The Abbey of Saint Philibert in the riverside town of Tournus, Burgundy, is a fortress-like Romanesque church with many interesting features. The church tends to be uncrowded and is well worth a visit.
Dating mainly from the 11th century with a 10th-century crypt, it boasts an impressively tall nave with an unusual vault, carved capitals, an important Romanesque statue of the Virgin and Child, and newly-discovered 12th-century floor mosaics depicting the zodiac.
History of Tournus Abbey
In Roman times, Tournus was a small fortified town built alongside the River Saône. The first documented presence of Christianity is in the 2nd century, with the arrival of St. Valerian from Lyon. Valerian preached in Tournus and converted some of its inhabitants before being executed by the Romans around 179 AD. His tomb became a secret place of pilgrimage for early Christians.
In the 4th century, after Christianity became legal under Emperor Constantine, a public oratory was built over the tomb. A small monastery dedicated to St. Valerian was founded on the site in the 6th century. This and other early buildings were badly damaged in Arab raids in 731 and partially rebuilt afterwards.
In 875, King Charles the Bald offered the Abbey of St. Valerian in Tournus to homeless monks from Noirmoutier, whose monastery had been captured by the Normans. That monastery had been founded by St. Philibert (616-85), whose relics the monks carried with them. This led to an unusual situation in which the abbey was shared by two monastic communities, each dedicated to their own saint.
Hungarian invaders damaged the monastery buildings in 936-37, after which the church begun to be rebuilt in the form we know it today. Construction of a grand new church was further necessitated by a ruling of the Council of Tournus in 949, which required the heads of all families in the dioceses of Autun, Chalon and Mâcon to make a pilgrimage to the abbey on the Friday after Ascension Day.
Construction on this new pilgrimage church lasted from the late 10th century to the early 12th century, with frequent interruptions. The relics of St. Valerian were translated to the crypt in 979 and the chancel was consecrated by the bishops of Chalon and Macon on August 19, 1019. A stone vault replaced the original wooden ceiling in 1066-1108.
The chapter house was rebuilt after a fire in 1245 and the Late Middle Ages saw the addition of several chapels by wealthy sponsors, including the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament (1339) and two other chapels in the left aisle (1425).
At the dawn of the Renaissance, the abbey began a sharp decline in fortunes. First, in 1498, the abbey became in commendam, meaning that its abbots would be appointed by the king rather than elected by the monks. A common development across Europe, this tends to produce abbots who are less spiritually inclined and more interested in the excellent salary and benefits of the job.
Further disaster came in August 1562, when the Huguenots (French Calvinists) badly damaged and pillaged the abbey. Finally, in 1627, the abbey was suppressed. A college of canons replaced the monks and a secular abbot replaced the former monastic one.
The 18th century saw many changes, including the whitewashing of the interior, the raising of the floor, and the near-demolition of the crossing tower (fortunately they ran out of money to do it!). Even more dramatic were the effects of the French Revolution, which included the expulsion of the abbot and canons and the declaration that the church was now a secular building dedicated to the "Constitutional Cult."
Things began to improve in the 19th century. The abbey church was reconsecrated for worship in 1802, becoming the mother church of the parish of Tournus. In 1841, it was declared a historic monument and restorations began. These renovations were, as usual for this period, a bit over-creative. More accurate restorations of the original Romanesque appearance took place in the 20th century.
What to See at Tournus Abbey
The church is approached via a narrow passage between massive gate towers, through which a tantalizing glimpse of the west front can be seen. The facade is imposing and austere, with thick walls and arrow-slit windows indicating its double purpose as a fortress. The only decoration comes from tall recesses beneath Lombard bands (small blind arches) and a cross cut in the top center. The north tower dates from the late 12th century. The portal is an incongruous 19th-century addition, as is the walkway between the west towers.
Before (or after) going in, it is worth walking around the back to see the apse and radiating chapels of the east end, which is now half submerged below ground level. A mosaic pattern of inlaid red diamonds around the apse connect it stylistically with other Romanesque churches in Burgundy. Over the transept crossing is a bell tower, from the late 12th century like the north tower, with two levels of three openings on each side. It is decorated with colonnettes and various patterns in stone and topped with a short spire.
The west entrance of the church leads into a dark narthex (late 10th, early 11th century) with a low, heavy vault. Like the nave, it has three aisles supported by plain round pillars. The center aisle is groin vaulted and the side aisles are barrel vaulted.
Some of the narthex vaults are decorated with frescoes. The oldest is a 12th-century Romanesque Christ in Majesty with adoring angels on the last central arch next to the nave. The left vault has a 15th-century Crucifixion scene with the checkerboard arms of the family who donated it. There are many tombstones embedded in the floor, including some interesting round ones from the 16th and 17th centuries that may cover funeral pits.
The narthex is more substantial than most because it supports a large room above: the early-11th-century Chapel of St. Michael. This is accessed via a narrow spiral staircase to the right of the narthex. It is the strongest part of the church and looks much like a castle with its strong masonry and arrow-slit windows (the ones you saw on the west front). This chapel served not only as a spiritual sanctuary but also a place of refuge and defense during invasions, which were fairly frequent in the Middle Ages.
The chapel is laid out just like the narthex below, but has a much higher ceiling (12.5m) and more light. Windows at the west end provide a nice view of the nave. While there, be sure not to miss the relief sculptures in the triumphal arch of the chapel - these are some of the earliest examples of Romanesque art. In addition to plants and flowers, there are two figurative carvings: the head of a full-cheeked man with a spiky hairdo who seems to be speaking; and a man holding some kind of tool (an axe?) in his left hand while giving a blessing with his right.
Back downstairs, the contrast between the dark narthex and the nave is a spectacular effect. The nave soars to great height and is filled with light, thanks in large part to its rather ingenious system of vaulting. In a design that seems to have been invented in Tournus, the nave has a succession of transverse barrel vaults. This transfers the weight of the vault to the pillars, allowing large windows in the clerestory. This design was only implemented in one other church (Mont-Saint-Vincent, not far away).
The massive pillars supporting the vault are made of light pink rough stones and mortar. The organ at the west end of the nave dates from 1629 and is one of the oldest in Burgundy. It was fully restored in 1990.
The side aisles have groin vaults. Gothic chapels were built off both aisles: one in the right (south) aisle and three in the left (north). The one in the right aisle is the Chapel of Notre-Dame la Brune, named for the Romanesque Madonna on the altar. Made in the Auvergne in the 12th century, it is a cedar reliquary that has been painted and gilded.
The chapel itself, with a Gothic sculpted arch and frescoed walls, dates from the 15th century and originally housed the tomb of an Abbot of Tournus. The partially restored fresco shows the abbot and his patron saints. This was destroyed in the Wars of Religion and replaced with the present altar in 17th century.
The transept and crossing dome are impressive in their soaring architecture and contain the most interesting capitals in the church. Subjects include acrobats, demons torturing sinners and strange scenes of human heads and mythical creatures, often intertwining and biting the humans.
As a pilgrimage church, the chancel is surrounded by an ambulatory. It has a curved barrel vault, arches and columns on the outer wall, and a semicircle of slender columns separating it from the chancel.
There is an excellent view of the plain chancel and the entire nave from the east end of the ambulatory. Looking in the other direction from here, the easternmost chapel displays the relics of St. Philibert in a glass reliquary. These relics have been the goal of many pilgrimages since 875.
A recent discovery was made in the ambulatory: part of a magnificent Romanesque mosaic pavement depicting the Zodiac and Labors of the Months. A metal catwalk has been erected above the mosaic and special lighting has been installed to allow visitors an excellent view of the mosaic without damaging it. There are also informative signs at either end of the mosaic.
Beneath the choir is a highly atmospheric crypt, which dates from the late 10th century. It is dedicated to St. Valerian and was built around his tomb. The crypt includes a deep, round well of mysterious purpose. It may have been used as a water source, for baptism, or as a funeral pit. There are some 12th-century Romanesque murals in the right chapel of the ambulatory: a Virgin and Child; a Christ in Majesty; and the Paschal Lamb. There are later murals as well.
Quick Facts on Tournus Abbey
|Names:||Abbaye Saint-Philibert · Tournus Abbey|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||46.565868° N, 4.908936° E|
|Address:||Place de l'Abbaye|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Tournus Abbey|
- Personal visit (June 10, 2008).
- Tournus: Abbaye Saint-Philibert, English Edition
- Peter Strafford, Romanesque Churches of France: A Traveller's Guide (London: Giles de la Mare, 2005), 86-92.
Map of Tournus Abbey
Below is a location map and aerial view of Tournus Abbey. 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.