This masterpiece of Romanesque art was recognized by UNESCO for its outstanding painted decoration and the testimony it provides to the period of the Middle Ages. These fabulous paintings give us a unique history of monotheism by the variety and magnitude of the themes addressed. They have survived in exceptional condition, saved by restorations in 1840 by Prosper Mérimée, Inspector General of Historic Monuments.
It is recommended to start the visit by the scenography for a better understanding of the paintings and the architecture of the abbey complex.
Abbey of Saint Savin sur Gartempe
Place de la Libération, 86310 Saint-Savin
Website - tel : 05 49 84 30 00.
Access to the church is free.
Access to all buildings, full price / reduced price : €7 / €5.50. Free for children under 12 years old. Family package: €20.
Tour booklet in 5 languages: €1 supplement at the entry.
Guided tour of the abbey (duration: 1 hour) : €2 supplement per person.
The entrance ticket entitles you to free access to different areas of the site (abbey, garden, dining hall, shows, multimedia scenorgraphy circuit, projection room ... )
The church is open around 8 a.m.
Cultural Spaces :
From November through March, daily : 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. / 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Closed on Sunday mornings.
April, May, June, September and October, daily : 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. / 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Closed on Sunday mornings.
July and August, daily : 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Closed in January. On-site boutique and bookstore.
Scenography (included in the entrance fee)
The scenography circuit is organized around the Romanesque paintings of the abbey church and covers the two floors of the monastic buildings. Films, models, electronic terminals with 3D images, slideshows, and other multimedia elements allow visitors a fun and interactive discovery of the site and its paintings. A visit to this innovative cultural facility is essential in preparing to tour the abbey complex.
The church was built in the form of a Latin cross, respecting the architecture of Romanesque churches, and was constructed in a Romanesque style with the exception of its neo-Gothic spire, which was reconstructed in the 19th century.
It measures 76 meters long and 17 meters wide. Its octagonal spire rises to a height of 78 meters. The abbey church is considered a "hall" church because of its two aisles, or lateral naves, of exceptional height. With the height of the naves, the bays located high above ground allow for a beautiful lighting of the building. The brightness that enters the nave allowed for the painting of scenes from the Old Testament on the cradle of the vault at over 17 meters above the ground.
The main nave impresses with its elegance and exceptional volumes, though the beauty and the volumes of the choir are not far behind. The paintings fit harmoniously with the overall composition, the ensemble contributing to the architectural uniformity of the building. In addition to the church, abbey is also made up of the convent building, the living quarters and the gardens, rebuilt in the 18th century.
The nave, the central element of the building, features nine spans lit by vessels with high windows that allow in plenty of light to illuminate the frescoes. The ensemble presents very slender proportions. The barrel vaulting of the central nave is supported on beautiful round or cruciform pillars in the first three bays.
Visitors will note that the nave is slightly off-kilter. The first spans near the entrance are in line with the porch, and the others are in line with the choir, a result of the building of the nave during two different periods of construction. The builders relied on the base of the porch-tower from the Carolingian era that still remains, but it was not exactly in line with the choir. The capitals of the pillars of the nave feature finely carved animal and plant designs.
The transept gives the church its Latin cross shape. It houses the sarcophagus of Abbot Odo from the 11th century, as well as stalls from the 18th century. In the northern wing, the chapels are dedicated to archangels. In the southern wing, they are dedicated to the Apostles. Unfortunately there is nothing left of the paintings that adorned the transept, though there are some beautiful carved capitals.
The choir is surrounded by five chapels with carved altar tables from the 11th century. These chapels are dedicated to virgins, martyrs and Saint Marin de Maurienne. The lighting is more discreet than in the nave ; the stained glass windows date back to the 19th century. The choir is bounded by columns that feature carved lions and acanthus leaves. The stalls, in oak, date back to the 17th century. The choir is raised to make room for the crypt.
Cannot be visited.
The first crypt is dedicated to Saint Martin. The second, largest crypt, dedicated to Saint Savin and Saint Cyprien, determined the level of the apse above it. It housed the relics of the two saints, which have since disappeared. It is fully painted.
Rebuilt by the monks of the Congregation of Saint-Maur from 1682, they were accessed by the southern wing of the transept. The refectory, kitchen and chapter house are located on the ground floor, beside the sacristy. The first floor houses the monks' dormitories. Today, the first floor hosts the scenography circuit. The refectory exhibits a painting from the nave : the struggle of kings (Abraham releasing Loth). The chapter house is now occupied by the library.
In medieval times, painted decorations were very important and held several functions: ornamentation, tribute and education. These veritable illustrated Bibles were polychrome, with colors and images intended to honor God while serving as teaching aids to the faithful.
Saint-Savin was no exception to the rule. All mural techniques were used, starting with those made "a fresco". This means that the plaster on which they were painted was still fresh. Both paint and plaster dried at the same time, guaranteeing a better and longer conservation and a higher long-term strength. This was unlike the "secco" technique, known since Antiquity, in which paintings were completed on a dry surface. This technique is easier because it does not require painting just after plastering. But its long-term conservation is more difficult because the pigments remain on the surface.
The colors used were relatively few : green, red, and yellow, mixed with white and black. Although few pigments were used to make paints, the artists of Saint-Savin played on contrasts, alternating light and dark tones, warm and cold colors. The body and clothes seem to take life, though the faces remain impassive.
Visit - frescoes and paintings
The pictorial program of the church
The entrance porch (or narthex) depicts the Apocalypse. At the top level, the upper tribune walls and ceiling are covered with illustrations referring to the Passion and the Resurrection. The nave features scenes from the Old Testament, beautifully highlighted by the light entering from the tall windows. This masterpiece adorns the nave on over 460 m². The inner tympanum of the porch, visible when leaving the church, presents the Triumph of the Virgin. The paintings in the crypt are dedicated to those whose relics it contained, two brother martyrs : Saint Savin and Saint Cyprien. These frescoes cover almost all of the walls. Only the transept does not feature period paintings.
The ensemble of pictorial work in the church is not a patchwork of different themes but an overall package with an exceptional unity and harmony. The different themes discussed interact with each other, regardless of their location in the church. For example, scenes from the Apocalypse painted on the entrance porch are complemented by those of the Passion and Resurrection that adorn the walls and the ceiling of the upper gallery. This whole ensemble in turn responds to the fifty episodes from the Old Testament painted on the vault of the nave.
The frescoes in the entrance porch (narthex) are located above the door. Christ in Majesty, seated on a throne, welcomes worshipers. He is accompanied by two angels who present him with a cross (instrument of the Passion). On the first arch, the apostles, who surround Christ, are seated on a globe holding a book while angels bow before Christ.
Scenes from the Apocalypse are illustrated on the other arches (or vaults).
Accessible by guided tour.
At the top level of the porch, this room contains paintings describing scenes from the Passion and the Resurrection of Christ. Following its restoration, the episode of the Descent from the Cross is clearly visible, unlike the others.
The murals that adorn the vessel of the nave recount episodes from the Old Testament, reading like a huge picture book. The paintings are divided into two levels: the lower register and upper register. These two registers are located on each side of a frieze that divides the vault lengthwise. The proposed reading below is not chronological and only focuses on visible scenes.
Start with the images of the north side (located to the left as you enter). However, to better distinguish each painting on the vaulted ceiling, stay to the right of the church, in the south aisle. The images are read from left to right, from the entrance toward the transept :
The theme of the Creation is treated on the left, in the first bays of the nave. At the second bay :
- we see the creation of the stars, and below it the original sin.
Further, in the upper register :
- Eve sits spinning her distaff,
- Then God accepts Abel's offering while he refuses Cain's. It is difficult to distinguish the murder of Abel by Cain, but the curse that falls on Cain is clearly visible.
Also in the upper register, the following scenes tell the story of Noah :
- First, God announces the flood to Noah,
- Then Noah's ark confronts the flood,
- God blesses Noah's family out of the ark,
- Noah sacrifices a couple of birds and a lamb to thank God,
- Noah cultivates vines.
Lower register, below the murder of Abel and the curse of Cain, the register features scenes depicting:
- Moses fleeing from Egypt on the Pharaoh’s chariot, caught in the waves of the Red Sea,
- the angel of God appearing and the pillar of fire between the Egyptian Hebrews led by Moses,
- and finally, Moses is presented with the Tables of the Law of God.
On the south side, from left to right, from the transept :
Upper register :
- Noah is drunk, dancing,
- Then Noah, drunk and half naked, lying on the stairs of a palace with his son Shem and Japheth, curses Canaan.
- The next painting shows the construction of the Tower of Babel.
Then comes the story of Abraham :
- Abraham’s vocation,
- separation of Abraham and Lot,
- "the battle of Kings". The last scenes are unreadable.
In the lower register of the entrance to the transept :
- Abraham donating his herds Isaac,
- The death of Abraham,
- Isaac blessing his son Jacob.
Then the story of Joseph begins :
- Joseph sold by his brothers,
- Joseph bought by Potiphar, captain of the guard,
- Joseph and Potiphar's wife,
- Potiphar and his wife,
- Joseph in prison,
- Joseph explaining the Pharaoh's dream,
- The Pharaoh making Joseph his steward,
And finally the triumph of Joseph.
The crypt of Saint Savin and Saint Cyprien
Its walls are almost entirely covered with paintings dedicated to these two martyrs. Christ in Majesty is painted on the ceiling, the lives of the two brothers shown around him over four registers. Their state of preservation is exceptional. Though they are more recent than the paintings of the nave, they do not share the same artistic quality and style.
For conservation reasons the crypt cannot be visited, but a reconstruction of the paintings is presented along the scenography circuit.
To see in Saint Savin
The mill of the Gassotte in Saint-Savin
The water mill of the Gassotte River was part of the abbey’s estate, which had 12 mills on four rivers. This former flour mill dates from the second half of the 19th century and operated until 1961. It is now a small hotel and campsite.
The old bridge in Saint-Savin
The old bridge dates from the 13th century. 100 meters long, it is based on 5 columns. A major road between Poitiers and Bourges during the Middle Ages, it now connects the municipalities of Saint Savin and Saint Germain. The new bridge dates from the 19th century.