Medieval Churches of Poitiers, St-Savin and Chauvigny

Posted on July 15, 2008 by Holly Hayes
Part of: The Great European Road Trip

From our temporary castle home (see previous post) in the Poitou region of France, we've made two great day trips filled with medieval art and architecture.

Poitiers, not far from our hotel, is a medium-sized city with no less than six historic churches. We managed five of them, and they are all scattered around the city, so it was quite a long and exhausting day. But we had fun, as always. Here are some highlights.

The Baptistery of St. John, the oldest church in France. It was built in the 4th century and expanded in the 6th and 7th centuries. It was easily our favorite sight of the day. That's the cathedral in the background, which is not nearly as old.

View from West
When we first arrived the sun was behind a big gray cloud, but we were determined to get a good photo and sat on the grass for almost 30 minutes until it emerged again. It was worth it.

View from South
Side view

The inside was even better than I expected. It feels nice and old, and there are lots of wall paintings.

Baptism tank, octagonal as usual to symbolize redemption and perfection.

Ancient tombs, many engraved with intriguing symbols.

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A close second favorite is the Church of Notre-Dame-la-Grande, which has such a beautiful and interesting west facade. I had been looking forward to seeing this for awhile.

The lowest tier, just above the doors, is crammed with a jumble of Bible stories. Above are apostles and saints.

Here the Virgin Mary rests in bed while rocking the newborn Jesus in his crib.

Jesus gets his first wash in a tub while Joseph looks on, looking a little distressed as always.

A variety of characters look out from the side towers.

This is the Eglise Ste-Radegonde, which houses the tomb of a queen-turned-saint.

The tomb of Queen Radegonde is in an atmospheric crypt under the choir. Here's me using the stairs as a tripod, because I'm too lazy to carry a real one.

In addition to contributing some excellent pictures for the web site, David entertained himself by setting his camera on an altar and flapping his arms in a long exposure shot. Freaky!

Some ear-chewing on a capital.

The cathedral, which has some great sculptures over the door and stained glass windows inside. I visited this one by myself just before it closed, while David took a well-deserved rest at an outdoor cafe overlooking the Notre-Dame-la-Grande.

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Medieval window of the crucifixion of St. Peter. According to tradition, he asked his executors to be crucified upside-down because he wasn't worthy to die in the same manner as Jesus.

For lunch we had delicious pizzas at an outdoor table by the Hotel de Ville (town hall). Pictured above is my "Italienne du Nord," which has a creme-fraiche base, potatoes, discs of goat cheese, and lardons (cubed bacon). Yum.

Close-up of the Hotel de Ville, which was decorated with French flags for Bastille Day (July 14). All the shops were closed for the holiday, too.

Today: Saint-Savin and Chauvigny

This morning, after trying unsuccessfully to shoo the bird out of our room, we went on a short road trip to the east of Poitiers.

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The first stop was Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe, whose abbey church is a World Heritage Site. It is very nice on the outside, but the reason it is a World Heritage Site is all inside - the ceiling is covered in early medieval murals.

So imagine my disappointment when I discovered that the entire church is closed for renovations! I knew some renovation work was going on, but when my web friend Adrian Fletcher visited last year, some of it was still accessible. Perhaps the worst part is that, as the sign above explains, all they are doing now is taking the scaffolding down! And it will fully reopen, beautifully restored, in less than two weeks! Such a bummer.

So that stop didn't take long. Our second and final stop of the day was the village of Chauvigny, which has ruins of a castle as well as a Romanesque church in its hilltop "Cité Médiévale."

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There's a nice viewpoint of the whole ensemble from a road to the east.

The church, closer up.

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Interior views. This funhouse-like paint job was done in 1856 and almost certainly does not reflect how it was painted in medieval times. But it definitely would have been painted.

The choir area has some of the most interesting capitals we've seen yet, with the red-and-white paint making it all the more unusual looking. There are lots of monsters devouring humans (generally thought to warn against letting your animal/evil nature getting the best of you), plus a couple biblical stories.

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Adoration of the Magi, with signature of the sculptor: "Gofridus Made Me."

We had an outdoor lunch in a shady square in Chauvigny, at the Creperie Medievale. The waitresses even dressed up as medieval peasants, but it wasn't actually a touristy-feeling place. All the other diners were French. I had another galette complet (wheaty crepe with ham, cheese, and egg) but it wasn't nearly as good as the one in Conques.

But David got a simple omelette that he said was one of the best meals he's had in France. It's certainly not much to look at it, but I agree it was mighty delicious.

Kitty who wandered around the restaurant tables, stopping for occasional naps.

Tomorrow morning we move on to Tours. Only a little more than a week left in France!