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The city is located in central France, south of Paris, within the Department of Puy-de-Dôme, the Province of Auvergne. Its history indicates it has been in an easily accessible trading location. In fact, it is now the headquarters for the Michelin Tire Company.


The church of “Our Lady of the Port” took its name from its district in the city and the fact that in trading terms, the Latin portus denoted a warehouse, or place of trade.

The basilica church itself dates from the 11th and 12th centuries, with a completion date of about 1185. Aside from its architectural development, this church is probably the one in which Pope Urban II first preached the First Crusade in 1095. The church is also crammed amidst other structures, and its Place is, obviously, used as a parking lot.

The south elevation, showing a tower rising above the crossing of the nave and the transepts.

The construction billboard gives us a normally not-seen perspective. I had the good fortune to be able to hang around the site long enough to meet the “chef.” Actually the “chef” is, in this instance, the “chief” of construction, the general contractor in charge of the works – not a culinary expert, necessarily, but the experience provided an insight into the origins of what we know as a “chef.” My fortune lay in the Chef’s ability to provide access into the area containing the half-barrel vault shown below. All will be clear when you scroll down.

The nave is 18 meters (59') high and 13.3m (145') in length , typical of Romanesque churches, which were longer than tall. It would be left for the ultimate Gothic development to aim for the sky.

We are here particularly because of one major structural development.

The nave roof is a continuous barrel vault, with no transverse arches in the nave proper. This might seem like a step backward from our development, but something new occurred here – a half-barrel vault was created over the triforium gallery to take the considerable thrust of the continuous barrel vault over the nave.

There are no clerestory windows possible in such a configuration. In fact, the barrel vault looks as if it is crushing the triforium gallery as it is. It would be only a matter of time before masons would be applying point supports as buttresses to the transverse ribs we have come to see – and only to those ribs, giving rise to flying buttresses, the hallmark of the Gothic. And to light! This particular church is really dark, and all interior photographs had to be enhanced. Personally, I never use flash, out of respect for location, and to avoid a distorted appearance.

Actually at some point in time the use of ribs became part of the construction of this very church.

And now, the pièce de résistance of this visit. Follow us along – your Professor and the Chef, as we make our way to the triforium gallery to see the half-barrel vault constructed to take the outward thrust of the main nave barrel vault.

Following the Chef.

It is through this arch that we get our first glimpse of the half-barrel vault. This was my personal quest while visiting the Abbaye aux Dames in Caen, at which church it was explained that there was no such passage nor half-barrel vault such as this one. My son and I did see a half-barrel vault buttressing the central nave vault in the Abbaye aux Hommes, also in Caen. But that latter was exposed; this one is buried within the construction itself, making this particular odyssey all the more exciting. A key was necessary to unlock a passage door, with entry to the spiral stairs shown above.

“Thar she blows”, as heard in the pursuit of Moby Dick. I was rather excited! This development – when articulated, and pinpointed to vertical supports - would become the ”flying” buttress mentioned above. This is like looking at an embryo, knowing what the child will become.

Just a bit more of this rather rare find. The half barrel is the curve from upper right to lower left, where it meets the vertical exterior wall.

I could not resist photographing the triforium gallery across the nave. It is rare to be able to get into a triforium gallery – and it was personally necessary to record the event – my first such experience after twenty trips to Europe. Again, the photo is enhanced; it was very dark inside this church, due to minimal window openings.

A view turning around and looking the other way in the gallery. The half-barrel is now on the right. The Chef had to return to his duties, and there was minimal time on what was actually a whirlwind tour of the innards of this church.

Many of the column capitals are etched with sculptural depictions of biblical stories. This was rather common in this period, and served two functions:

  1. that of revealing the Bible to those who could not read.

  2. providing yet another method of integrating art with architecture. As you go about your independent research to amplify material presented here, do look for such almost constant integration.

The column capital on the right represents the biblical announcement to Zacharia.

The center column depicts the Book of Life.

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

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