Dubbed the "Romanesque Sistine Chapel," the Abbey of Saint-Savin is a World Heritage Site near Poitiers that is famed for its many beautiful and well-preserved 11th- and 12th-century murals.
The history of Saint-Savin is a bit murky, but it seems to have been founded in the time of Charlemagne (747-814) after the miraculous discovery of the bodies of two 5th-century martyrs, Savin and Cyprian, by Baidilius, Abbot of Marmoutier.
Baidilius ordered a church built to shelter the holy relics. The original cryptthat was built for the tombs survives in the present church.
Perhaps by coincidence, Charlemagne built a castle nearby. Thanks to the castle, the church escaped pillage during the Viking raids and the remains of numerous saints were brought to Saint-Savin for safekeeping in the 9th and 10th centuries.
The Abbey of Saint-Savin was rebuilt in the 11th century — this is the structure, with its 11th- and 12th-century murals, that stands today. It was further expanded in the 13th century thanks to generous donations. The spire was added in the 14th century.
In 1368, during the Hundred Years' War, the abbot offered protection to English troops in the abbey. Two years later, a monk opened the doors to the French army. Finally, in 1371, the abbey was violently retaken and pillaged by the Black Prince, son of Edward III.
In the 16th century, in the name of reform, the abbey buildings were almost completely destroyed. The abbey's archives were burned (which is why we know only parts of its history) along with the dormitory, cloisters, pipe organ and choir stalls. It lay in ruins until the mid-17th century, when a reformed order of monasticism was established in Saint-Savin and some minor repairs were undertaken.
The life of the Abbey of Saint-Savin finally ceased during the French Revolution, when the monks were thrown out and their property was sold.
The church was thereafter neglected until the mid-19th century, when the importance of its murals was recognized by tourists and archaeologists. Restoration of the murals was undertaken from 1841 to 1845. UNESCO added Saint-Savin abbey church to its list of World Heritage Sites in 1983.
What to See
The Church of Saint-Savin dates mainly from the end of the 11th century, but some parts—including the transept with wings, square tower, and the crypts of St. Martin and of the Saints Savin and Cyprian—are even older. It has a three-aisled nave with nine bays, an apse with radiating chapels at the east end and a clocher-porche (bell-tower structure) on the west. Steps descend to the narthex and from there to the floor of the nave, whose bare round columns are topped with deeply-carved capitals in foliage motifs.
But the chief attraction of this attractive Romanesque church are its murals, because of their graceful beauty, extensiveness, and relatively good state of preservation.
Dating from between the end of the 11th century and the beginning of the 12th century, they illustrate an extensive array of major biblical stories.
One pictorial cycle, depicting the Apocalypse, covers the ceiling of the clocher-porche and the tympanum of the doorway opening into the church.
A second series illustrates events from Genesis and Exodus across the entire barrel-vaulting of the central nave: the creation of the earth and the stars; the birth of Eve; the Temptation and its consequences; the story of Cain and Abel; the flood; Noah and his descendants; Abraham; Joseph, the crossing of the Red Sea; workers constructing the Tower of Babel.
The Passion of Christ is painted in the upper tribune of the porch, which incorporates scenes of the martyrs; large figures of saints are found in the choir and on the piers of the transept. Finally, the lives and martyrdoms of Saint Savin and Saint Cyprian occupy the walls of the crypts which bear their names.
Outside the church are attractive gazebos and vegetable gardens, and attached to the abbey is an excellent museum of Romanesque art history, featuring a number of innovative multimedia exhibits.
A fine view of the abbey church can be had by walking down the River Gartempe a little way to the medieval bridge.
Quick Facts on St-Savin-sur-Gartempe Church
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- Abbey Church of Saint-Savin sur Gartempe - UNESCO World Heritage List
- The Abbey of Saint-Savin sur Gartempe - The Angelus, July 2000
- Rough Guide France 9 (2005), p. 658.
- St-Savin-sur-Gartempe Church - Go Historic
- Photos of St-Savin-sur-Gartempe Church - here on Sacred Destinations
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