Our last post was about the Cathédrale Sainte-Marie in Oloron-Sainte-Marie. We left off the section about the Quartier Sainte-Marie with a cliffhanger – the church was in shambles after the depredations of the Vascones and the Saracens in the 8th century. But the bad news was not over yet. The church was once again rebuilt but the Vikings decided to make a foray inland and burned that one as well, leaving both the church and the town desolated. It wasn’t for another two hundred years that the decision was made to rebuilt yet again. Amat, bishop of Oloron , archbishop of Bordeaux, laid the first stone of the church in 1089 on the site of the previous cathedral. It was perched on the summit of the steep hill that dominated the rivers below.
The church was completed under Odon de Bénac, Amat’s successor. The entire structure – including the long barrel vault – was built of hard stone. Maybe the builders wanted to guard against the return of invaders and fire! If so, their plan was successful because Sainte-Croix has resisted even the ravages of time. The church we see today is essentially the church that was originally built (except for some ill-conceived exterior alterations). The rather ugly western face of the church was probably a remnant of the destroyed earlier church that was clumsily incorporated into the new church.
It is likely that this church was intended to be the new cathedral – there is indeed a fine structure just a short distance away that was probably meant to be the bishop’s palace. But it seems that the plains of the Quartier Sainte-Marie were more compelling and a new cathedral was built there. Sainte-Croix became, therefore, a substantial parish church.
The church was designed in the normal Benedictine Romanesque fashion of a nave, side aisles, an oven vaulted apse and echeloned chapels on either side of the altar, although there is no ambulatory. The nave itself is covered with a long, banded barrel vault. The first thing I noticed about this church was that despite its strength and solidity, there is symmetry and a fine proportion of its parts. Even the massive nave piers have engaged columns all around that give an appearance of lightness and elegance. Throughout, the round arches are repeated in every direction like the beat of a drum creating the rhythm of the church.
But even with this, there is a strange change of perspective at each different area of the church, almost as if we are seeing a different space. Looking at the apse we that the semi-circular back wall is built on a blind arcade of seven arches leading to the second level of three windows. Above, a lovely oven vault completes the ensemble. Nothing else in the church would lead us to expect this sophisticated creation.
The decoration of the apse is completely different as well, filled with 19th century murals by Bertrand Bernard and Romain Cazes. But this does not seem to matter because of the way all the vistas of the church change continuously. And the murals combine well with the several historiated capitals on the engaged columns.
The completely unadorned side aisles repeat the three bays of the nave except that they are topped with half-barrel vaults. This form allows the side aisle vaults to add additional support to the nave walls on the right.
This extra support from the half-barrel vaults in the side aisles mean that the openings to the nave can be impressively large. If we compare this to the contemporary monastery church of Ripoll, we can see the difference in the scale of the nave arches.
The crossing is the regionally-familiar ribbed star-shaped dome with eight branches that we see in Torres del Rio and the nearby Église Saint-Blaise at L’Hôpital-Saint-Blaise. The structure is supported by the four squinches in the shape of a scallop shell. This form is of Mozarab inspiration and is found close to or in Spain where that influence was greatest.
It is difficult to express how much this church moves me. The more I study it, the more impressed I am with the skill and vision of the builders. This is a church that was begun in 1089 and shows none of the advances of Romanesque architecture through the years – no ogive arches, no ribbed vaults. The side aisles have the half-barrel vaults like the previously referenced Monastir Santa Maria de Ripoll, which it resembles in many ways. But it is my opinion that the Église Sainte-Croix d’Oloron deserves even more attention as an example of the best of early Romanesque architecture.
Location: 43.1891° 0.6062°