Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe Church (World Heritage)

The Romanesque abbey church was built in the 11th century over an old crypt. The cruciform floor plan and the central square tower are characteristic. The frescoes in the crypt are considered a gem of Romanesque painting.

Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe church: facts

Official title: Church of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe
Cultural monument: Romanesque church with a scenic, Old Testament fresco cycle of more than 400 m²; i.a. “The Tower of Babel”; “Plague of Locusts” and “Abraham’s Death”
Continent: Europe
Country: France
Location: Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe, valley of the Gartempe, east of Poitiers
Appointment: 1983
Meaning: the so-called “Romanesque Sistine Chapel” with extremely impressive frescoes from the 11th and 12th centuries

Church of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe: history

Middle of the 11th century Church building on the remains of a fortified monastery
1836 “Discovery” by Prosper Mérimée, inspector general of historical monuments in France since 1831
1845 Publication of the “Notes de Voyages” by Prosper Mérimée (1803-70)
2008 End of the restoration work on the frescoes

In the “Romanesque Sistine Chapel”

“And the locusts look like horses prepared for battle; on their heads they wear something that resembles gold shimmering wreaths, and their faces are like human faces, their hair is like women’s hair, their teeth like a lion’s bite, their chest like an iron armor… ‘More than nine centuries ago in the vestibule Created in the Romanesque abbey church of Saint-Savin, the visionary depictions of the end of the world have lost none of their terrible fascination. As John had foreseen the end of mankind in his “Revelation”, seven angels sound their trumpets on the wall paintings, the four horsemen of the apocalyptic rush down from heaven to bring war, hunger, plague and death upon the earthly. Easily recognizable in the eternal semi-darkness of the vestibule.

Mostly painted in subtle green, red and yellow ocher tones, the grandiose paintings in the simple abbey church are among the outstanding masterpieces of the Romanesque era; The act of creation, the creation of Eve, the exodus from Egypt and the passion of the Macedonian saints Cyprianus and Savinus, who according to legend were persecuted by their tormentors to the gartempe and were martyred, served the edification of the believers who did not read and write were powerful. According to ehistorylib, these paintings in the “Sistine Chapel of the Romanesque”, as Saint-Savin is often called, form France’s most beautiful and comprehensive ensemble of Romanesque wall paintings, which are otherwise only preserved for posterity in fragments. As one of the monasteries in Aquitaine, according to historical sources, Saint-Savin already existed at the beginning of the 6th Century. The first abbey church was probably built by Benedictines in the 9th century. As if by a miracle, it was spared from Viking attacks. In the 11th century, the Aquitaine dukes initiated the renovation of the church, the spiritual radiation of which extended to the neighboring Limousin.

In a very short time, a hall church with a raised central nave was constructed without its own lighting, thus establishing a Romanesque facade style that was independent of the historical Poitou landscape. While the capitals of the lofty nave were decorated with animals and foliage, lions and acanthus leaves were chosen as decorations for the choir capitals.

The wall paintings and column decorations were created using a method that is somewhere between the fresco technique and tempera painting. As soon as the mortar had hardened, the painters applied their colors directly to the plaster layer. Since the number of color tones was limited, the compositions remained light and are particularly impressive because of their color contrasts.

The painters took particular care when portraying people: white and red spots make the chin, cheeks and nostrils stand out more prominently, hands were often painted oversized. While the superimposed feet give the portrayed the dynamism of dancers, tight-fitting items of clothing emphasize the body shapes of the exceptionally lively-looking people.

Saint-Savin’s expressive picture cycles survived both the Hundred Years War and the Wars of Religion with their looting almost unscathed. After the French Revolution, the abbey church was abused as a gendarmerie post; It was only with the appointment of the writer Prosper Mérimée as inspector of historical monuments over 150 years ago that the protracted rescue of this extraordinary cultural heritage began. Many paintings were whitewashed by monks, others damaged by well-intentioned restoration attempts. While some of the masterpieces were removed for rescue and taken to a workshop, the other paintings, which were freed from mold, bacteria and algae using modern methods of monument protection, now shine in new splendor.

Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe Church