St-Etienne (Nevers)

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The former priory church of Saint-Etienne is located in the city of Nevers in central France, in the Bourgogne region , in the Nièvre department , about 60 kilometers south-east of Bourges . Despite the severe mutilation of its three towers, it is one of the best-preserved early Romanesque churches in France.

Saint-Etienne Nevers, former abbey church, view from NE, before 1792
Choir head, transept and crossing


Around the first episcopal cathedral of Nevers on the highest point of the hill above the Loire, founded at the beginning of the 6th century and dedicated to St-Cyr and Ste-Julitte, to Saint Quiricus and his mother Julitta , several monasteries were grouped in the early Middle Ages and churches that became parishes in the centuries that followed.

The history of the Church of Saint-Etienne (Saint Stephen) began at the beginning of the 7th century with the union of a community of nuns who had submitted to the rules of the Irish wandering monk and missionary, Saint Columban of Luxeuil (543–615). The monastery with its Saint-Columban church was located on the site of the current church, which was in a suburb of the city of Nevers in the early Middle Ages. After numerous damage and destruction in the following centuries, the monastery disappeared and was no longer mentioned.

Jacob pilgrims, depiction from 1568

The place had lost any cult function as a community of canons settled there after a few years that the Holy Sylvester I was ordained. In 1063, Bishop Hugues de Champallement decided to raise the monastery to an abbey . The community of canons , which was common at the time, was soon replaced by Benedictine monks . In 1068 the monastery became a Cluny subordinate abbey through the donation of Bishop Mauguin , and the construction of the great Romanesque church began. The monastery buildings were soon rebuilt. The construction work was supported by the initiative of Count Guillaume I (Wilhelm I) of Nevers .

Nevers was on one of the four main pilgrimage routes of the " Way of St. James " to Santiago de Compostela , the Via Lemovicensis , with the starting point of the nearby Vézelay Abbey . In the 11th and 12th centuries, the pilgrimage grew to a particularly high boom. The new building should be able to accommodate the steadily growing stream of pilgrims. This fact led to the huge dimensions for a suburban church and to the acceleration of the construction work. The space they hold was increased by the installation of stands, after all, many of the pilgrims stayed overnight in the churches. The floor plan of the ambulatory choir with radial chapels is due to its function as a pilgrimage church. The relics could be exhibited and venerated on the altars of the chapels . The donations of the pilgrims contributed significantly to the realization of the large building.

After just 29 years of construction, the church was consecrated on December 13, 1097 by Bishop Martin von Chartres and consecrated to Saint-Etienne. It is likely that it was elevated to the status of an episcopal church at this time, although the vaulting of the nave was still missing when it was completed. Presumably, the builders originally intended to cover the ship with a level wooden beam ceiling. It was not until 1100 that the decision was made to vault the central nave with a ton on belt arches .

In the 12th century, a massive open narthex was added to the entire width of the west facade of the nave . This expansion of the floor plan once again increased the capacity of the pilgrim church.

During the quarrels between England and France over Aquitaine, which began after the mid-12th century, the flow of pilgrims subsided. The wars of the 13th and 14th centuries let them dry up completely. Like many of the great pilgrimage churches, Saint-Etienne suffered, it lost its importance as a pilgrimage station.

The suburban church of Saint-Etienne was under the supervision of the prior and retained its independence until the 16th century.

During the Hundred Years War , the monastery buildings were considerably destroyed in the fire of 1420. They were partially rebuilt in the 18th century.

In the French Revolution , Saint-Etienne was profaned and served as a barn. In 1792 its three bell towers were cut down to the current stumps and the Romanesque narthex was completely demolished.

At the beginning of the 19th century it was consecrated again, it became a parish church.

In 1840 it was listed as a historical monument . Several restorations took place in the 19th and 20th centuries : the first from 1846 to 1851, further from 1892 to 1902 (restoration of the facade) and 1905 ( vault of the nave) and finally in 1910 (north arm of the transept and restoration of two chapels). In 1974 archaeological excavations took place in the crossing. The foundation walls of the previous building were found, which had to be equipped with a deep choir with an apse and at least one chapel in the north arm of the transept. It also found sarcophagi and mosaics . Presumably these are the remains of Saint-Colomban.

Despite the considerable external mutilations during the Revolution and the complete removal of the narthex, and despite the extensive restoration work, a pure Romanesque architecture has been preserved in such completeness that at Saint-Etienne one of the most beautiful and best-preserved early Romanesque churches in France can be found speaks.


Floor plan, hand sketch, north (top = north)
Cross-section, hand drawn sketch
north side of the nave

Dimensions (approx., Without templates)

  • Length over everything, outside (nave + transept + choir + passage + chapel): 50.20 m
  • Width (transept length), outside: 29.50 m
  • Length of the nave, outside: 26.80 m
  • Longhouse length, inside: 25.50 m
  • Width of the nave, inside: 14.50 m
  • Transept length, inside: 27.30 m
  • Width of transept, inside: 6.80 m
  • Choir width, inside: 6.60 m
  • Central nave height at the apex 16.00 m

The building surprises both inside and out due to the almost complete absence of sculptural decorations, such as capitals , friezes or other decorations. The spatial impression and the external views derive their effect on the viewer solely from the architecture, the purity of the building concepts and the boldness of the constructions. Sculptural decorations can be found almost only on the corbels under the eaves and occasionally on a few capitals.

Outer shape


South side of the nave

The three-aisled nave consists of six bays . The central nave towers over the two-story aisles by a third story and is also significantly higher than the transept . In front of the first yoke, the almost two-meter-thick facade wall rises above the eaves height of the central nave. It is led around the corners of the building in about the same thickness, and thus forms two of the outer walls of the two facade bell towers. The two lower floors of the towers are formed internally by the first yoke of the aisles and the stands, with two open sides to the aisles. Above that, the upper tower floors each have a third and fourth outer wall.

Cantilever profile with simple roller frieze, Viollet le Duc

The northern outer wall of the two-storey aisle has five blind arcade niches with semicircular arches in bays 2 to 6, the apex of which extends up to about two thirds of the eaves height. The smooth wedge stones of the arches as well as the wall pillars between the niches run flush with the flat wall surface of the second floor, which extends below the eaves. A small arched window opens almost in the center of each of the arcade niches. The arch on the outer edge of the wedge stones is enclosed by a narrow cantilever profile with a simple roller frieze. The profile bends horizontally at the arches and then continues over all niches and wall pillars over the entire length of the northern nave wall. One floor higher, the row of five arched windows is repeated in a smaller dimension. These windows are also enclosed by the same cantilever profile, which then continues horizontally across the entire wall as on the ground floor, also in the area of ​​the tower in the first yoke, in which, however, there is no arcade niche . The window on the second floor of the tower was placed a little higher because the vault of the grandstand is probably missing inside. On this side of the tower, just below the recess of the facade side, there is a single larger arched window, probably a sound hatch.


The north outer wall of the central nave is only five bays long because it hits against the north tower stump, which is in the area of ​​yoke one. The five yokes (2 to 6) are separated by right-angled pillar templates. The upper storeys are about the same size as the windows on the grandstand floor and are encompassed by the cantilever profile found on the lower floors that continues over the entire wall. The eaves are designed as on the floor below.

The southern and northern outer walls of the nave are divided equally among each other. There is a difference on the south side in the first yoke, which here does not contain a window. In addition, a “modern” extension is added almost along the entire length of the nave, presumably with a sacristy and storage spaces. The cloister of the former abbey probably connected here.

The flat sloping saddle and pent roofs are covered with red hollow tiles in Roman shape. The stone, sprawling eaves cornices are supported by partially elaborately carved corbels. Today there are gutters on the eaves that drain through downpipes, a modern addition.


Facade with narthex and towers, before 1792, old graphic
Main portal

The current facade can no longer be compared with the original one, or with that of the following centuries. The facade originally had two additional storeys of the bell towers opposite the two current tower stumps. The outer walls of the two floors each had three window openings (sound hatches) with the sculptural decoration common in the Romanesque period. The original Romanesque spiers, in the form of truncated pyramids, looked similar to today's. Presumably, in the post-Romanesque period, the spire helmets were replaced by Gothic helmets with a pointed shape. There are still old graphics about this shape of the towers, showing the church after the 13th century but before 1792.

The facade is divided horizontally into three storeys of almost the same height with narrow cantilever profiles. There is no vertical subdivision in the two lower floors. The third floor is divided vertically into three sections, of which the middle one is slightly wider than the outer one, analogous to the division of the three naves. On the gable of the central nave, between the two towers, three round-arched windows are left out, accompanied by round-arched blind arcades , the arches of which are reminiscent of Mozarabic shapes. They stand on round columns with capitals and transom plates , which in turn stand on a common cantilever profile. Just below, but still on the same floor, is a large, arched window that is divided into three recesses, separated by slender circular columns with transoms, capitals and bases . The "arches" are triangular. Two circular oculi are cut out in the arc field . This window is mentioned in the sources as a modern addition.

On both sides of the gable, the front sides of the towers jump back a long way, only above the set back does the tower's floor plan become square. The former bell towers end today with the tower base, which is closed on all sides and about two meters high. They are closed off by a cantilevered eaves cornice on closely placed corbels. Before 1792, the sound hatches of the belfry followed this profile. The flat sloping pyramid roofs are covered with red hollow tiles.

The main portal is a three-tier archivolt portal . The transom profiles are exactly at the level of the cornice that divides the two lower floors. The outer of the semicircular archivolt arches is wider than the two inner ones. All arches are decorated on the front and inside with simple diamond-like geometric patterns. Their edges are broken with a round profile. Corresponding to the arches, the outer round columns are much stronger than the inner ones. Companions with right-angled edges peek out from between the pillars. The capitals are simply shaped, and their warriors are also profiled. Their bases stand on square plinths . The tympanum and the lintel below are not structured. But they probably originally had a relief decoration .

The facade has a total of eleven slot-like recesses, which indicate a former defensive equipment of the church. In the axes of the towers there are four loopholes on top of each other, and three more such openings are recessed centered above the main portal.

Choir apse

There are only minor traces of the former narthex on the present facade. Just below the cantilever profile between the 2nd and 3rd storey dividing the facade there are eleven corbels on which wooden beams of the roof structure of the narthex were once placed. More detailed information about the appearance of the vestibule can be found on an old graphic representation of the facade, including the former bell towers. It shows the state after the construction of the Gothic spiers and before they were demolished in 1792. It must have been an open narthex. It stretched the full width of the facade and was probably about as wide as the yokes of the ship. It was covered by a wooden monopitch roof construction, on the eaves side about as high as the two lower storeys of the facade. The pent roof ridge reached under the window sill of the top three facade windows. The graphic shows a central round arched portal opening, the apex of which reached about half the eaves height. It was flanked on both sides by two slightly smaller round-arched passages. The central opening was divided by two slender columns with smaller arches above. The other openings each had a central column on which two small arches supported themselves. Openings in the form of four-pointed stars have been left out in the arched fields. On the wall sections between the passages and at the ends of the narthex, wide buttresses were arranged, which reached up to about two thirds of the eaves height. There is a relief with a Pietà above the central portal . Below you can see a coat of arms with a key. The flat sloping pent roof of the narthex was covered with the same hollow tiles as the other roofs of the church.

Central nave, to the choir


The transept arms protrude far beyond the width of the nave. The height of the transept is significantly lower than that of the central nave, it corresponds to the height of the choir. The gable of the transept arms protrudes only slightly above the slightly inclined gable roof. The corners of the transept arms are reinforced on both sides by sturdy wall pillars, and extend a short distance below the eaves and are steeply sloping on the top. The gable walls are divided into three floors and crowned by a gable triangle. There is a rectangular doorway on the ground floor, slightly off-center on the north side. On the second floor, two round-arched windows are cut out, the wedges of which are enclosed on the outside by a narrow cantilever profile, which bend horizontally at the level of the arches and run up to the pillars. On the third floor there is a high arcade frieze, which with its six slender round columns stands on a projecting window sill. The arcade arches are alternately semicircular and triangular and stand on carved capitals. Round-arched window openings are set in three of the five arcade niches. The gable triangle is framed on all sides by a protruding profile. The horizontal leg of the triangle is pierced by a circular " ox eye " (oculus), the wedge stones of which are also framed with a narrow cantilever profile.

Transept gable, 19th century graphic, Viollet le Duc
Central nave, northern partition

On the western walls of the transept arms there are two arched windows, similar to those on the first floor of the transept gable, including the cantilever profile decoration. The eastern wall surfaces, which protrude beyond the adjoining parts of the building, are divided once with a sturdy wall pillar, exactly above the connecting wall below. The outer wall sections above the chapels are each structured by a row of three or two arched windows above them. The inner wall sections above the roof of the gallery have only one window each.

The eaves, the shape of the roof and the roofing of the transept arms correspond to those of the nave.

Semicircular chapel apses are built onto the eastern walls of the transept arms. The southern chapel was reconstructed in 1910 and replaced the modern extension of a rectangular storage room. The flat inclined half-cone roofs of the transept chapels remain well below the roof heights of the courtyard chapels. The corbels of the sweeping eaves cornices are sculpted in many ways. Three arched window openings with a cantilever profile decor alternate with two right-angled wall pillars.

The square base of the former crossing tower protrudes to the extent of the crossing from the roof areas of the adjacent tree complex to just below the roof ridge of the nave. The cube is tapered on all sides to a smaller one with a roof-like cover. Above it begins the octagonal, approximately 1.50 m high stump of the tower. The triangular openings on the top side, created at the transition from the square to the octagon, are also covered with small “roofs”. A blind arcade frieze with three arched niches is incorporated at the transition from the square sides to those of the octagon . Above that there were originally three floors of the crossing tower, each with two arched windows (sound hatches) on all sides, which stood in pairs in a shared arched niche. Today the tower stump is covered with an octagonal pyramid with an inclination of about 45 degrees.

Central nave, the three floors

In the nooks and crannies between the transept arms and the central nave, two staircase towers are arranged, with their small hipped roofs reaching almost to the ridge of the central nave. A spiral staircase leads from the grandstands over the side aisles into the crossing tower.

Choir head

The walls of the choir protruding from the roof of the gallery are almost as high as the outer walls of the gallery. The choir floor plan consists of a yoke and the semicircular apse. The roof shape is accordingly composed of a gently sloping gable roof and a half-conical roof. The eaves design correspond to those of the transept chapels. The choir walls are divided into five equally wide fields by four strong buttresses that are sloping on the top like a roof. A round-arched window opens in the center of each field, decorated with the cantilever profiles that run horizontally around the entire choir. Dwarf galleries are built in between the windows and the eaves, each of which extends from one buttress to the next. They each consist of four round arches and five free-standing round columns with simple capitals, profiled thick spars and profiled bases.

Little can be seen of the ambulatory, as it is largely covered by the ambulatory chapels. In the remaining spaces there is an arched window opening, slightly higher than that of the chapels.

Central nave, from the ambulatory, a gallery in the first bay

The three courtyard chapels are equipped similarly to the somewhat smaller transept chapels. The apex chapel has right-angled pillars, the other two three-quarter round columns. The south-eastern chapel, like the chapel of the southern arm of the transept, is a reconstruction. A modern sacristy had been added here. The roofs of the gallery chapels are significantly higher than the eaves of the gallery, which is why they slide over the roof surface of the gallery up to about half the width of the gallery.

Like the other roofs, all roofs of the choir head are covered with red hollow tiles.


South aisle


The three-aisled, six- bay nave has a basilica elevation with three floors: an arcade zone, a grandstand zone and a high cliff in line with the particularly bold elevation of the central nave. The central nave is vaulted with a semicircular barrel on strong girdle arches with a rectangular cross-section , the side aisles with groin vaults on similar girdle arches. The quarter-circular vaults and belt arches of the grandstands (also galleries ) brace against the lateral thrust forces from the vault of the central nave. If you look at the cross-section of the nave, you have to think of the elevation of later Gothic churches, whose outer buttresses have similar shapes to the cut surfaces of the quarter-circle arches and belt arches. Raising the vaults around the Upper Gale Zone was such a daring structural experiment at the time that it was not followed in the Romanesque era.

Similar to the layout of the exterior, the first yoke also differs from the five others inside.

South arm of the transept, east wall with chapel

Regarding yokes 2 to 6: The supporting pillars of the arcade zone are square and as thick as the partition walls above them. On all four sides of these pillars, “old” semicircular services are shown in cross-section , the height of which depends on their tasks. The services facing the ship reach up to the arches without interruption, where simple capitals and transom plates transition from the semicircular to the rectangular cross-section of the structural parts. The services on the east and west sides of the pillars, with their simple capitals and transoms, extend to the beginnings of the dividing arches between the naves, the double arches of which are made of wedge stones and are stepped in cross-section. The services and their capitals on both sides of the aisle are slightly higher, mainly because of the smaller span of the aisles.

In the gallery zone there is a large, but slightly deep, round-arched wall niche on both sides of the partition walls, in which a biforium is set, consisting of two round arches, on three short columns with simple capitals and bases. The biforias are located just above the floor of the grandstands. The grandstands have no parapets facing the ship.

Just above the apex of the wall niche and in the center of the yoke are the round-arched upper clad windows that give the Romanesque nave a special abundance of light. Shortly above the arching of the central nave begins.

North arm of the transept, with flying buttress, from the choir

To yoke one: In the first yoke in the area of ​​the central nave there is a gallery at the level of the aisles. So you can switch from the southern grandstand to the northern one. The organ is housed here on both sides of the central facade window. Instead of the biforias, there are wall openings the size of the wall niches in yokes 2 to 6. Between the first and second yoke, the edge of the central nave loft lies on a large, semicircular arch with a stepped cross-section, which spans the entire width of the central nave, and on the pillars of the Central nave rests on relatively short services with capitals. Above the gallery, these services are continued with short service pieces and capitals. It continues with services up to the vaulting, as used in the rest of the ship.

Choir apse from contact

In the thick facade wall, spiral stairs are built into both sides of the nave, which lead to the galleries and to the higher floors of the facade towers.


The crossing walls form a square that rises on semicircular arches of equal height, the edges of which are set back, and the ends of which rest on equally high plain capitals with fighters. The cores of the crossing piers are cross-shaped, the four front sides of which are clad by "old" semicircular services.

Just above the arches of the crossing, fan- shaped trumpets are built into the corners , leading from the square outline of the room below to the octagonal outline above, where a piece of vertical octagonal walls follows, an octagonal tambour . Almost at the height of the apex of the central nave barrel, the tambour merges seamlessly into the octagonal dome, the apex of which clearly exceeds that of the central nave. The dome is already in the octagonal tower stump that is visible from the outside.

Crossing and choir

The transept arms each have two yokes, a narrow one, in extension of the side aisles, and a significantly wider one, which is delimited by the gable wall. The transept bays are separated by a partition, which is supported by a semicircular buttress arch . The base of the arch, roughly at the height of the aisle ceiling, is marked by a profiled transom that rests on massive rectangular pillars. The partition wall itself is almost completely dissolved by a series of five open arcades, made of round arches on profiled spars and simple capitals that sit on slender round columns with profiled bases.

In the outer walls of the transept arms, there are a total of 13 arched windows in each of them, five in the gable wall, six in the east wall and two in the west wall, not counting the three windows of the chapel. The two lower windows of the gable wall are housed in a blind arcade frieze. The other windows remain unadorned.

In contrast, the three windows of the transept chapels are adorned with a circumferential arcade frieze, the arches of which stand up on round pillars with sprawling battlements, capitals and bases. The semicircular walls of the chapels merge into their quarter-spherical vaults without a break.

Choir with access and chapel wreath

The choir consists of a yoke and the semicircular apse , which is surrounded by six closely placed round columns, supplemented by "old" three-quarter round services on the crossing pillars. The simply designed capitals and profiled spars are initially followed by square pillars, which lead to a considerable stilting of the arches. Only then do the semicircular arches made of smooth wedge stones come. Just above this, a profiled cornice led around the choir closes off the first floor.

A circumferential dwarf gallery is attached between the cantilever profile and the upper aisle. The small wedge stone arches are erected on profiled transom plates that alternate between pillars and pillars with simple capitals. The five upper storeys begin directly on the wedge stones of the arches. Its wedge stone arches stand on slender pillars with simple capitals, spars and bases, which are set back in the window reveal.

A good bit further up, the vaults of the choir begin from a barrel, which merges into the dome above the apse without a break . There is no profile at the horizontal arch approach, instead there is a change in the color of the surfaces. The arch of the choir was treated with a dark brown glaze paint.

The ambulatory is the same width as the side aisles. It is limited to the choir by its arcade zone. On the outside, the walkway is enclosed by two straight and two curved wall sections and in between the arched openings to the chapels. The handling is covered by a groin vault on belt arches. These begin on the choir-side on the capitals of the choir arcades and extend from there in a radial or radial pattern, and end on the outer walls on the semicircular services with capitals and fighters arranged there on the side of the openings to the chapels. Their bases stand on pillars and protruding wall plinths. The arches of the four windows in the gallery are erected on slender columns, with capitals, transoms and bases set back from the window reveals. The windows of the gallery chapels are decorated in a similar way to those of the transept chapels. The vaults in the chapels and in the ambulatory are heavily blackened by the candle soot.


  • Klaus Bussmann : Burgundy. Art, history, landscape. Castles, monasteries and cathedrals in the heart of France. The country around Dijon, Auxerre, Nevers, Autun and Tournus (= DuMont documents. DuMont art travel guide ). 11th edition. DuMont, Cologne 1990, ISBN 3-7701-0846-9 .

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Commons : St-Étienne (Nevers)  - Collection of images, videos and audio files

Coordinates: 46 ° 59 ′ 30.5 ″  N , 3 ° 9 ′ 52 ″  E