Abbaye de Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe

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St Savin is on the D951 Poitiers to Châteauroux road. It is a large settlement and felt unkempt and uninviting. Unusual in France there was litter and graffiti around the town. The only reason to visit is for Abbaye de St-Savin-sur-Gartempe with its World Heritage frescoes.

Signing is poor and we ended in a scruffy car park in the centre of town with disgusting public toilets. There is a larger (unsigned) car park set among trees by the abbey which does have slightly better toilets.

The best views of the abbey are from across the bridge when it can be seen above the river with the Abbot’s House (often incorrectly referred to as the château) along side it.

The original church was founded around 800AD in time of Charlemagne to house the bodies of two 5thC martyrs, St Savin and St Cyprian. The original crypt built to hold the holy relics still survives, but was locked when we visited.

By the 9thC it was one of the major abbeys in the region. The abbey was rebuilt in the 11thC and extended in the 13thC. The spire is 14thC.

It suffered during the Wars of Religion in the 16thC when the archives were burnt along with dormitories, cloisters, organ and choir stalls. It lay in ruins until the late 17thC when Benedictine monks began rebuilding. The community was disbanded during the Revolution and the monks left. The Abbey church became the parish church. The importance of the frescoes was recognised in the mid 19thC when restoration work began.

The building towers above the river and dwarfs the surrounding buildings. The outside walls of the nave and transepts are heavily buttressed. There is a square tower with pyramid roof above the transept. At the west end is a square tower with very tall decoratively carved spire. At the east end is a round apse with five smaller radiating apses off it.

Entry to the abbey is via the small shop. This has a good range of books, the usual selection of knights on horseback and a very poor selection of postcards. Access to the Abbey is free but there is €6 charge to visit the museum in the 17thC Monk’s Building above the bookshop. This covers Romanesque art history, with films, models, dioramas and interactive terminals. We were told this was all in French, so just visited the church. We were given an excellent free guide in English which identified the different frescoes.

On the opposite side of the shop is the Refectory building which has a rescued fresco from the nave mounted on a board hanging on the wall. Abraham on the left is at the head of a group of infantry men who are scaring away the army of Calvary who had captured Lot.

We walked into the church and our jaws did literally drop. It is an incredible and very beautiful building. Architecturally it is a simple Romanesque building with its beauty from the frescoes and colours. There is a very long and high nave with tall pillars with elaborately carved capitals painted in abstract designs in different shades of greys and pinks. The two pillars at the west end have faint remains of their original frescoes; paintings of different animals in small boxes. Above are round topped arches. Above is a round ceiling covered in frescoes.

The walls of the nave are made up of small blocks of stone covered in plaster. (It is possible to see the exposed stones in part of the south wall). Patterns of square bricks are outlined in red and there are small framed paintings of the Stations of the Cross. The nave has simple free standing wooden pews and there is a wall mounted wooden pulpit.

The side aisles have round pillars mounted on the side walls. The roof of the side aisles is vaulted and marked into bricks similar to the nave. There is a decorative red, blue and white frieze painted around the walls.

The nave ceiling is covered in frescoes arranged in two bands of separate panels on either side, illustrating Old Testament stories from Genesis and Exodus. The free leaflet has details of all the panels, including those which have been lost. They begin with the story of the creation and end with the giving of the Ten Commandments. The pictures are full of colour and life. There is God taking a rib from Adam and a huge serpent tempting Eve. There is a delightful picture of Noah’s Arc full of animals with dead bodies washing around in the flood. There is a scene showing the building of the Tower of Babel with workmen carrying stone blocks and a mason seizing a bucket of mortar which has been pulled up on a pulley. The final pictures show the safe passage through the Red Sea and God giving the Ten Commandments to Moses.

Steps lead up to the porch at the west. Above the doorway leading to the porch is a fresco of the Virgin and Child surrounded by angels. An open window above gives a glimpse into the tower which has more frescoes but is only visited on a guided tour.

Inside the porch above the doorway is Christ in Majesty with angels on his right holding a large cross. On the underside of the arch are frescoes of apostles and angels. Paintings on the walls include the Virgin and Child facing down a fierce winged dragon with Joseph throwing up his hands in horror. Next to it is the scene of the plague of locusts. The locusts are shown as winged horses with human heads.

The transept is very tall and narrow. It has crosses on the end walls, statues and old choir stalls. In the north transept is a replica of the tombstone of L’Abbe Odon, the second Abbot who died in 820 and a painting of the Good Shepherd. The south transept has a memorial to the dead of World War One.

Two sets of steps lead down into the crypt which houses the tombs of St Savin and St Cyprien, but the doors were shut and locked. At the back of the ambulatory there are more steps down into the crypt which houses the tomb of St Marius.

There is a very stylish chancel with an ambulatory round it. There is a semi-circle of ten tall round pillars with highly carved carved capitals and round arches. Above are small round topped windows with modern stained glass and small red crosses painted on the ceiling. There is a small free standing mass altar. Behind it is a stone high altar with pillars with round arches carved on the base and a host box above.

The ambulatory has round wall pillars with carved capitals supporting small round arches on the walls. There are five small apses off, each with a statue. On the north side are St Anne with the Young Virgin Mary and St Joseph with the child Jesus. This apse has the remains of frescoes on the walls with flower patterns.

The central apse has a simple stone altar and host box, remains of frescoes of saints and angels and stained glass windows. To the south are St Hilary with more frescoes and the crowned St Rodegundis.

There are other churches with frescoes in the Gartempe valley and this makes a good day’s drive.

Don’t bother with the town. Head straight for the Abbey. The frescoes really are mind blowing and this was one of the highlights of our holiday.


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