The Abbey of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe, in Poitou-Charentes, France, is on the UNESCO World Heritage list for its incredible frescoes depicting scenes from the bible.
One of the reasons I love visiting UNESCO World Heritage Sites is for the incredible feats of art or architecture that make you stand back and wonder how humans could have conceived of and created them in the time period they did. France is brimming with examples of such sites. We’ve marvelled at the architecture of the Pont-du-Gard and admired the complexity of the cave paintings at Lascaux. L’Abbaye de Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe, the abbey of Saint Savin on the Gartempe River in Poitou-Charentes, France, is just such a place.
With its origins dating from around 800 AD, the current abbey’s grand 11th-century roman architecture is impressive in and of itself. But it’s an artistic contribution that makes Saint Savin truly remarkable. The abbey church is decorated, floor to ceiling, with colourful paintings and frescoes depicting scenes from the bible. These frescoes are believed to be the creation of one monk who taught others how to mix paints from the materials found in the area.
These frescoes were almost lost to the ravages of war and time but they were restored in the mid-19th century and again between 2005-2008. The vivid colours and depictions have earned Saint Savin the title ‘The Romanesque Sistine Chapel.’
Our visit to the abbey of Saint Savin began in the museum, which provides a scaled-down version of the ceiling frescoes, with a key to the stories portrayed on the ceiling. There is also an excellent handbook provided that you can take into the church to use as a guide to the paintings.
A fascinating aspect of the museum is the short film explaining the history of the paintings. While it is in French, it’s pretty easy to understand the visuals even without a grasp of the language. It’s a bit over-dramatic in a typically French way. However, it does portray the challenges of undertaking such a project with limited tools and materials in a way that makes you fully appreciate the end result.
With this understanding in mind, we were ready to enter the church. Stepping inside, I was still taken aback by the colour, scale, and complexity of the paintings.
The entire church is a riot of colour and, when you look closely, you realise it has all be hand painted, from the bricks on the walls to the faux marble columns. These details were added in the 19th century and add to the drama of the church, accentuating the frescoes themselves.
With the high, vaulted ceilings, you need to crane your neck to appreciate the frescoes. (Binoculars would be an asset here if you have the foresight to bring them). The stories depicted in the paintings range from Genesis and the creation all the way to Exodus.
Some of them are obvious, like Noah’s ark and the tower of Babel, while others required me to refer to my guide. All the while, I had images from the film of a monk mixing earth-toned paints atop rickety scaffolding in the candlelight running through my head.
Whether you know your bible stories or not, it’s an awe-inspiring sight.
The Abbey of Saint-Savin is roughly an hour from Poitiers, in Poitou-Charentes, but is well worth the detour if you are interested in art, history, or simply enjoy collecting UNESCO World Heritage Sites like we do. Combine it with a stay and meal at the stunning Les Orangeries sustainable hotel, only 20 minutes away, for a perfect getaway in the region.
Abbey Church of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe
54 Place de la Libération,
86310 Saint-Savin, France