Postcard from Toulouse, France: Centuries of alterations craft a catawampus cathedral

Cathedrale Saint Etienne de Toulouse

The approach makes it obvious. The Cathedral dedicated to Saint Stephen (5-33 A.D.) in Toulouse is the product of numerous architects over numerous centuries. And the interior is equally as cobbled together, held together by a column so inartistically enormous in circumference that I neglected to take its picture. But those incongruities make it all the more interesting to explore.

The first church buried underneath all of this brick dated from the 3rd century and was later topped by a Romanesque cathedral. At the beginning of the 13th century, an expanded French Gothic nave was completed in the regional “flavor” known as Raymondine, for Raymond VI, the Count of Toulouse. Raymond VI (1152-1222) was a key player in the constant tug of war, actually wars, waged for control between the King of France and King Henry II of England and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine. And also the Holy Roman Emperor and Alfonso II of Aragon. Alliances were complicated and always shifting.

Architectural styles shifted constantly as well. High Gothic was the fashion when a new bishop commissioned an architect to build a new much larger choir. The exterior was of cut stone instead of the regionally favored brick. Added awkwardly adjacent to the earlier nave, the choir evidently was being constructed to take its place. The old nave was never torn down. In 1518, a new sacristry, a belfry and Flamboyant Gothic buttresses were added.

A fire in 1609 destroyed the temporary wooden roof of the choir, resulting in its unusual, truncated profile. During the French Revolution, many of the cathedral’s statues were destroyed, and the nave was converted into a Temple of Reason. In 1802, the damaged cathedral was returned to the Catholic church, with today’s interior reflecting subsequent renovations.

One of the cathedral’s chapels invites introduction to one of this blog’s many unofficial saintly tales, that of Saint Germaine (1579-1601). Germaine was born in a small village outside of Toulouse with one arm paralyzed, and her mother died soon after her birth. A stepmother joined the household and quickly assumed the role of a wicked one.

Germaine was banished from the house to sleep in a cupboard under the stairs in the barn. Her duty became shepherding the sheep in a land plagued by wolves, and her meals consisted of scraps her stepmother hurled out the kitchen door. Despite Germaine’s efforts to please, beatings were frequent.

The bells of the parish church would summon her to Mass from the fields. Germaine would plant her shepherd’s crook in the ground, and the sheep obediently would stay clustered around it while she went to church, barefoot and dressed in rags. No wolves ever molested one of her flock during her absences. Children from the town were drawn by her purity and would often join her and her sheep in the countryside. She would share her meager meals with any beggars who approached.

Floodwaters once blocked Germaine’s path to Mass, but she was undeterred. Several townspeople claimed to have witnessed the water parting miraculously to allow her to cross safely. On another occasion, the evil stepmother chased Germaine into the village, beating her while accusing her of stealing bread. Germaine dropped the corners of her apron, spilling out its contents in the village square. No bread was there, only a cascade of out of season and unfamiliar flower blossoms. This miracle even caught the stepmother’s attention, and Germaine was invited to sleep in the house. She declined, choosing to remain alone in the stable.

Several people reported visions of a parade of virgins leading to heaven when the young woman was found dead in her cupboard. Residents of Pibrac regarded her as a saint, motivating revolutionary soldiers to remove her body from the church 188 years after her death. Her body was found incorrupt (my favorite miraculous status for saints), still flexible and without evidence of decomposition.

Saint Germaine of Pibrac is recognized as a patron saint of victims of child abuse, with a chapel in the Cathedral of Toulouse dedicated to her in 1876.

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