The Hidden Charms of Saint Aignan (Dennis Aubrey)


This post is as much a cautionary tale as it is a description of a medieval church. At the beginning, after reviewing the shots and doing the first phase of general research, I thought that this post would tell of a church with little to distinguish it; middling architecture, a history distinguished only by its suffering in the Hundred Years War and the Wars of Religion. This is a depressingly familiar story, and the post was intended as a tribute to so many churches like this throughout France.

And then a familiar thing started happening. I read that the church was also known as Saint Laurent d’Aignan. When I began researching the church under this name, more information opened up to confirm the warning against first impressions.

To begin with, Aignan is a small town in the heart of Armagnac country with a population of about 750 geroise. There has been a settlement here since at least Roman times but the story of the town is lost until the early Middle Ages. There is literally no record, although there is a story that the town was founded about 620 by a Saxon lord with the same name, a vassal of Clotaire II. It is said that Aignan was the first duke imposed by the Merovingians over the Vascons.

What we do know for sure is that Aignan was the first capital of the Count of Armagnac. This did not mean that it was an important site, however. There were some small fortifications, but it is suspected that this was a country residence for the Count, who probably moved from place to place on his lands. Armagnac’s attachment to Aignan is probably current with the 12th century church that we recognize in the current Saint Saturnin.

The church plan reveals an unusual element – there is a large nave and a single side aisle on the south. The nave terminates at the lovely Romanesque apse, and the side aisle terminates at an apsidal chapel. Analysis of the masonry shows that the apse was the first section of the church to be completed, and then the builders proceeded to construct the south side aisle. Apparently they chose to give worshippers a place of shelter while the construction of the nave progressed. It is not known if there were plans for a north side aisle at a later date, or if the asymmetrical plan was always in order. We do know that in 1847 a reconstruction plan was put forth to build the north side aisle with its matching apsidal chapel, presumably to return the church to its intended original design. Fortunately, this part of the renovation plan was rejected.

Plan, Église Saint Saturnin, Saint Aignan (Gers)

There is some supposition that this first building campaign was 11th century, not 12th, but it seems to me that the ogive barrel vault spanning nave confirms the later date. The four bays are delineated by the arches leading to the side aisle. There are bands springing from the columns on the south and crossing over to pilasters on the flat north wall that help define the bays. Remembering that the nave was built after the apse and the south side aisle helps explain the fact that the vaulting in the nave and the choir arch are ogive yet the arches of the blind arcade in the apse are round. The checkered cornice along the edge of the vault is a lovely touch.

Nave, Église Saint Saturnin, Saint Aignan (Gers) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In the shot from the side aisle back into the nave we can see the springing of the rib vaults and the interesting engaged columns supporting the lesser arch of the nave opening. I am not sure, but the statue might be of Saint Therese of Lisieux.

Side aisle to nave, Église Saint Saturnin, Saint Aignan (Gers) Photo by PJ Aubrey

In this shot of the side aisle we can clearly see the chapel that terminates the aisle. We can also see how the groin vaults covering each bay allow for a large window, flooding the interior with light.

Side aisle, Église Saint Saturnin, Saint Aignan (Gers) Photo by PJ Aubrey

In 1843 workers who were preparing for the 1847 reconstruction made a momentous discovery. Almost the entirety of the back wall of the apse – the wonderful Romanesque blind arcade with its columns and capitals – was rediscovered under some earlier restoration effort. This transformed the space so beautifully into the Romanesque masterpiece that we see now. The nine blind arches of the arcade are flanked by beautifully proportioned columns on pedestals and topped with capitals adorned with leaves. There are two historiated capitals on the first two capitals of the south side. For light, the builders added two large windows on the second level, flanking a niche with a statue of Saint Saturnin. The apse is covered with an oven vault while the choir has a barrel vault.

Remembering that the nave was built after the apse and the south side aisle helps explain the fact that the vaulting in the nave and the choir arch are ogive yet the arches of the blind arcade in the apse are round.

Apse, Église Saint Saturnin, Saint Aignan (Gers) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The exterior is dominated by a clocher built around 1545. The structure stands 35 meters high and is topped with an octagonal cupola added in the 19th century.

Exterior, Église Saint Saturnin, Saint Aignan (Gers) Photo by PJ Aubrey

This is always one of the pleasures of our work here at Via Lucis. We had the initial pleasure of photographing the church, and now in preparing for this post, we have the pleasure of rediscovery. Saint Saturnin may be modest and unassuming, but it is not without charm and the apse is truly wonderful.

Location: 43.698611 0.084167

10 thoughts on “The Hidden Charms of Saint Aignan (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. None of these masterpieces are ever common or “middling”. The fact that this church has stood for almost a thousand years is a tribute to its builders, and to think of the thousands of souls who have entered this space over this millennium makes it holy in every way. As usual, excellent images. Thank you.

    1. Vann, you are absolutely correct, but sometimes we walk into a church and the photographers in us say, “not so interesting”. This is especially true in churches with no side aisles, transepts, or ambulatories. It is the reason that we sit down first and study the church so that we begin to understand it. And then we photograph. But when I was starting to write this post, I looked at my shots and repeated the mistake, “not so interesting.” Fortunately my presumption was checked!

  2. I think you will find that the statue in pic 3 is of Our Lady of Lourdes. Beautiful photos although the church does look as if it needs some tender loving care with respect to the roof and the floor!

    1. Merci! I think that you are correct about the statue, I just couldn’t remember. As for the condition of the church, as you well know, many churches don’t support a community that can afford the maintenance and restoration needed. Saint Aignan is one of these, I think. As always, thank you for your commentary.

      1. St Therese is always depicted in pictures and in statues in the habit of a Carmelite nun which is always a good clue!

  3. Are those buildings on the north side, or rooms added to the church? Also, what were the walls like originally? Were they plain stone or painted?

    1. Gail, these were outbuildings from the church, I believe. They were definitely not part of the church itself. Those buildings are gone today. As for the walls, my suspicion is that like most of the Romanesque churches, they were painted, but I din’t know for sure. I have not come across any commentary about that.

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