Abbaye Saint-Philibert Westwork 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. From the beginning of its reconstruction in the 10th C., the church was designed to accommodate pilgrims to the two saints’ graves. The relics of St. Valerian were translated to the crypt in 979; and above, the remains of St. Philibert were enshrined in the central chapel (of five) radiating from the ambulatory, certainly by 1019 when the chancel was consecrated. The fortress-like westwork (shown here), perforated with loopholes for shooting arrows, is testimony to times so chaotic that monks needed not only to defend themselves against assault, but also had to provide refuge for the lay people who helped sustain them. This westwork, or narthex, which dates to ca. 1000, exhibits influences of both northern (Carolingian) and southern (Lombard) architecture. Its masonry murals, composed of patterned bands and blind arcades, as well as the short belfries that originally capped both towers are typical of First Romanesque style. The tall structure that now crowns the north tower was added in 1120. Similar to Saint-Philibert’s crossing tower of the same period, it is designed with two levels of triple open arches on each face of the tower, decorated with colonettes and inlaid stone patterns, then topped with a short spire. While the westwork is attached to the main church, it is a distinct, two-story (vestibule surmounted by chapel), three-bay, vaulted structure supported by four massive cylindrical masonry piers that divide the space into nave and two aisles. As is often true for westwork chapels, this one is dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel for protection. The west portal is 19th C., as is the crenellated walkway connecting the two towers. Inside, the church has an unusual but effective system of vaulting that uses transverse barrel vaults to carry the weight of each bay’s stone ceiling through diaphragm arches and large pillars, allowing the clerestory walls to be pierced with large windows that flood 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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