Blois, Benedictine Abbey of St. Lomer

(also called St. Laumer; presently the parish church of St. Nicolas)




The Benedictine abbey of St. Lomer is one of at least three surviving buildings in the diocese of Chartres to be built in the new "Gothic" style whose construction can be confidently said to have begun in the 1130s (the other two being the cathedral's north tower and the newly reformed secular collegial church of Saint Mary Madeleine in Châteaudun). As it happens, the inception of St. Lomer's construction is also the most well-documented of the three and, indeed, its first building campaign —from beginning to end— appears to be one of the most securely and precisely dated in all of 12th century France. As such, it also confirms what was previously only speculation (albeit reasonable speculation) about the date of the lowest level of the northwestern Chartres tower; for it is clear that the same workshop and/or masons worked on both buildings —first at Chartres, then at Blois— and that the firm date of 25 April, 1138 for the beginning of construction at Blois establishes that at least part of that shop may have completed its work at Chartres around that date.

While the origin and diffusion of the new, "Gothic" style in architecture throughout France has been the subject of considerable scholarly investigation and debate for well over a century, a detailed, coherent narrative of its arrival and development in the region between the Seine and the Loire is yet to be written. Therefore, every monument in the region (both those which survive and those which may be reconstructed from later graphic or archeological evidence) is of "significance" and should be examined in as much detail as possible. Methodologically, this should be done from a "non-teleological" point of view —i.e., one which does not treat these early monuments (sometimes called "experiments") as random, frequently errant, blips on the path to the achievement of the "High Gothic" construct which has become so precious to architectural (and sculptural) historians for the last century and a half. Obviously, one of the more significant early monuments in this development is to be found in Blois, the second most important surviving "Early Gothic" building in the county of Blois/Chartres. In addition, its multiple 12th and 13th century connections with the cathedral of Chartres makes it an essential building for the reconstruction of the arrival and dissemination of both the new "Gothic" building style and its later "High Gothic" manifestation in this important region.

Although St. Lomer's has not been the subject of a comprehensive, detailed study since the work of the excellent local historian, Dr. Frédéric Lesueur (1920s), aspects of the first campaign have been "cherry picked" for the light they might shed on various elements.

Another aspect of the "significance" of the first campaign at St. Lomer is that, since its sculptural and other decorative architectural details (bases, capitals, impost profiles and decoration, ornamental arch articulation, etc.) are close enough to those seen on the lowest level of the north tower of Chartres to suggest that the same workshop of (at least) sculptors came from there to work at Blois —probably no later than 1140— it is tempting to speculate that, if the cathedral had burned in 1134 instead of 1194, the building which would have been built to replace it most likely would have looked a lot like the eastern half (radiating chapels, choir, transepts and two easternmost bays of the nave) of St. Lomer. Certainly, whatever 12th century additions to the cathedral there may have been —which have been reasonably proposed— most likely would have been in this style.

The chance survival of a text which allows us, in effect, to believe that the first (i.e., 1138) building campaign at Blois was ultimately brought to a close in 1186, when the relics of St. Lomer were transferred from the old church (originally that of St. Lubin) into the newly built choir, suggests the possibility of a terminus post quem for the beginning of the second (nave) campaign shortly after that date -allowing time for the demolition of the old building and the consolidation of the foundations for the new one. This second major campaign at St. Lomer —i.e., the westernmost three bays of the nave, with their characteristic piliers cantonnées, window articulation, minimally foliate "crocket" sculptural décor, etc.— has traditionally been seen to reflect an immediate design influence of the post-1194 cathedral of Chartres, and this may indeed well have been the case. However, apparently there has never been any detailed comparative study of the building specifically clarifying its relationship to the main body of the cathedral and, given the 6 or 7 year (or longer) delay between the supposed beginning of the second campaign (assuming that it was a reflection of the cathedral), the possibility exists that the "High Gothic" form of the cathedral was in fact prefigured in the region at Blois. In this context it is perhaps particularly noteworthy that some of these elements, common to both buildings, are rarely to be seen elsewhere in surviving major buildings in the Loire valley or chartrain regions at this time (of course, it is apparently assumed that they originated in the Soissonais). The only way to sort out these relationships between the two buildings would be to examine the second campaign at St. Lomer in great detail, within the (unusually rich) historical context of the abbey.












Seventeenth century tradition relates that Lomer, a 6th century native of the Drouais, first became a monk of St. Mesmin of Micy (near Orléans), before retreating to the woods of the northern Perche and founding there a monastery at Corbion, most likely today's Moutier-au-Perche (Orne, arr Mortagne, con Rémalard). He died on a visit to Chartres around 590, and was buried at the abbey of St. Martin-au-Val, the Episcopal necropolis just outside the city. Shortly thereafter two monks from Corbion came to Chartres, wormed their way into the trust of the monks of St. Martin's and were eventually able to steal the saint's body, taking it back to the monastery he had founded in the Perche.
Around 873 or 874, monks from Corbion, fleeing Norse invaders with their saint's relics, came first to Le Mans, and then to Blois, where they were given asylum, most likely in the church (or chapel) of Saint Calais, within the comital (or royal) castrum which dominated the town. The Blesois abbey's priories and property holdings in the Chartrain, Normandy and Le Mans (attested by 11th and 12th century documents) lend credence to at least the broad outlines of this traditional version of the obscure early history of the abbey.
At a date which cannot be precisely determined —most likely in the late 10th century— the monks of St. Lomer moved from the church of St. Calais in the castrum to a site below it, near the river, i.e., to the church of Saint Lubin, which became that of St. Lomer. The chance survival of an unusually explicit document informs us that construction of a new church began on 25 April, 1138 —under the patronage of Count Theobald IV of Blois and apparently on a relatively virgin site just to the east of the former church of St. Lubin. We may presume that the eastern parts of the present building were completed by the 25th of May, 1186 when, according to the preamble of a charter of Count Theobald V, the monks translated their precious relics from the old church into the new one.
Thus it appears that the patronage of the counts of Blois was essential to the fortunes of the abbey, from its earliest days in the city through at least the 12th century, and it is worth noting that architectural parallels can be made with other buildings from the third quarter of the 12th century which are associated with the "Thibaudian" counts of Chartres, Blois and Champagne —at Provins and elsewhere. On the other hand, despite some very direct architectural connections with the cathedral of Chartres (in both the early and late 12th century), curiously, the bishops of Chartres make no significant appearance in the published documents of the abbey.
Though not documented, the western bays of the nave and the façade were completed in a campaign which probably began shortly after 1186 and was completed in the early decades of the 13th century. [see Campaigns of Construction for a more detailed discussion]
In 1697 the new diocese of Blois was carved out of those of Chartres, Orléans and Bourges, a cathedral was built to house the cathedra of its bishop, and St. Lomer's lost its place as the preeminent church in the city. In 1791, the revolutionary government in Blois suppressed and demolished the nearby parish church of St. Nicolas, the abbey church became a simple parish church, was renamed St. Nicholas and has remained such ever since.
[A more detailed and documented history of the abbey may be read here.]






















Campaigns of Construction