The collections

France of spiers

Like Joan of Arc on her way to crown Charles VII in Reims, everyone sees church steeples from afar or, in a more humorous way, remember the question from a television host to a little boy "what is it?" is there in your village? "And the child to answer" a church ... ". Thus, each town, each village, each countryside, each mountain has its church, its chapel and its bell tower, this is what Pierre Montagnon tells us in his beautiful book " France of Steeples».

The first churches

The term "church" meaning assembly or community, we need a building that can be seen from afar, with a steeple that points to the sky, and even better a bell that calls to gather.

To pray, the Egyptians had temples, and the Gauls gathered in glades. With the edicts of Constantine and Theodosius, churches were built on the places of martyrdom of the saints, giving their names to the building and from the 4th century, thanks to Saint Martin (former soldier born in Hungary around 316), the monasteries, priories and convents are born.

The buildings are all in wood (unfortunately often damaged by fire) on the model of the Roman basilica: rectangular, side wings, semi-circular apse, in the overall form of a cross evoking that of Christ, oriented towards Jerusalem at the 'is.

With Clovis around 495, France became Christian, the Church imposed itself as a great social force. In the large cities, cathedrals are erected thanks to the bishops and many bell towers are visible. In the countryside, the villages are built around a small church or a chapel, monasteries are built where the place is larger, giving birth to towns built in the surroundings such as Fontevraud-L'abbaye in Maine and Loir; all these buildings belong to those who built them, often initiated by the bishop, helped by the masters of the work or masters of masons, stonemasons, carpenters, glassmakers, these works requiring donations from the king, of the clergy and especially the arms provided by the people.

Pépin le Bref established an administrative structure for the Church: the popes in Rome, the bishops in their diocese, the priests in their parish, the latter being the central figures of the local authority after the lord of the place.

Roman style

The constructions proliferated between 768 and 855 with 27 cathedrals like that of Verdun and 417 monasteries; but these buildings are heavy and lack elegance. Until the year 1000, with the invasions, they were almost all looted, devastated and destroyed. Once this period has passed, we rebuild in the same place, a church more suited to the needs of the time, richer, more beautiful, in stone from the region (Breton or Auvergnat granite which is dark, sandstone from the Vosges in red tones. , brick from the Pays d'Oc more pink and limestone from the Pays de la Loire so white), we enlarge, we add a transept perpendicular to the nave, we erect towers, bell towers, the shape of the Latin cross becomes the rule with thick, solid walls, showing strength but lacking lightness and light; it will be the Romanesque style and Cluny is the first in this style with 7 bell towers, a central tower surmounted by a spire. In each region, it will be the same as Notre Dame de l'Assomption du Puy en Velay, Saint Pierre d'Angoulême, Santa Maria Assunta south of Bastia, Sainte Marie Madeleine de Vézelay where the departure for the Crusades was preached by Bernard from Clervaux; some 50 abbeys thus saw the light of day in the 11th century.

In remote countryside, Romanesque art is also visible like Sainte Anne de Nohant in Berry, built in the 11th century, where the funeral took place in 1876, of the great-granddaughter of Marshal of Saxe: Georges Sand .

Gothic style

The novel being installed rather in the south of the Loire, the Gothic starts slowly in the north of France, as for Sainte Marie Madeleine de Vézelay which has only one tower. During the reconstructions, we find a mixture: the base of the building in Romanesque style and the top in Gothic (Saint Pierre de Moissac or Saint Pierre de Solesmes in the Sarthe), with new features: the ribbed cross, the walls drilled to install stained glass windows to let in light. This Gothic art, also called French art, was adopted around 1150, as in the Sainte Chapelle built by Saint Louis from 1241 and other masterpieces of Gothic in Paris, Chartres, Reims or Amiens. Notre Dame de Paris is the major witness of this style with 2 facade towers, a transept, rosettes, a vault with a 96 m high spire, dedicated to the Mother of Christ.

In smaller towns, the Gothic style is also established as in Cathar country with Sainte Cécile d'Albi, Saint Etienne in Toul or Notre Dame in Verdun.

The Gothic becomes radiant with the rosettes and stained glass windows letting in a maximum of light (Saint Nazaire basilica of Carcassonne or Saint Bénigne of Dijon). A few years later, around 1350, it becomes flamboyant: the straight lines are abandoned, the curves and volutes appear accompanied by rosettes, the sculptures represent plant motifs as well as monstrous faces carved at the end of the gargoyles that can be seen at the Saint Nicolas du Port basilica near Nancy or at the Sainte Chapelle at the Château de Vincennes.

Baroque then classical style

Around the XVI and XVII centuries, the architecture changes. The buildings are equipped with domes, colonnades and a triangular pediment, which is typically found in Paris at Les Invalides, Val de Grâce and Saint Sulpice. In the south, the Notre Dame de Nîmes cathedral and Saint Erasme de Cervione in Haute Corse are in the same style.

The congregations and institutions founded in the 17th century bring more classic novelties with a certain rigor, a majesty, less exterior sculptures but with more baroque style inside: Saint Louis Cathedral of Versailles, Notre Dame de l'Assomption de Montauban or even for the Saint Christophe de Belfort cathedral.

The neo-classical style

The Age of Enlightenment will bring new buildings with different architecture. The Pantheon will first serve as a large church, with large columns and a large triangular pediment, then will be a place of memory "To the Great Men" who will come to rest there. La Madeleine, in the same style, will replace the neighborhood church which has become too dilapidated. It will be the same in all the regions of France, until the Revolution when almost all these buildings are vandalized, ransacked, put on sale or destroyed, the Church being too associated with the Ancien Régime. The abbey of Cluny, sold, is transformed into a stone quarry, other buildings become penitentiary detention centers, still others serve as stables or ammunition depot, the bells being of course melted down.
It was not until Napoleon's Concordat in 1801 that repairs and reconstructions began, on the bases of old buildings, by the hundreds, in the towns as well as in the countryside, in a neoclassical, neo-classical style. Gothic or neo-Byzantine throughout the 19th century.

Modern style

After the Two World Wars, restorations of churches continued if at least some walls remained; As the population moves towards the cities, constructions are reborn with a new material: reinforced concrete. These new buildings are different, more modern, allowing fantasies and futuristic designs such as the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence in the Alpes Maritimes or the Notre Dame du Haut chapel in Ronchamp in Haute Saône.

Bells and steeples

The bells appear in the West in the 7th century, initially made by monks, then by itinerant smelters with 78% copper and the rest in pewter. They punctuate life, serving as a means of communication, calling for evening prayers with the Angelus or informing about events such as weddings, deaths or even announcing a disaster with the alarm clock. But normally, they indicate the hours and the passing time. However, they must sometimes be silent like Holy Thursdays, Holy Fridays and Holy Saturdays, then replaced by rattles.

They all have names. The oldest bell still in activity dated 1239 is in Saint Peter and Saint Paul de Sidiailles in the Cher. The heaviest is the Savoyarde installed at the Sacré Coeur in Montmartre weighing 19,000 kg, while one of the light ones (3,900 kg) is called Saint Jean at Notre Dame de Strasbourg.

To announce the hours, it is better to be exact, which was not the case for a long time. The problem will be solved for the first time with the appearance of the toothed wheel mechanism in the 14th century, then with the Huygens pendulum in the 17th century, which will limit the difference with a margin of error of 2 minutes. Nowadays, in large buildings, the bells ring thanks to the system which has become automatic and electric; but the carillonneurs must always pull the rope in small villages to make them ring.

There is an average of 150,000 bells in France for at least 45,000 bell towers, mounted on approximately 100,000 Catholic buildings.

Initially, the bell tower is attached to the building. But when the bells are installed there, it will change its appearance, it will be installed in height, it will have a different shape and will mark the richness of the place.

Usually it is installed on the facade. Each region has its bell tower: the Comtois bell tower with a dome, the wall bell tower in the southwest and the Basque country where bays are bored, the bulbous bell tower in Alsace and Savoy, the pavilion bell tower in the Paris region, the twisted or flamed bell tower whose twisted spire turns from left to right on a 1/8 turn in the Angevin region, the bell tower tower for many cathedrals including Notre Dame de Paris or the spire bell tower for others as in Strasbourg. At the top, we install either a cross, or a statue like the archangel at Mont Saint Michel or sometimes a rooster (this animal is not reserved for a ball game, since it already appeared around 1075 on the tapestry of Bayeux). Often in the South and in Provence, replacing the tower or the spire, a campanile is installed on the bell tower.


Not far from the Calvaries, there are chapels used for meditation and refuge during transhumance. Located very high in the mountains, there are about 20 at peaks over 2000m, built in the rock like the chapel of Saint Michel de Couesson in Provence or in the middle of the forest like that of Saint Simon in Queyras. The chapels of the Pyrenees are much better preserved because there are fewer crowds, like that of Sainte Marie de Belloc at 1688m, dating from the 13th century with its bell tower with three bays.

In Corsica, the innumerable mountain chapels stand up to time, in Romanesque style, generally dating from the 9th and 10th centuries.

Many chapels are also found by the sea, nicknamed sailors' chapels. They are used to prevent boats approaching near the rocks, beautiful and symbolic such as Sainte Madeleine de Bidart located in the Pyrenees facing the sea, or the Saint Vincent de Collioure chapel built on a schist island adjoining with a wooden cross supporting a Christ. To the south-west of Ajaccio, Notre Dame du Mont Carmel, nicknamed the chapel of the Greeks, dates from before the Middle Ages. A hermit rang the bell when he saw a foreign sail. In the 18th century, it was attributed to exiled Greeks and the site grew. This first chapel becomes a Romanesque building, in ocher-colored stone and people still pray there today for the people of the sea.

There is a rather special case: the “Good Mother”, symbol of Marseille which was built for the first time in 1214, on a 150m high peak. This chapel, rebuilt in the 15th century, will then take its real name Notre Dame de la Garde, in Roman-Byzantine style, visible from afar in the open sea. This spiritual mecca has welcomed François I, Louis XIII, Philippe Egalité, Chateaubriand and his bells announced the liberation in August 1944.

Another case is worth talking about. Around Verdun, over approximately 60 km2, on the site of the old chapels destroyed during the war, new buildings were rebuilt between 1927 and 1930, with the aim of meditation and remembrance, which are now simple chapels or necropolises. with a basilica, a tower, a lantern and a cemetery as for Notre Dame de Lorette.

The crosses and calvaries

In the countryside, the church is replaced by a symbolic cross or a more representative Calvary, recalling the Christianity of the region. The crosses are flowered during processions and pilgrimages, some being planted in the middle of the mountain, serving as a landmark. The calvaries are built of local hard stone where durable sculptures can be carved. Despite their location on the French landscape, there are around 200,000 crosses and calvaries.

Elsewhere in French territories

In the colonized territories, there are beautiful buildings built around 1850 such as the Immaculate Conception of Antananarivo, the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Paix in Ivory Coast or even Notre Dame de Saigon, the new name of the cathedral of Ho Chi Minh-City. But Fort de France has had its church since 1650, forming part of the hundred or so bell towers visible in the French Antilles; while in Réunion, the buildings were built in the 18th century on the model of the Latin cross, with a square bell tower, in a neo-classical style. In Polynesia and New Caledonia, churches can be very simple or Gothic in style and sought after like the Cathedral of Notre Dame de l'Assomption in Wallis and Futuna, built in a local often volcanic stone.

In Muslim lands, buildings are rarely destroyed, preserved and transformed into a museum like the Saint Louis basilica of Carthage or into a cultural center for the Church of the Sacred Heart of Casablanca; in Algeria, it is different, the buildings are razed and their priests assassinated. The few remaining churches are transformed into a mosque.

Other religious buildings

Some buildings serve as fortresses such as Saint Astier in the Dordogne with a covered walkway or Saint Eloi des Fonderies in the Ardennes with the bell towers serving as a defense tower.

Protestants have few temples due to various conflicts such as the wars of religion. It was only after the Empire that construction began with around 3000 buildings built in the 19th century; synagogues were forbidden until around 1785 and the first were created in the Comtat Venaissin in a neo-Byzantine style; as for orthodoxy, it appeared in France after the Russian Revolution when the popes and their faithful emigrated. However, there is one thing in common between all these buildings, temples and Orthodox churches: a cross is still there.

The pilgrimages

As during the crusades of the Middle Ages, men are attracted to pilgrimages such as the pilgrimage route to Saint Jacques de Compostela. Starting from 4 main points, Paris, Vézelay, Puy en Velay and Arles, the pilgrims are guided by the bell towers, the path being desert, sometimes dangerous and long. They rest in places of prayer, monasteries and convents, along the route, they can also admire these buildings, most of them in Romanesque style. At the point of convergence, they all meet in Ostabat, materialized by a very impressive stele. This road to Compostela contributed to the development of churches, chapels, hospices, commanderies and bell towers for the rest and meals of these men. The Commanderies of the Templars are important, resembling barracks, all having a church or a chapel. Other places of pilgrimage are deserved such as Mont Saint Michel, Rocamadour or Mont Saint Odile where for some it is necessary to climb an impressive number of steps ... on their knees.

Our opinion

Pierre Montagnon is the author of a magnificent glossy paper with rounded page corners. We discover very nice annexes such as the history of some saints who gave their name to a religious building, some information on important cathedrals, a list of the 100 most beautiful bell towers to visit whether they are Romanesque, Gothic. , baroque with their stories.

The author also offers us superb photos of buildings such as basilicas, monasteries, simple small churches and even crosses and calvaries in the countryside and in the mountains.

The very positive point is that this book is not centered on the history of the various religions, but on the buildings in terms of architecture proving the beauty of these monuments belonging to the French and world heritage. On our next walks or if we watch certain reports on television, let us all have great thought and deep respect for those who made these constructions and those who restore them.

La France des clochers, by Pierre Montagnon. Editions Télémaque, October 2016.

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