Basilica of Saint-Sernin (Occitan:
Basilica de Sant Sarnin) is a
church in Toulouse, France, the former abbey church of the Abbey of
Saint-Sernin or St Saturnin. Apart from the church, none of the abbey
buildings remain. The current church is located on the site of a
previous basilica of the 4th century which contained the body of Saint
Saturnin or Sernin, the first bishop of
Toulouse in c. 250.
Constructed in the Romanesque style between about 1080 and 1120, with
construction continuing thereafter, Saint-Sernin is the largest
remaining Romanesque building in Europe, if not the world. The
church is particularly noted for the quality and quantity of its
Romanesque sculpture. In 1998 the basilica was added to the UNESCO
World Heritage Sites under the description: World Heritage Sites of
the Routes of
Santiago de Compostela
Santiago de Compostela in France.
6 External links
The abbey of Saint-Sernin was an ancient foundation. St. Sylvius,
bishop of Toulouse, began construction of the basilica towards the end
of the 4th century.
Its importance increased enormously after
Charlemagne (r. 768-800)
donated a quantity of relics to it, as a result of which it became an
important stop for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela,
and a pilgrimage location in its own right. The size of the current
building and the existence of an ambulatory may reflect the need to
accommodate increasing numbers of pilgrims.
The difficulty of determining an accurate chronology for the
construction of Saint-Sernin and the completion of its sculpture has
given rise to numerous problems. At least as early as the 1010s,
Bishop Pierre Roger had set aside a portion of the offerings to
Saint-Sernin for an eventual rebuilding of the Carolingian church.
During the decade of the 1070s and by 1080 at the latest, the canons
of Saint-Sernin had accepted the rule of St. Augustine and had placed
themselves under the direct control of the Holy See. Nevertheless,
there are only two firm dates that bear directly on the church itself
and even these involve certain difficulties. On May 24, 1096, Pope
Urban II dedicated the altar of the still largely incomplete
building. Although there have been numerous attempts to determine
the point that construction had reached at this time, the most that
can be said with certainty is that 1096 is a firm terminus ante quem.
That is, construction must have begun at least several years before
The second firm date is July 3, 1118, the death of St. Raymond
Gayrard, canon and provost of the chapter. A 15th-century life of the
saint states that he took charge of the building after part of the
church had been completed and that by the time of his death he had
"brought the walls all the way around up to the completion of the
windows..." Unfortunately, the life was written much later, some
three hundred years after the events it describes, and since at least
three different Raymonds were involved in the building of the church,
the biographer may have confused elements from the lives of all three.
At any rate, whenever started, it appears that construction of the
church did not progress continuously through to completion, for there
is physical evidence of several interruptions in construction. The
literary evidence cited above indicates that construction proceeded
from east to west and, indeed, it appears that the earliest part of
the exterior walls is the southern, lower part of the ambulatory and
its corresponding radiating chapels. The walls in this section are
built of brick and stone, with a higher proportion of stone than
elsewhere in the building. As construction proceeded, it was clearly
marked by an increasing proportion of brick, the characteristic
building material of Toulouse. While there is basic agreement on the
starting point, interpretation of the subsequent archeological
evidence is subject to varying opinions. The earliest systematic
examinations, after the restoration of Viollet-le-Duc, concluded that
there had been three major building campaigns.
More recent observations have concluded that there were four major
building campaigns. The earliest section begins with the apse and
includes the chevet and all of the transept below the level of the
gallery, including the Porte des Comtes in the south face of the
transept. The second stage is marked by the walls of the transept
being completed with alternating courses of brick and stone. This
change is also paralleled by a change in the style of the interior
decorated capitals. This break is most evident in the transept
buttresses, which change from solid stone at the bottom to bands of
brick and stone at the top, a change which occurs at various levels
around the transept but generally about the level of the gallery
floor. There then follows another break between the eastern portion of
the church - including the transept and the first few bays of the nave
itself - and the rest of the nave. The alternating courses of brick
and stone give way to a predominantly brick technique with stone
quoins and stone window frames. This third campaign includes the wall
enclosing the entire nave, including the western entrance and ends
just below the gallery windows. During the fourth phase, the remainder
of the nave was completed in brick with almost no stone.
The plan of the abbey church here was also used in the construction of
the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, "begun in 1082, too direct a
copy to have been done by any but Saint-Sernin's own architect or his
favored pupil", but finished much earlier.
The stone that killed Simon de Montfort in 1218, while he was
besieging Toulouse, was thrown from the roof of Saint-Sernin.
Eugène Viollet-le-Duc restored the church, but his
changes are currently being removed to restore the original
East end elevation of the basilica.
The grand 1888
Despite being called a basilica, Saint-Sernin's deviates from the
basilica plan of early Christian architecture in a few ways. It is
much larger compared to earlier churches. It is also constructed
mostly of brick. The building is in the form of a crucifix. The
ceilings are vaulted, unlike many of the earlier churches.
Saint-Sernin's contains radiating chapels which were used to display
important relics. Another deviation from the earlier Christian
churches is the addition of an ambulatory, a walkway that goes around
the nave and side aisles to allow for viewing of the radiating chapels
(which could be done while mass was being held without interrupting
the ceremony). For these and other reasons, Saint-Sernin's is often
said to follow the "pilgrimage plan" instead of the traditional
On the exterior, the bell tower, standing directly over the transept
crossing, is the most visible feature. It is divided into five tiers,
of which the lower three, with Romanesque arches, date from the 12th
century and the upper two from the 14th century. The spire was added
in the 15th century. The bell tower is slightly inclined towards the
west direction, which is why from certain standpoints the bell tower
roof, whose axis is perpendicular to the ground, appears to be
inclined to the tower itself.
The chevet is the oldest part of the building, constructed in the 11th
century, and consists of nine chapels, five opening from the apse and
four in the transepts.
The exterior is additionally known for two doorways, the Porte des
Comtes and the Porte des Miégeville. Above the Porte des Comtes is a
depiction of Lazarus and Dives. Dives in hell can be seen above the
central column. The doorway gets its name from a nearby alcove in
which the remains of four Counts of
Toulouse are kept. The Porte des
Miégeville is known for its elaborate sculpture above the entrance.
The interior of the basilica measures 115 x 64 x 21 meters, making it
vast for a Romanesque church. The central nave is barrel vaulted; the
four aisles have rib vaults and are supported by buttresses. Directly
under the tower and the transept is a marble altar, consecrated by
Pope Urban II
Pope Urban II in 1096 and designed by Bernard Gelduin.
As well as Saint Saturnin,
Saint Honoratus is also buried here. The
crypt contains the relics of many other saints.
The basilica also contains a large three-manual
built in 1888. Together with the
Cavaillé-Coll instruments at
Paris and the Church of St. Ouen, Rouen, it is
considered to be one of the most important organs in France.
Bust of Louis of Toulouse
Chapel of the Crucifix
Brace north transept
^ Saint-Sernin Basilica,
Toulouse Sacred Destinations
^ Toulouse’s Saint Sernin, Largest Romanesque Church in Europe
^ Knights of Columbus. Catholic Truth Committee. The Catholic
encyclopedia: an international work of reference on the constitution,
doctrine, discipline, and history of the Catholic Church, Volume 14.
Encyclopedia Press, 1913, 797.
^ Douais, C. Cartulaire de Saint-Sernin de
Paris/Toulouse, 1887, pp. 475-477.
^ Mundy, J. H. Liberty and Political Power in Toulouse, 1050-1230.
Columbia University Press, 1954, pp. 3-4.
^ Devic, C. and Vaissete, J. L'Histoire générale de Languedoc 2nd
edition, volume III. Toulouse, 1872, p. 485.
^ Douais, C. "La Vie de saint-Raymond, chanoine, et la construction de
l'église Saint-Sernin", Bulletin de la Société Archéologique du
Midi de la France, 1894, pp. 156-161.
^ Saint-Paul, A. "Note archéologique sur Saint-Sernin de Toulouse",
Bulletin Archéologique de Comité des travaux historiques et
scientifiques, 1899, pp.404-405; Saint-Paul, A., "L'Église de
Saint-Sernin de Toulouse," Album des Monuments et de l'art ancien du
Midi de la France, Toulouse, 1897, p.75; de Malafosse, J.
"Communication," Bulletin de la Société Archéologique du Midi de la
France, 1894, pp.163-165; Aubert, M. "Saint-Sernin, Toulouse,"
Congrès Archéologiques, 1929, 1930, pp.9-68.
^ Scott, David. W. "A Restoration of the West
Portal Relief Decoration
of Saint-Sernin of Toulouse," Art Bulletin, XLVI, Sept. 1964,
^ O'Reilly, 1921
^ Esquis, J. "Note sur les travaux de restauration recemment executes
a l'église Saint-Sernin a Toulouse", Mémoires de l'Académie des
Sciences Inscriptions, et Belles Lettres de Toulouse, 1883; Monjon, P.
"L'Oeuvre toulousane de Viollet-le-Duc," Memoires de la Société
Archéologique du Midi, 1957, p.146.
Book: Romanesque Art and Architecture
O'Reilly, E. B., 1921: How
France Built her Cathedrals. London and New
York: Harper and Brothers
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Saint Sernin official website in French