Postcard from Toulouse, France: A basilica with great bones

Above: Reliquary in the Basilica of Saint Sernin

Most people reading this headline would assume I’m talking about religious architecture, but those definitely are not the only bones on my mind. This does not mean that the architecture of the Basilica of Saint Sernin is not amazing; it is. So, we’ll just get those bones out of the way first.

I wish we had approached this basilica the way Dr. Bryan Zygmont advises in Smart History to better understand what was going on inside:

One of the best ways to fully appreciate a medieval church is to stroll around its exterior. Indeed, during this circumnavigation, one is not only transported back in time, but also through time. It often took centuries to construct churches of the size and scale of Saint-Sernin. By walking around the exterior of these churches an observant visitor can clearly see shifting architectural styles and changing sculptural aesthetics. Although construction was begun on Saint-Sernin by about 1080, slight changes in the proportion of brick and stone used during the course of its construction suggest the church went through a number of different building campaigns from its genesis until its ultimate conclusion, perhaps as many as four. Romanesque (and Gothic) churches are often a negotiation between what was dreamed and what came to pass; the final church often looks different from its original architectural plan.

So, here’s your walk-around orientation.

Begun about 1080, the Basilica of Saint Sernin is regarded as the largest Romanesque building remaining in Europe. The immense barrel-vaulted central nave makes approaching the altar a humbling experience.

As impressive as they are, architectural bones are not the main reason pilgrims making their way through southern France on the sacred route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain stop here. Let’s circle back to the story of Saint Sernin himself.

Sernin, or Saturnin, was one of seven bishops Pope Fabian dispatched to Gaul to spread the gospel about the year 250, shortly before the Pope himself was martyred. His assignment as Bishop of Toulouse was no easy task. The entrenched priests of the city were angered by Sernin’s condemnation of their gods and claimed his presence in their midst was like a curse silencing their normally responsive idols. Their solution to the problem was to bind him by his feet to a bull, the bull responding by dragging Sernin him through the streets until he was more than convincingly battered to death. The place the bull stopped still is called Rue de Taur, or the street of the bull.

Sernin’s remains were buried a short distance away, and an abbey memorializing his sacrifice was built there in the 4th century. Saint Sernin’s bones did not remain lonely. Emperor Charlemagne (768-800) contributed a large quantity of relics of the first class, meaning body parts of saints, to the basilica. The popularity of the basilica as a stop-over for pilgrims increased and eventually led to the need for a more massive building.

The apse of the basilica circles around the sides and back of the altar, with nine chapels radiating out from it to house relics. A crypt is found at the heart of this area, below the altar.

According to Marie Fournier writing for Aleteia:

Relics are testimonies of God’s saving power in the lives of the saints; thus, especially during the Middle Ages, they have exerted a strong attraction for the faithful, who hoped to obtain protection or healing through the intercession of the saints…. In the reliquary chests of the ambulatory of the basilica in Toulouse lie the remains of saints Lawrence, Boniface, Anthony the Abbott and Vincent of Saragossa. In addition, a thorn from the Crown of Thorns, donated by Alphonse, Count of Poitiers, brother of St. Louis, has been kept there since the mid-13th century. More than 200 fragments of bones of various saints are also housed in the basilica, along with a piece of the True Cross and the remains of Sts. Etienne, Bernadette Soubirous and Therese of Lisieux. After St. Peter’s in Rome, the cathedral of Toulouse houses the largest collection of relics in the world.

It’s obvious why Saint Sernin became popular with pilgrims, particularly those facing a journey of more than 600 miles to reach Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Saints have specialties, and the sheer volume represented by relics in the basilica make it sort of a one-stop shopping center for requesting help from patron saints of almost anything needing miraculous intercession. Plus, its architectural bones are inspiring.

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