One of my past blog posts – oh, you may have heard of it, I don’t mention it very often – Great Mistakes in English Medieval Architecture perhaps has given the indication that only the English made really quite bizarre errors of judgement in their church buildings. This is of course, not fair. At least we had the excuse that English Gothic architecture was basically just patching up the bits of Norman Romanesque churches that had fallen down. The French seemed to have, at times, just as much trouble as us. This came to the fore as I came arrived at the British Archaeological Association 2016 Paris conference, as a citizen of newly isolationist micronation, intent on sneering at foreigners and their alien culture as much as possible because I apparently don’t want anything to do with them anymore [satire klaxon].
The church of St Martin-des-Champs (St Martin in the Fields) was once a great Cluniac Priory outside the walls of the medieval city. Now the Musée des Arts et Metiers, it always seemed to be closed the days I had free time in Paris. From the outside it looks extremely enticing. Its double ambulatory – with two rows of columns around the apse – was built sometime within the abbacy of Abbot Hugues 1130-42. This puts the construction in the context of another double ambulatory: that of the royal Abbey of St Denis under Abbot Suger, that is usually held to be the building at the very beginning of the Gothic Style which eventually took over medieval Europe. It uses many motifs that are associated with what would become the Gothic style: rib-vaults, structural pointed arches, large windows, and a move towards a rationalised system of supports and responds. This means that St Martin-des-Champs is plausibly a building that was using a Gothic vocabulary before, or at least independent of, what was supposedly the massively influential building at St Denis.
So why does no one talk about St Martin-des-Champs?
The answer, as it turns out, is: it’s a complete and utter mess.
Usually, my medieval architectural “mistakes” are superficial aesthetic problems which only upset massive pedants. The plan of St Martin-des-Champs, however, is so utterly inept, that actually using the building for the purpose it was intended would actually be impeded by the fact that basically, it was planned out by people who had no idea what they were doing.
Let’s explain. The north side clearly came first because it, in itself, works. There are three piers for the apse. There are five piers for the ambulatory, which seem to have been conceived in pairs to open up into the shallow apsed chapels for the exterior wall.
Pleased with themselves, the masons move on to the, admittedly impressively spacious, axial chapel. They got a bit ahead of themselves with trying out some wall articulation, opting for a full-height blind arch on one side, but since that squashed up the dado arcade they didn’t bother on the other.
NE, E and SE “conch” mini-apses of axial chapel. Play spot-the-difference with decoration of left side with right.
Clearly, someone on outer-wall-building duty started to panic as the south wall of the chapel starts to veer inward. What had they realised? Unlike St Denis, the axial bay is bigger than the others, because of this desire to have a big triumphal arch opening into this big space that dwarfs the side chapels. Presumably because they were scared of vaulting too big a trapezoidal space – or maybe simply because the people working on the columns weren’t talking to the guys working on the outer walls – the first column of the south side of the apse is placed further in that it should. The two axial bays are totally wonky, but worse is to come.
On laying out the south side, the ambulatory columns and wall are thrown so out of whack, that the chapels are rendered basically inaccessible because THE COLUMNS STAND RIGHT IN FRONT OF THE ENTRANCES. On the outside, you can see that the relieving arches of the walls themselves do not line up with the chapels anymore. The masons are desperately trying to build themselves out of a problem when actually they make more of a mess. Eventually they interface with the Romanesque tower, call it a day, and they are now known throughout the Cluniac community as St Martin-des-Chumps, the losers with a wonky chevet you can only really use half of.
So let’s sum up.
Whether part of the problem of the south side is caused by interfacing with the existing Romanesque tower, I am not convinced: seems there could have been better ways to do it with the space they had they did. Regardless, they seem not to have had got a contract for the nave, which was rebuilt a century later in the Rayonnant Style in the 1230s. After the disaster in the choir the design totally does away with arcades, and goes down the nice and safe “four walls with a roof on top” school of architecture. Then the Revolution happened and there’s a couple of aeroplanes in there now for some reason.
The biggest mystery about St Martin-des-Champs’ chevet is how such an inept piece of architecture managed to survive till the Abbey’s dissolution in the seventeenth century. You would think that Cluniacs, big fans of pull-out-the-stops liturgy they were, would not have been content with a choir that neither has usable chapels nor an outer ambulatory you can ambulate through, unless you all process like a bunch of crabs.
So essentially, there was no proper system at St Martin-des-Champs, as would characterise the Gothic style. At St Denis’ chevet – which every scholar would admit is bona-fide Gothic – everything is kept rational to the whole: there is one ambulatory column for each apse column, and one chapel for each pair of piers, resulting in seven chapels. No stupid idea to have a super-sized chapel in the middle that breaks everything! Great!
The BAA Paris Conference had a special opportunity to visit the exterior of Suger’s apse, topped by the 1230s Rayonnant superstructure that straddles it like a giant spider, which you scandalously usually can’t see. This reveals even the masons of the first true Gothic system weren’t perfect.
Of course, Gothic had teething troubles. But by the time we get to Notre Dame de Paris in the next generation of Gothic buildings, the system was… Oh wait, the central crossing arch of Notre Dame is not centred properly
To those who say French Gothic is perfection, there’s nothing funnier than an arch with unequal height stilts.
These photos of the dodgy bits of Notre Dame de Paris were enabled by the two-hour runaround we had in and over her after hoi polloi visiting hours at BAA Paris: see the limited fruits of my tripod-supported labours labours in my Flickr album.
Stained Glass Attitudes will be back with more wonky French Gothic soon!
You just made me laugh so loudly that I literally woke up my husband — who was sleeping behind a closed door, on a separate floor of the house. Well done, sir! :) I absolutely adore your hilarious turns of phrase. But what I really appreciate is that, amid my guffaws, I always learn so much from your posts. Thank you so much, James.
I’ve officially added St. Martin des Champs to the “must see” list for my next visit to Paris. I’ll let you know whether I manage to complete my visit without inappropriately giggling at the fact that “everything sucks and is wrong and everyone just wants this building to stop before it embarrasses itself anymore.”
Thanks for the appreciating the absurdity of a descriptive figure caption breaking down into sheer despair.
I should emphasise, though, that St Martin-des-Champs is now Musée Arts es Metiers and will cost you €8 to get in (We were all given tickets, I didn’t go in the museum itself as we all set off to St Denis for the afternoon). Over the road is the parish church of St Nicholas-des-Champs which also has a hilariously wonky tower (but is a lovely church inside).
Thank you for the clarification, James! I actually noted the fact that the church houses the Arts et Metiers museum with great interest — because I always see it listed on my Paris Museum Pass, but have never visited. But after reading your post I won’t make that error of omission again.
Always amusing to meet another pedantic medievalist! (By ‘pedantic’ I mean, obviously, painstaking/ precise.) And refreshing to meet one who is even more pedantic than oneself: I think they kicked me out of academia for not taking it all quite pedantically enough. To me, the mistakes in the development of the Gothic style are some of the best bits. I love being able to see the builders’ mistakes and how they remedied them, as they taught themselves a new style. Flying buttresses are an obvious example; while Wells Cathedral is a favourite in experimental architecture. However, I’m no expert, just enjoyed the read. Thanks!
If you’ve not seen the church at Nieuil sur l’Autise in the Vendee you seriously do not know the meaning of “wonky arches”