The Église Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand (Church of St. Hilary the Great) is one of several notable Romanesque churches in Poitiers. Built in the 11th century, it has a fine apse surrounded by chapels, Romanesque wall paintings in the choir, and several carved capitals. It is a World Heritage Site as part of the "Routes to Santiago de Compostela in France."
History of St-Hilaire-Le-Grand
The church of St-Hilaire-le-Grand was built over a Roman graveyard and dedicated to St. Hilary, the first bishop of Poitiers. Hilary was born into a pagan family at Poitiers around 315 and converted to Christianity after reading the Scriptures. He was appointed bishop of his city in 350 AD, after which he took up the defense of orthodox Christianity against Arianism.
Hilary was eventually exiled by the Arian emperor Constantius, but he continued his writing on theology (in which he encouraged a moderate approach to the Semi-Arians) and traveled to Constantinople to do further battle against error.
Hilary returned to Poitiers in 361, resumed his role as bishop, and was visited by his former disciple St. Martin of Tours. After a trip to Italy on further Arian-related business, Hilary returned again to Poitiers, where he remained until his death in 368 AD.
According to legend, the Church of St. Hilary helped Clovis win a battle over the Visigoths in 507: its cross miraculously lit up and pointed out the position of the latter army. Clovis lavished the abbey church with gifts and it became a royal abbey. In the following centuries the abbey was pillaged by Saracens and then the Normans, but was rebuilt each time.
The present church dates mostly from the 11th century. A fire around 1100 destroyed the original wooden roof of the church, leading naturally to a decision to replace it with a more fire-proof stone vault. However, the nave was too wide to support a stone vault. The solution? Add an extra row of columns on each side of the nave pillars, resulting in a narrower nave and a forest-like effect of narrow aisles.
Thanks to its tomb of the saint, the church of St. Hilary attracted many pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela, who processed around the roomy ambulatory in the east end. The fate of Hilary's relics is not known for certain (the church of Puy still claims to have them), but one account says they were taken from the church of St-Hilaire and destroyed by Protestants in 1572.
Protestants damaged and pillaged the church in 1572 and the facade and domed aisles were badly damaged when the tower fell in 1590. More damage and pillaging took place during the Revolution in 1793. The church was restored in 1870, which involved the rebuilding of the nave from the ground up. Sadly, it also involved trimming off part of its length at the western end. Currently scholarly opinion has it that the octagonal domes over the nave were also added at this time, replacing the original barrel vault, but the question is still debated.
What to See at St-Hilaire-Le-Grand
St Hilaire is best approached from the east where there is a nice view of the chevet: a large Romanesque apse surrounded by harmonious radiating chapels. Figurative carvings can be seen on the corbels and in some of the blind arches.
Inside, the church has a central nave plus three narrow aisles on each side, supported by a forest of columns. There are a few figurative capitals, including one of St. Hilary being brought to heaven by angels. Faded Romanesque frescoes can be seen in the choir and on pillars at the front of the nave.
Quick Facts on St-Hilaire-Le-Grand
|Names:||Église St-Hilaire-le-Grand · Great Church of St. Hilary · St-Hilaire-le-Grand|
|Categories:||churches; World Heritage Sites|
|Dedication:||St. Hilary of Poitiers|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||46.577352° N, 0.332626° E|
|Address:||Rue du Doyenne|
|Phone:||05 49 41 21 24 (Poitiers tourism office)|
|Hours:||Usually open in daytime|
|Lodging:||View hotels near St-Hilaire-Le-Grand|
- Personal visit (July 14, 2008).
- Peter Strafford, Romanesque Churches of France: A Traveller's Guide (London: Giles de la Mare, 2005), 226-27.
- Yves Bourdonneau, Decouvrir Poitiers et la Vienne (2006), 23.
- Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand - Vienne Tourism
- St Hilaire le Grand - Planetware
- St. Hilary of Poitiers - Catholic Encyclopedia
- Routes of Santiago de Compostela in France - UNESCO World Heritage
- Saint Hilary of Poitiers - Patron Saints Index
- Photos of St-Hilaire-Le-Grand - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of St-Hilaire-Le-Grand, Poitiers
Below is a location map and aerial view of St-Hilaire-Le-Grand. 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.