Now a village parish church, the Oratory of Germigny-des-Prés near Orléans was built in 806 by Bishop Theodulf, one of Charlemagne's closest advisers. It has been damaged and restored over the centuries, but the original core remains of what is one of the oldest and most unique churches in France.
History of the Germigny-Des-Pres Oratory
A small church in a small village (pop. 589), the Church of Germigny-des-Prés was built to serve as the private chapel of Bishop Theodulf, who had his country residence here.
Theodulf was born into an aristocratic family around 750 in Visigothic Spain, but fled north as a young man during the Moorish invasions. A well-educated deacon by the time arrived in the kingdom of the Franks, his abilities were soon recognized by Charlemagne. In 791 and 793, Theodulf wrote a work entitled Opus Caroli regis contra synodum (also called the Libri Carolini) at Charlemagne's request.
Theodulf became one of Charlemagne's most trusted counselors and a major figure in the Carolingian royal court. In 798, Charlemagne appointed him Bishop of Orléans as well as abbot of Fleury Abbey (a few miles away in St-Benoit-sur-Loire). Theodulf set up a country residence in Germigny-des-Prés, which is close to both, on the site of a Roman villa.
Not long after journeying to Rome for Charlemagne's coronation as emperor (on Christmas Day 800), Theodulf commissioned a private chapel for his Germigny-des-Prés residence. The architect may have been Odon from Armenia, but this is not certain.
The chapel was completed in 805 and dedicated on January 3, 806 (the precise date comes from an inscription). The chapel was dedicated to God, the Creator and Savior of All.
Theodulf carried out his many duties from his quiet base in Germigny-des-Prés from 806 to 816, which included developing educational programs, maintaining and expanding the library at Fleury (which was the largest in Europe at the time), training clergy, and administering justice.
Charlemagne died in 814 and Theodulf was at first accepted by the new king, but in 816 he was accused of treason and imprisoned in an Angers monastery until he died in 821. Theodulf's villa continued to be used for royal business, hosting King Charles the Bald at least once. A regional synod was held in the church in 843. The church survived the 9th century mostly intact, despite two Norman invasions (856 and 865) and at least one fire (854).
The oratory became a parish church around 1065, at which time the western wall and apse were removed to make way for a traditional Latin nave. That Romanesque nave was in turn replaced by the present larger one in the 15th or 16th century.
The church was classified as a historic monument in 1839, but this did not save it from a "brutal and ignorant" (as Conant aptly puts it) renovation by Juste Lisch in 1867-76. This agressive and creative "restoration" included the destruction of several original features: much of the Carolingian masonry was replaced; the two flanking east apses were removed; the lantern tower was shortened; a dome was added on top of the tower; most capitals were replaced; and some surviving stucco decoration was destroyed.
What to See at the Germigny-Des-Pres Oratory
The Germigny-des-Prés Oratory is important and interesting not only as a rare Carolingian survivor in France, but also for its unique architectural influences. The chapel's style is unique among Carolingian architecture in several ways, mainly because it is not inspired as much by old Roman buildings (as in most other Carolingian architecture) as by contemporary Visigothic, Moorish, Byzantine and even Armenian work. Oriental influences can most obviously be seen in the horseshoe shape of the arches and the magnificent mosaic in the apse, but the ground plan is also from the East - particularly Armenia.
The original oratory was built on a Greek cross plan enclosed within a square, which measured 32 feet on each side. Each arm of the cross ended in an apse (three survive today) and two smaller apses (now destroyed) flanked the one at the east end. A fine view of the east side of the building can be had from a small, peaceful garden at the back of the church.
While outside, don't miss (as I did) an original inscription above the door under the side porch, which translates: "I, Theodulf, have dedicated this temple to the glory of God. All you who come to this place, remember me."
The interior is not immediately impressive from the western entrance, as the average nave dates from only a few centuries ago. But after walking forward towards the crossing, the original Carolingian architecture becomes apparent. The weight of the square oratory is supported on the outer walls and four pillars in the center, on which rests a lantern tower with high windows.
On the northeast pillar is an original inscription, which reads: "This church was dedicated on the third of January." The inscription continues on the opposite southeast pillar - "in the year of the incarnation 806, under the invocation of saints Genevieve and Germain" - but this part is thought to be a 19th-century copy.
The interior was richly decorated with frescoes (most of which had disappeared even before Lisch began his destruction) and stucco reliefs, culminating in a magnificent apse mosaic in the east end.
This beautiful and unique composition has no parallel in France and was almost certainly done by an artist from the East; probably he had fled west to escape the iconoclasts of that period. If you visit in person, be sure to switch on the floor lamp standing in the apse.
The mosaic is made of glass cubes and colored stone, primarily in the colors of gold, black and blue. Its composition is highly symmetrical and quite beautiful. The style shows similarities with mosaics in Greece, Jordan and the 5th-century Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome (which, notably, Theodulf had visited just a few years earlier).
The subject of the mosaic is unique, centering on the Ark of the Covenant. At the top center is a small area of starry sky, from which the Hand of God descends. Two large angels flank the scene. Their flowing robes flapping in the wind, they enclose the starry sky with their joined wings and look down at the Ark. Two smaller angels stand lightly atop the Ark, also looking and reaching down to it. The Ark of the Covenant is shown as a gold box with side rails for carrying.
Along the bottom of the mosaic is a Latin text, which reads:
The village of Saint-Germigny-des-Prés is just a few miles east of Orléans, where Theodulf was bishop.
Quick Facts on the Germigny-Des-Pres Oratory
|Names:||Carolingian Oratory · Germigny-des-Pres Oratory · Germigny-des-Prés Parish Church · Oratoire de Germigny-des-Prés|
|Styles:||Romanesque; Carolingian Empire|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||47.846222° N, 2.266788° E|
|Hours:||Open in daylight hours|
|Lodging:||View hotels near the Germigny-Des-Pres Oratory|
- Personal visit (July 19, 2008).
- David A. Hanser, Architecture of France, 78-82.
- Kenneth J. Conant, Carolingian and Romanesque Architecture 800-1200 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993), 51-53.
- Peter Strafford, Romanesque Churches of France: A Traveller's Guide (London: Giles de la Mare, 2005), 156-58.
- Oratoire carolingien de Germigny-des-Prés - French Wikipedia
- Ann Freeman and Paul Meyvaert, "The Meaning of Theodulf's Apse Mosaic at Germigny-des-Prés." Gesta, Vol. 4, No. 2 (2001).
- Oratoire carolingien - Structurae
- Germiny-des-Près - Architecture Religieuse en Occident
Map of the Germigny-Des-Pres Oratory, Germigny-des-Pres
Below is a location map and aerial view of the Germigny-Des-Pres Oratory. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.