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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The crossing has a fine cupola supported by pendentives and we can see the diaphragm arches clearly.
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.
The ambulatory is covered with groin vaulting and has three radiating chapels.
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.
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°