Agen’s Cathédrale Saint Caprais (Dennis Aubrey)


The cathedral of Saint Caprais in Agen is an interesting blend of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. The church that we see today was built originally as a collégiale replacing a seventh century basilica that had been sacked by Normans in 853. Not a trace of that earlier church remains. It is important to note that Saint Caprais was not even the most important church in town. The cathedral Saint Etienne held that honor until it was destroyed in the French Revolution, at which time Saint Caprais was elevated to the position of cathedral.

South Facade, Cathédrale Saint Caprais, Agen (Lot-et-Garonne). Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The first thing one notices when looking at the plan is that there is a significant disproportion between the choir and the nave. The Romanesque apse and choir is significantly larger than the two-bayed Gothic nave. This difference in proportion appears to have been because of financial difficulties suffered by the church that delayed the start of construction of the nave for almost a century.

The original plan called for Saint Caprais to have cupolas in the nave and a dome over the transept which would make it much like the Cathédrale Saint Etienne in Cahors. We can see this intent with the four enormous pillars which delimit the crossing and the two large transepts, each with an echeloned chapel in the east wall on either side of the apse. The vast apse is very reminiscent of Cahors.

Plan, Cathédrale Saint Caprais, Agen (Lot-et-Garonne) 1835

In looking at the Gothic nave, we can see that there are no side aisles. Instead there are deep blind arcades on each side of each nave bay. The lower part of the nave was begun at the end of the 13th century, but the upper section and the vaulting was not completed until 1508.

Nave, Cathédrale Saint Caprais, Agen (Lot-et-Garonne). Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In the nave elevation we can see the large pillars supporting the quadripartite vaults covering each nave bay instead of the cupolas that were originally planned. We can also see the fine Romanesque capitals topping the engaged columns.

Nave elevation from transept, Cathédrale Saint Caprais, Agen (Lot-et-Garonne). Photo by PJ Aubrey

In the shot of the nave to the transept, we can see the opening to the echeloned chapel on the distant east wall.

Nave to transept chapel, Cathédrale Saint Caprais, Agen (Lot-et-Garonne). Photo by PJ Aubrey

The superb Romanesque apse has three chapels – one in the center and one on each side of the center chapel. A series of five windows flank the chapels and the entire ensemble is topped with an oven vault. The choir is topped with an ogive barrel vault.

The apse and the first floor of the transept date from the second half of the 12th century. This is the most remarkable part of the building, where the influence of the churches of Périgord and the church of Souillac is felt.

Apse, Cathédrale Saint Caprais, Agen (Lot-et-Garonne). Photo by Dennis Aubrey

From the exterior, we clearly see the structures of the apsidal chapels and the echeloned chapels in the transepts.

Chevet from south, Cathédrale Saint Caprais, Agen (Lot-et-Garonne). Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The interior painting of the cathedral was the result of a twenty-four year campaign by the painter Jean-Louis Bézard. Bézard was originally from Toulouse but spent most of his career working in Paris. His work at Saint Caprais spanned 1845 to 1869. The paintings feature the martyrdom and apotheosis of the principal saints of the region – Saint Caprais, Sainte Foy, Saint Vincent, Saint Prime and Saint Félicien. The rest of the decoration features different scenes from the New Testament.

Altar from north, Cathédrale Saint Caprais, Agen (Lot-et-Garonne). Photo by PJ Aubrey

PJ and I didn’t get around to photographing this church until late in the afternoon after a full day of work, so we didn’t do Saint Caprais justice. Normally I would have carefully photographed the Romanesque capitals of the transept and the Gothic cul-de-lampe on the north side of the transept. That failure gives us a good reason to return to this remarkable church where we can sit and imagine what the original conception of the church would have looked like. But like everything else, lack of funds caused a compromise that gives us the church we see today.

Location: 44.2032, 0.6191

4 thoughts on “Agen’s Cathédrale Saint Caprais (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Dear Dennis,

    Once again, I must congratulate you. This post is a brilliant summary of everything we have to know concerning our cathedral St Caprais. I work as a guide for Agen tourist office, and It is exactly what I explain to my visitors and tourists when I guide them.
    I can give you a precision concerning a date : Saint Caprais became officially cathedral in 1803, after the French revolution (we already had Napoleon by this time…) It was under the ministry of the bishop Jean IX Jacoupy.
    Your photos are as ever marvelous ! (because it’s usually darker in there)

    Best regards

    1. Jean-Luc, thank you for your kind words. It is high praise indeed from someone who knows the Cathedral so well. As for the darkness in the church, we typically do long exposures to compensate for the low lighting. We began to appreciate the cathedral much more as we studied our photographs. Too often we are preoccupied with our work and don’t take time to marvel at the structures that we document.

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