Thursday, 30 June 2005

Basilique Saint-Sernin

Our hotel in Toulouse is a little outside the old part of the city, though it's within reasonable walking distance, so this morning we got on the buses for a brief ride to the Place du Capitole, where we split into three groups for a walking tour of some of the sights of the city. We began at the Basilica of St. Sernin, a (mostly) Romanesque church. A smaller church existed here from the fifth century, but in 1060 construction began on this much larger basilica. The altar was consecrated in 1096, but construction continued for around 200 years. This went well into the Gothic architectural period, but the builders generally kept to the original style. An exception is the tower; you can see the lower two rows of arches are in the round-topped style of Romanesque churches, while the next two rows have the "mitred" arches of the 13th century, and the spire was added in the 15th century.

Inside Basilique Saint-Sernin

Churches of this scale were often finished over generations, so they were built east to west: the altar would be at the east end, so that would be finished first so the church could be consecrated and be put in service, and the rest would be finished as funding (and wars, plagues, famines, ...) permitted. This basilica is unusually large for a Romanesque church; the layout is usually in the shape of a cross, and the transept or (shorter) crossbar of this church, at 60 meters, is bigger than the long dimension of many other churches. Likewise, the nave (western and longest of the four cross arms) is 21 meters tall, rather than the typical 12 meters. The Gothic style introduced the flying buttress, whereby the walls were prevented from collapsing outward under the weight of the roof by external braces; this enabled them to reach much greater heights. The unusual height of this pre-Gothic church required internal bracing by two auxiliary "aisles" (rows of columns and arches) flanking the main aisle, shorter at 10 and 7 meters tall. The extra height also allows for a "tribune," or tall second level with windows that provide much more light than is typical in the interior of a Romanesque church. Here we are looking down the nave toward the altar, with an 18th century statue above the tomb of St. Sernin that replaced an earlier one destroyed during the Revolution.

Painted roof

Toulouse is known as the "Rose City" from the prevalence of red brick in its construction; this is due to the fact that they don't have much except clay with which to build around here, and stones must be shipped in from the Pyrenees. Thus the use of stone in construction was a sign of wealth; funding prevented much of this church from being made of stone, but to disguise the brick construction the interior was stuccoed and painted to resemble stone. Note the black lines delimiting the pretend stones over most of this view of the ceiling.

Signs in French and Occitan

While walking in Toulouse, we noticed that street signs were doubled, with one in French and one in something that resembled Spanish in many cases. The latter is Occitan, the traditional language of Languedoc; like Catalan, it has similarities to both French and Spanish. The name on the signs is "Street of the Bull"; this refers to the story of the martyrdom of St. Cernin. He was the first bishop of Toulouse, in the third century when the Romans were still persecuting Christians. The Romans were attempting to sacrifice a bull to Jupiter, but for some reason they weren't able to kill the animal. Bishop Saturnin (Cernin is an Occitan adaptation of the Roman name) spoke to the crowd, telling them that this was a sign from the true God that Jupiter was not worthy of sacrifice; the crowd tied him to the bull with a long rope and had it drag him to his death through the streets. Centuries later, the church built around his tomb became a center of pilgrimage, and then (like many of the other great churches we will visit on this tour) became a stop on the route to Santiago de Compostela in western Spain, the church at the tomb of the Apostle James, who according to legend brought Christianity to this end of Europe. I understand that Compostela was third after Rome and Jerusalem in popularity as a pilgrimage destination; thus Toulouse needed a great church like St. Cernin's to accommodate the huge number of pilgrims passing through. (The signs in Occitan were put up just three years ago, as a salute to local heritage.)

Le Capitole

Next we went back to the Place du Capitole, the square in front of the city hall, called le Capitole. In the USA we think nothing of calling the seat of government of a state or country a "capitol," but in France the term is not commonly used. Typically a city hall would be called the "hotel de ville" or "mairie"; in the 16th century the citizens of Toulouse decided to name theirs after the Capitolium, the main temple in ancient Rome, as a salute to the city's Roman heritage. The facade dates to the 18th century, and the square or Place to the 19th century. Actually, the rightmost one-fourth of the facade is in front of the city's opera house; it looks like it was extended this far to achieve symmetry on either side of the main entrance. The decorations above the name "CAPITOLIUM" are unusual in that immediately above is a crest bearing the initials "RF" for "Republic Française," but at the top of the roof is the crown and fleur de lys of the kings of France; usually a building would have one or the other, not both! Apparently the Revolution occurred in the middle of construction of the facade...

Wedding Hall of le Capitole

Inside were many paintings of local scenes, especially of the river Garonne, done by Henri Martin from 1902 to 1907. (The street named for him in Paris is the equivalent of Park Place in the French version of Monopoly, for what that tidbit is worth...) Farther in is this Hall of Illustrious Men, with busts and paintings of many famous names; this is the place to get married in Toulouse, and on a busy Saturday they can have forty weddings in a row! We saw two or three parties go through while we were here, and ducked in to take a look between two of them. Note the pale blue-green scene on the ceiling; it's not faded or out of focus, but rather unfinished because the painter died and the people of Toulouse decided to honor him in the Hall of Illustrious Men by not assigning somebody else to finish it.

Tower of Hotel de Bernuy

Next we went to the Hotel de Bernuy, the mansion of a Spanish merchant ("hotel" has a broader meaning than the way we use it in English, e.g., "hotel de ville" above) whose name was rendered as Bernuy locally. He became rich by exporting a local blue vegetable dye called "pastel" in French, or "woad" in English. (It's a paler blue than the shirts we were wearing, we were told.) He built his house in 1504 and added to it in 1530; this tower is in the earlier part of the mansion. The smaller-diameter secondary tower holds a spiral staircase that goes from the top floor of the main house to the top of the tower. There are 49 such 16th-century octagonal towers preserved in Toulouse, with a height proportional to the owner's wealth; at 26.5 meters, this puts Bernuy in the middle of the range (18 to 40 meters). To quote Marilyn Manson, "it's all relative to the size of your steeple!"

Newer section of Hotel de Bernuy

This is the courtyard of the newer section of the mansion; by the time it was built, the forms and styles of the Renaissance had reached Toulouse. Bernuy had also become significantly wealthier; you'll note that the tower was brick with some stone embellishments, but this section is mostly made of expensive stone. On the right are barred windows at the landings of a "switchback" modern multi-flight staircase; this was another innovation, only the third one built (instead of the older spiral design) in Toulouse. The house was taken over for a religious school at one point by the Jesuits, then for a public school after the Revolution; now it houses the College Pierre de Fermat, a middle school ("college" here; "lycée" is what we'd call a high school) named for the famous mathematician born near here.

Nave of Les Jacobins

Around noon we headed to Les Jacobins church, where we were to sing informally. This is a Gothic church built in the 13th and 14th centuries; it is unusual in several respects. Here you can see that the nave has two aisles, rather than the usual odd number (one central aisle and two or four flanking it); this is thought to be because one aisle was reserved for the monks, and one for the general public. "Jacobins" is another name for the Dominican order, founded by St. Dominic in 1260 here in Toulouse; their main church in Paris is on the Rue de Saint Jacques, whence the nickname. After the revolution this church was pretty badly trashed, having been used as a stable for hundreds of horses by the cavalry; the windows are modern replacements, designed to match the patterns of a "false window" painted on the wall in a location where a window would have gone except that behind it is the tower, which stands next to rather than on top of the church.

Altar of Les Jacobins

The church is also unusual in that the altar is in its middle, not toward its east end. Originally, it was at the east end; the layout of the church is rectangular rather than cruciform, so there was no constraint on expansion (extending a cruciform church would destroy its shape), and an addition was built to the east but the altar was left where it was. The reliquary under the altar holds the remains of St. Thomas Aquinas, the most illustrious member of the Dominican order. They were brought here in 1369 on order of the French Pope Urban V, who thought they should rest in a church where the order was founded. Mass is not routinely celebrated in this church at present, but on January 28th each year, the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas, a priest says mass, then takes a smaller reliquary containing the skull of the saint on a procession around the interior of the church. Processions with relics and icons are common in other parts of the Catholic world, but this is one of the few such celebrations in France.

Cloister and tower of Les Jacobins

Next we went out to the cloister. There used to be a functioning monastery here, but all the buildings except the church were confiscated and knocked down after the Revolution, and the cavalry didn't treat the church and its immediate grounds much better. You can see the tower standing next to the church, with the Gothic mitred arches. Churchmen aren't above the same kind of "mine's bigger" rivalry that impelled Mr. Bernuy to build his tower: I mentioned above that a spire was added to the tower of St. Sernin in the 15th century, and this was to ensure that at 65 meters that tower would be taller than this 63-meter one across town!

Singing at Les Jacobins

Here we are singing in the chapter hall of the cloister. There wasn't a very large crowd, though a few tourists and people who worked here stopped to listen; however, we certainly enjoyed singing most of our a capella Latin songs in a place that once rang with that kind of music! And "rang" is the right word; the reverberations after we finished a phrase or an entire song were marvelous. (Can we take out the pews and refinish the interior of the MBCC sanctuary in stone when we get back?) Thanks again to Steve Campbell for his steady hand on the camera.

We then had the afternoon free to explore the town before meeting for dinner, at the same restaurant as last night about five doors down from the hotel. Many of us went to the river Garonne to seek out some of the locations in Henri Martin's paintings, to take a cruise down the river, or just to enjoy the view; others visited museums, or went shopping, and a lot of us crowded local cafes for lunch. I went back to the hotel again and crashed, so again I don't have a lot to report (or show). Lee Lassetter, our organist, ended up comparing notes with an organist who was practicing for a relative's wedding in a local church; he pointed out a piece he was working on by the same Canadian composer whose work she had played at the close of our concert in the Barcelona Cathedral! Small world. And Terri Lambert, I heard, attempted to climb out of a boat while it was in a lock on the river, until the lock master and barge captain stopped her... Oh well, I had a nice lunch with friends!

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