Abbaye Saint-Philibert Chevet, Viewed from the Southeast Tournous Abbey
Cioffi, Paul L., 1928-2004
The Abbey Church of Saint-Philibert was built between ca. 920 and ca. 1120 at Tournus, a town in southeastern Burgundy founded in ancient Roman times on the River Saône. It is the only building that survives relatively intact of a monastery first established in 875 by monks fleeing their abbey at Noirmoutier after invasion by Norsemen. These refugees were offered a home by King Charles the Bald (823-877) in the small monastery at Tournus where a community of monks already lived. This monastery, founded in the 6th C. and dedicated to the martyr Valerian, housed their patron’s relics and, as they had since the 2nd C., these relics drew pilgrims. (Valerian of Lyon, d. 179, first evangelized Tournus.) The Noirmoutier monks brought with them the bones of their founder, St. Philibert (616-685), and soon built a church dedicated to him. This church was destroyed by Hungarian invaders in 936-937. It was haltingly rebuilt between episodes of political unrest and other calamities, including a devastating fire in 1006, resulting in the present-day building. The western end of the nave is capped with a fortress-like westwork that dates to ca. 1000. The design of the church was, in part, determined by a decree issued by the Council of Tournus (949), obliging the head of every family in the dioceses of Autun, Chalon and Mâcon to make a pilgrimage to Saint-Philibert Abbey on the Friday after Ascension Day. The relics of St. Valerian were translated to the crypt in 979. Above, the east end of the church, with its sanctuary, ambulatory (accommodating pilgrims) and five rectangular radiating chapels, dates to the 11th C. and was consecrated in 1019; the central, easternmost chapel contains the relics of St. Philibert. Building progressed in the 12th C. with the addition of the transept, choir and bell tower over the crossing. The tower, similar to the north tower on the west facade (also 12th C.), is designed with two levels of triple open arches on each face, decorated with colonettes and inlaid stone patterns, then topped with a short spire. The church’s original wooden ceiling was replaced with a stone one (1066-1108) that employs an unusual transverse barrel vaulting system. While many Romanesque churches were constructed with long barrel (tunnel) vaults, Saint-Philibert’s variation on that concept—although superior from an engineering point of view—appears to have been duplicated only once, at nearby Mont-Saint-Vincent. Saint-Philibert’s vaults rest on diaphragm arches that carry the weight of the ceiling in each bay to the ground through the large pillars. Because the exterior walls are not bearing the weight of the ceiling, they could be pierced with large windows, creating a clerestory that floods the nave with light. In the late 15th C. the abbey began to suffer serious reversals. In 1498, the king took from the monks their right to elect their own abbots. In 1562 Huguenots looted and badly damaged the monastery. In 1627 the abbey was suppressed, replaced by a college of canons. 18th C. modifications to the interior of the church building ignored its original design; only lack of funds foiled plans to demolish the crossing tower in 1778. French Revolutionaries declared the church secular property, dedicating it to the “Constitutional Cult”. In 1802 it was re-consecrated for worship as a parish church; nevertheless, it continues to be known as Saint-Philibert Abbey. In 1841 the church was declared an historic monument and began to undergo restoration; during the 20th C. more historically accurate restorations have brought the ancient church to its present state. It continues to be used for worship services and for music concerts. Recently, a Romanesque mosaic pavement of very fine quality was uncovered in the ambulatory; it depicts the signs of the zodiac and the labors of the month. ca. August 1981
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