PJ and I spent three wonderful days in the Haute-Loire region of the Auvergne when we returned from Italy in May. We stayed in Polignac, the chateau-town about five miles from the cathedral town of Le Puy-en-Velay. Three times we tried to visit the church in the nearby town of Saint Paulien, but it was locked. They key was available in the Office de Tourisme and on our last morning, we were able to get in and shoot. What we discovered was amazing, and completely unexpected from the modest exterior. We found a mostly 12th century church with some 16th century modifications, but we were completely unprepared for the scale of the interior. To put it simply, this collegiate church is enormous.
The church nave consists of two large bays covered with a gigantic unsegmented barrel vault supported by huge pillars. One of the most significant features of the church is the extreme angle of divergence of the nave axis and the choir axis. This can be seen clearly in the low angle shot of the center aisle of the nave; the center axis of the apse is the window and oculus just to the left of the crucifix!
I have read that this divergence of the two axes is responsible for the massive barrel vault covering the nave and transepts. The vault was built in the 13th century and covers a span of 16 meters without any bands for support, making it one of the largest in the Christian world. As a measure of its enormity, the banded ogive barrel vault at Cluny III, the largest church in Europe, covered a span of about 14 meters. Saint Peter’s in Rome spans 27 meters, but it is segmented as well.
In this shot we can also see the north transept, just under the barrel vault at the intersection with the band of the oven vault. This transept is the oldest section of the church and was built in the 11th century.
The choir is covered with an equally imposing oven vault spanning the same width. Notice again that the center axis of the choir is the large window and oculus to the right of the photo, just behind the crucifix.
The open choir is surrounded by radiating chapels approached by a narrow ambulatory. This ambulatory does not have hemicycle columns and is really more of an aisle than what we normally consider an ambulatory.
At about the same time as the vault was built, the nave was fortified with the battlements in the west. In this photograph we can also see the south transept that was rebuilt in the 19th century, though modeled directly on the 11th original in the north.
The church is in a fine square in the middle of town, right in front of the Office de Tourisme. The exterior is marked by the fine chevet with four radiating chapels and windows surmounted by arcs of black and white stones. From the outside, it is almost impossible to sense the size of the space within.
The Église Saint George was a magnificent discovery for us, but it is extremely difficult to photograph. The large windows in the apse meant that the morning light was pouring into the structure as we tried to shoot towards the altar from the rear. The contrast was so great that the photographs suffered, which is why we have so many photographs taken from the altar toward the west. We plan on returning next time we are in this beautiful area, this time to shoot in the late afternoon.
Location: 45.134209 3.813033