Toulouse: St. Etienne

West front of St. Etienne; click to enlarge so you can appreciate the inspired disregard for symmetry and balance

The Cathédrale St. Etienne in Toulouse gets my vote for the most delightfully odd building in all of Christendom. In many of the great churches, later versions were constructed on the foundations or footprints of earlier versions. (The current Chartres cathedral, for instance, is at least the fifth church on that site.) Unlike most multi-strata churches, though, at St. Etienne it appears that little attempt was made to integrate new with old.

The western front is a creative amalgam of mismatched styles and misaligned structural and decorative elements, as though a blind giant took the rubble of three or four churches and tried to construct one new church from them. And moving inside only heightens the feeling of magnificent mish-mashery. The interior photo was taken just inside the twin doors shown in the exterior photo, in the older Cistercian-style nave. From there, one moves forward to a massive column planted almost but not quite on the center line of this earlier nave. At that point, one slides left about ten paces, where begins a rather normal Gothic nave that terminates in an outlandishly ornate Baroque altar (pardon that redundant description).

St. Etienne is an accidental museum of architectural history, showing evolutions and revolutions in building philosophy and visual styles over the course of hundreds of years. From what I was able to translate from various placards around the cathedral, the current stewards seem to view their unusual charge with deep respect and gentle good humor, which is the perfect way to look at this one-of-a-kind treasure.

The interior more than fulfills the exterior’s promise of architectural anarchy

Toulouse: St. Sernin (detail)

Brick insert in a stone column in the nave of St. Sernin

Here’s another story trapped in stone. This is one of the nave columns in St. Sernin in Toulouse. I would love to know why the interior of the stone column has this bricked-in repair job (it looks like a repair, anyway). The jagged but continuous vertical edge of the stones on either side of the bricks suggests to me that the space was hacked out of the original stone after the column was built and then filled in with the flat bricks at some later date, perhaps after the space was no longer needed. Maybe some sort of wooden or stone crossbeam was inserted into the column? That might explain the narrow keyway at the bottom of the brick pile, but this is pure speculation on my part.

Toulouse: Medieval City Wall

Section of wall that runs along Allée Jules Guesde

In the autumn of 2011, I spent a glorious week in Toulouse, where the first few chapters of my novel are set. Part of my mission was to trace out the medieval city walls in order to get a sense of the scale of the 13th-century city.

This section of wall that runs along Allée Jules Guesde looked to be the thickness and height of the medieval wall that encircled Toulouse at the beginning of the 13th century, and the location corresponds to where my period maps have the outer wall. I wasn’t able to confirm with a local expert, but I was comfortable concluding that it was indeed part of the perimeter of the medieval city.

Toulouse: St. Sernin (nave)

The nave of St. Sernin, showing the solid Romanesque (pre-Gothic) style

Unlike its quirky uncle St. Etienne, St. Sernin is a model of geometric harmony. It is also yet another medieval church that was later “enhanced” with a Baroque altar. The original altar is a work of simple beauty.









St. Sernin's original Romanesque altar (this is a replica; the real original still exists but is off limits to visitors)









Detail of the replica—itself a stunning work of art

Toulouse: St. Sernin (east)

The chevet of St. Sernin, showing the rounded form characteristic of Romanesque

The chevet (from the Old French for “head”) at the eastern end of St. Sernin manages to be complex and visually harmonious at the same time. Gothic gets most of the attention, but this Romanesque beauty is a thief of hearts.

Toulouse: St. Sernin (north)

Toulouse St Sernin north side

The Basilica of St. Sernin in Toulouse, France (north side)

With its red brick construction among the many buildings that contribute to Toulouse’s nickname as “La Ville Rose,” the Basilica of St. Sernin is one of the finest examples of the city’s relatively unknown and underappreciated architecture (at least relative to the architecture of Paris).

I would love to know the story of the masonry change you can see in the nave walls directly below the tower, where the all-brick design gives way to the marriage of brick with white stone accents. I confess I don’t know much about the construction of this church. (Click the image for a larger version.) Does time move from left to right in the photo, suggesting that the brick-only buttresses and window frames in the nave are newer, or from right to left, suggesting that the brick-only sections are older?

If I had to invent a story to explain the change, I might say that an Italian master builder was brought on board after the nave was largely complete, and he began to interleave white stone with the red brick from that point on, continuing three bays eastward to the crossing and then outward to the arms of the transept and the side aisles. (This builder character would be Italian because the stripe effect of brick and stone echoes architecture I’ve seen in parts of Italy, Florence in particular.)