Saint-Sernin of Toulouse: The Apotheosis of Medieval Pilgrimage Basilicas

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The builders of Saint-Sernin wanted to rival the Benedictines of Cluny when they erected the vast basilica of Toulouse. All the resources available to a pilgrimage church were brought into play: ambulatory with radiating chapels, transepts with small apse

Works were begun on Saint-Sernin Basilica in Toulouse around 1080. It was planned on a large scale, since it would contain a treasure worthy of Saint-Peter's in Rome: the bodies of six Apostles and of about a hundred Saints including that of the martyr Saint-Saturnin or Sernin. This blizzard of relics drew pilgrims as they made their way to Santiago de Compostela, and they were advised to do "a tour of the holy bodies" to atone for their sins.

They could see the tomb of the great saint through a small opening from the ambulatory; then, in the 13th century, the precious remains were moved to the high-altar choir, and placed under a sumptuous canopy - the tabernacle of "Monsieur Saint-Sernin" - of which a small fragment can still be seen in the crypt. Saint-Sernin was the largest Romanesque church in France after the destruction of Cluny, and the mutilation of La-Charités-sur-Loire, and it took a long time to build. In about 1100, Raymond Gayrard, who had become a canon when his wife died, took over control of the works. When Urban II called a halt, only the choir was finished; the nave still had to be vaulted and the tower built over the transept. 

In the 12th century, the two towers in front of the façade were vaulted in Gothic Style; then the western aisles were erected, and the bays of the tribunes, which were not completed until the 16th century. In the end, Saint-Sernin Basilica, dressed in a robe of brick carefully relieved with mullions, rose above the pink pink roofs of the town like a magnificent, glorious ship.  There is no doubt that with Conques, it represented the apotheosis of this kind of pilgrimage basilica, barely inferior to Compostela itself. Though the building took so long, the complex decoration was done in record time, thanks to the assembly of the greatest artists of the region. 

The reliefs, strapwork and animals of the oldest capitals of the apse, which date from 1080, are somewhat awkward and a little flat. But in the next 15 years the stone carvers of Toulouse became masters in their art and showed real sensitivity, freedom of expression, a sense of relief and a knowledge of human anatomy derived  from the Roman tradition. The marble altar and seven bas-reliefs now displayed in the ambulatory are the work of a great artist, Bernard Gilduin, and his workshop.

At about the same time , in the first quarter of the 11th century, the artists of Moissac brought their craft to Toulouse, and from the meeting of the styles was born one of the great masterpieces of the 12th century, the Miègeville Door. Framed by Saint-Peter and Saint-James the Minor walking among demons, it is a scene of great beauty: above the frieze of scrolls topping the dancing line of apostles is an almost round boss showing the Ascension of Christ, giving both life and movement to the whole.

From the 12th to the 14th centuries, Toulouse was a brilliant centre for religion and art.  Its glory spread to the southern banks of the Loire. The shimmering, plastic sculpture of Languedoc founded its own school. There were many convents, parish churches and cathedrals of the 13th century, all with a single nave and a tower, bearing their lofty witness to this southern form of Gothic which owed nothing to the art of the North but rather, in its powerful control of space and its monumental character, was the true descendant of Roman architecture. This taste for the colossal, this thirst for unity, is to be found in most of the cathedrals of Languedoc, among them Béziers, Carcassonne, Lodève, Lavaur and Albi.

The apse of the Basilica Saint-Sernin in Toulouse, France.

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2d/Toulouse%2C_Basilique_Saint-Sernin-PM_51242.jpg

Basilica Saint-Sernin in Toulouse, the portal of the former abbey-church and the famous Porte Miègeville in the background (on the south side of the nave) Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4c/Toulouse%2C_Basilique_Saint-Sernin-PM_51254.jpg?uselang=fr

Romanesque Tympanum of the Porte Miègeville, Basilica Saint-Sernin, Toulouse.

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/eb/Tympan_de_la_porte_Miegeville.jpg?uselang=fr

Capital of Annunciation (on the left) and Visitation (on the right) - Basilica Saint-Sernin of Toulouse.

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/15/Capital_of_Annunciation_and_Visitation_2_-_Porte_Mi%C3%A8geville_-_Basilique_Saint-Sernin.jpg?uselang=fr

Capital of the lions, Porte Miègeville, Saint-Sernin Basilica in Toulouse.

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/aa/Capital_of_the_lions_-_Porte_Mi%C3%A8geville_-_Basilique_Saint-Sernin.jpg?uselang=fr

The painted vault of the choir and crossing of the transept. Basilica Saint-Sernin, Toulouse. 

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2f/CeilingStSernin.JPG?uselang=fr

Vault of the nave and choir, Basilica Saint-Sernin, Toulouse.

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/76/St_Sernin.jpg?uselang=fr

Medieval painted wooden statues at the Basilica Saint-Sernin, Toulouse.

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9f/Toulouse%2C_Basilique_Saint-Sernin-PM_51291.jpg?uselang=fr

Tomb of Saint-Sernin in the eponymous basilica in Toulouse.

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/72/Tomb_of_Saint_Saturnin_-_Basilique_Saint-Sernin_-_Exposures_blending.jpg?uselang=fr

Chapel of the Immaculée Conception. Basilica Saint-Sernin in Toulouse.

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/5b/Saint-Sernin_-_Chapelle_de_l%27Immacul%C3%A9e_conception.jpg?uselang=fr

Crypt of the Basilica Saint-Sernin in Toulouse.

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/73/Crypte_de_St_Sernin_Toulouse.jpg?uselang=fr

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