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Located south of Paris, on the western edge of Burgundy, this city features a Romanesque cathedral built between 1083 and 1097. The church has a barrel vault, articulated with transverse ribs, as in Notre Dame la Grande in Poitiers (see above). It does, however, have both clerestory windows as well as a triforium gallery. The side aisles are much lower than in Notre Dame la Grande in Poitiers, and there is sufficient space between the roof of the side aisle and the bottom of the barrel vault to allow for both the clerestory and gallery, so there is improvement. Light can once again enter into the nave.

This unassuming little façade in an equally unassuming little town, is pure Romanesque. Replete with semi-circular arched openings as well as a rather solid façade, the development within the church, however, makes a definite stride towards what the Gothic was to become.

Looking along the south side of the church, one can see the transept jutting out on the far right.

The south transept even sports a “rose” window, albeit quite small. It does, however, admit additional light into the transept. See the last illustration for this church below.

It was necessary to walk around the church – not just for research purposes, but because the building appeared deserted and locked.

This view shows a small addition to the east wall of the south transept, and indicates placement of a chapel. An additional semi-circular construction is seen on the right, added to the apse inside.

The door in the north transept wall did permit entrance to the interior.

The deserted church was more than a little dark, as the picture on the left attests. Enhanced editing illustrates the sought-after barrel vault with articulated transverse ribs. Personally this was a major quest and “find’ for your Professor, and though it was expected, and had been mentioned in some writing, somewhere, it was a serious thrill to “discover” this major building block in the development of Gothic architecture.

Do realize that this development led not only to greater definition of structural parts – ribs running up, over, and down naves of Gothic designs, but also allowed for construction of individual bays, one by one (refer to Notre Dame La Grande in Poitiers, above). The stone vaults had to be constructed over a framework – often something resembling a forest of timbers – and barrel vaults had been built with such supports running the entire length of the naves. The transverse ribs seen here allowed each bay to be built separately, thus creating the ability to re-use timbers from a prior bay.

Here we see the nave arcade, topped with a triforium gallery, as well as clerestory windows above all of that. This has to be one of the earliest developments of its kind. Note in the above illustrations that the transverse ribs come down onto pilasters affixed to the piers of the nave. That adds to the uniqueness found here – so many ingredients, so early, leading eventually to fulfillment in the Gothic.

Note also that the arcades have their own columnar structure – again, something which will grow through Gothic development. Everything structural goes somewhere; articulation is beginning right here in front of us. The skeletal effects of structural integrity, so famous in the Gothic, has quite a few roots right here in this little-known church, in the middle of almost nowhere.

Very strange footnote: most texts ignore St. Etienne. In fact, a local French tourist brochure advertising Burgundy, does not even mention the church in its section on Nevers. It is to be hoped that the seemingly abandoned and forsaken little church will be reclaimed.

Here is another view, this one straight on. The composition just sings on its own, and provides so much of what is to come, architecturally. This view is analogous to the development of an orchestral overture, which eventually led to what we know as a symphony. There is a quote usually attributed, I believe, to Friedrich Nietzshe, but actually first written by F. W. J. Schelling in his book “Philosophie der Kunst”: “Architecture in general is frozen music. Well, nothing could be more true!. Here in Nevers architecture almost one thousand years old is still singing, very loud, and very clear. This is not just a diamond in the rough, it is a polished work whose facets glow! It is textbook Romanesque, on the way to becoming Gothic.

The transept with its tiny “rose” window shining bright.

The east end of the church, the apse, is a pure delight. Possibly the oldest part of the church – though there is some dispute – perhaps some research would be in order. What makes this fairly unique is the fact that we see into the apse itself, through the arcade, which you will notice is composed of semi-circular arches. There is a half dome over the entire altar area. There are three small chapels radiating out of the apse; the central one is visible here.

A plan is probably in order here. Notice the basic crucifix shape of the plan, the chapels radiating out of each of the two transepts, as well as the three out of the apse. The church did belong to a priory, which would account for the multitude of independent chapels.

These are two of the radiating chapels. We glimpsed the third above, with the description: “This view shows a small addition to the east wall.” In that illustration, the third chapel would be to the extreme right.

© Architecture Past Present & Future - Edward D. Levinson, 2009

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