with the rest of the church, the lines are clean and spare.

Side aisle, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Side aisle, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The transepts feature a stunning five-windowed diaphragm arch leading to the crossing, just before the opening to the ambulatory. This arch lets the light from the windows in all three walls of the transept shine into the chancel.

Transept, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre)  Photo by PJ McKey

Transept, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

The crossing has a fine cupola supported by pendentives and we can see the diaphragm arches clearly.

Cupola and vaulting, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Cupola and vaulting, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

For a church that was not on the pilgrimage route, Saint Etienne has a superb ambulatory surrounding the hemicycle. The paving stones of the walk are beautifully laid in a pattern radiating outward from the hemicycle.

Ambulatory, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre)  Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

The ambulatory is covered with groin vaulting and has three radiating chapels.

Ambulatory, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre)  Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

The first time we went to Saint Etienne, we were with my parents. The visit happened to coincide with the Journées du patrimoine, the weekend where all French monuments are opened for visiting. A group of school children approached Don and Lucille and asked if they could tell them about the church. Of course my parents agreed and received a multimedia lecture from the group. I always loved this moment and how excited the children were to talk to the Americans.

Lucille and Don learning the history of Saint Etienne de Nevers  (Photo by PJ McKey)

Lucille and Don learning the history of Saint Etienne de Nevers (Photo by PJ McKey)

Saint Etienne de Nevers is one of the few Romanesque churches in France to survive without major alterations of its original internal structure despite being deprived of its two western towers and central octagonal tower of the crossing by the French Revolution. From the inside, however, we can appreciate the intent of the original builders and their skill in building this wonderful church. They chose to concentrate on proportion, volume, and balance instead of formal decoration, and the result is a pure example of French Romanesque architecture.

Location: 46.991806° 3.164585°

11 responses to “Saint Etienne de Nevers (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. I love this church! It is so complicated in design, but the simplicity of line creates a deceptively “simple church.” And thank you for the story and pictures of the children explaining the church to your parents. I’m sure that experience was enjoyed by all.

  2. Lovely purity of line. Even though the piers are massive they seem light for the height and weight they bear. There is also the promise of the Gothic to come. I do wonder why there was an ambulatory when it was not a pilgrimage church. It is cohesive and very beautiful.

    • The proportions are perfect, aren’t they, Aquila. The interesting thing is that this is fairly early Romanesque but showed what the form was capable of. As far as the ambulatory, I’m not sure myself and my researches didn’t provide any real answers.

      • It’s almost as if they were expecting to have a very special relic and would be a pilgrimage church. I think that the very simplicity is so appealing, and, in a way, misleading because it isn’t till you really look that you see how it all works together. I used to be torn about which I preferred, Romanesque or Gothic and came to conclusion that I like them both equally. Each offers something wonderful. If only those walls could talk, we might have an answer about the abulatory.

  3. Dennis: There’s speculation that the nave, inserted later between the eastern and western ends of the building, was not completed by 1097 and took key cues from the Auvergne–look at volume 2 of the recent Grove Encyclopedia of Art and Architecture entry for St. Etienne (pp. 435-6). Love the photo with your parents!

    • Janet, thanks for the citation; I cannot imagine that they would be able to build that nave as a later addition, but I see the point. The photo of my parents is one of my favorites; the whole episode was so sweet.

      • Dennis, if you don’t think of it as an addition, but the completion of the construction, it can make sense. Like Saint-Denis, where the east and west ends were built on the Carolingian church, then the middle replaced later. Many times the lower portions were begun and changes in plans for the elevation occurred later so modifications were made as they went up, as at Notre-Dame in Paris.

      • That makes more sense, Janet, like moving the west facade at Chartres to expand the nave. Thanks for this. Hope to get the books in the next couple of weeks so that we can mule them to Surchamp and LPQV.

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