Notre Dame du Taur, Toulouse.

Jammed in amongst a street full of shops and other old buildings is a sweet little church that you can easily not notice at all as you walk down Rue du Taur from the Place du Capitole, the main square in the French city of Toulouse, to the Basilica dedicated to St Sernin, the patron saint of the city.  Yet, here was where the remains of St Sernin (or Saturnin) were first interred, only being transferred to the newly built basilica down the street when the crush of pilgrims became too great.

St Sernin was the first bishop of Toulouse, supposedly appointed by St Peter himself in the 1st century AD.  The church is named Notre Dame du Taur (Our Lady of the Bull) because, for refusing to worship pagan idols, St Sernin was allegedly martyred by being tied to a bull and dragged around by a rope until he was dead.  Legend has it that the place where the rope finally broke is where this church is today.

The church was built in the 13th-14th century, and the facade is of characteristically ‘Toulousain’ red brick, but not overly impressive.  And the only way to take any sort of picture of it in that very narrow street is from down a nearby alleyway.

Red brick façade of Notre Dame du Taur, in Toulouse, France.

Red brick façade of Notre Dame du Taur, in Toulouse, France.

Inside, though, it’s a little gem.   Quite short and squat, with side chapels but no transept, nearly all the surfaces, including the vaulting ribs, are quite nicely decorated.

Inside Notre Dame du Taur, looking towards the altar down the short nave.

Inside Notre Dame du Taur, looking towards the altar down the short nave.

The surfaces inside Notre Dame du Taur are quite intricately painted and gilded.

The surfaces inside Notre Dame du Taur are quite intricately painted and gilded.

Many medieval churches were once gilded and decorated like Notre Dame du Taur

Many medieval churches were once gilded and decorated like Notre Dame du Taur

Over the altar is a 19thC tableau depicting the moment the rope broke and St Sernin’s body, and the bull, came to rest.

The painted tableau over the altar showing the martyrdom of St Sernin is from the 19th century

The painted tableau over the altar showing the martyrdom of St Sernin is from the 19th century

There are several stained glass windows with traditional imagery that I also think are rather nice, like this ‘Pieta’, although I suspect that they are a relatively modern addition, from the 19th or perhaps even early 20th century.

This lovely stained glass window of the Pieta is not original, but a much later addition.

This lovely stained glass window of the Pieta is not original, but a much later addition.

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Basilique de St Sernin, Toulouse

When you look at the  plan of this large basilica in the southern French city of Toulouse, it follows a classic gothic cathedral layout.  A basic cruciform shape that has a long knave with two aisles each side, a transept with two arms also with side aisles, and a spire/bell tower over the centre of the cross.  But when you look at the details of this intriguing church, it appears to be more Byzantine than gothic.

The plan of the basilica is a very common cruciform shape with a central spire

The plan of the basilica is a very common cruciform shape with a central spire

Toulouse is known as ‘the pink city’ because of the preponderance of local red brick and sandstone that have been used in so many of its buildings.  It was not unusual for churches to be built of brick, but this one makes no attempt to disguise that fact, even on the inside.  Because of its construction material, and the multiple nested semi-circular shapes surrounding the apse, the east end of the church resembles St Saviour in Chora in Constantinople more than it does, say, Notre Dame in Paris.

The east end of the Basilica has the rounded shapes and brickwork more commonly associated with Byzantine Greek Orthodox churches

The east end of the Basilica has the rounded shapes and brickwork more commonly associated with Byzantine Greek Orthodox churches

The arches are all rounded Romanesque, not pointed gothic, and the knave is an impressively high barrel vault.  The brickwork of the supporting columns is lime-washed, but not clad in stone or marble to disguise its bricky origins.

The impressive nave of the Basilica has a very high barrel vault.

The impressive nave of the Basilica has a very high barrel vault.

The colour of the brickwork has been lime-washed, which makes the interior of the basilica much lighter than it would have been if the brickwork was left its original red colour

The colour of the brickwork has been lime-washed, which makes the interior of the basilica much lighter than it would have been if the brickwork was left its original red colour

The semi-circular domed apse is highly decorated in the Byzantine manner, and many of the details, like the column capitals, are ornate and carved with a variety of scenes and fantastic creatures, rather than conforming to classically gothic shapes and styles.

The domed semicircular apse is decorated in the Byzantine style, with a large Christ Pantocrator over the much later altar piece.

The domed semicircular apse is decorated in the Byzantine style, with a large Christ Pantocrator over the much later altar piece.

These column capitals are very Byzantine in style, much more imaginative in imagery, and each one different.

These column capitals are very Byzantine in style, much more imaginative in imagery, and each one different.

Saint Sernin was the first bishop of Toulouse, martyred in 250 AD, long before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.  The construction of this Basilica, on the site of an older 5th century church, began in 1080 AD, but its structure was not completed until about 13oo AD.

A well-dressed Black Madonna

The Basilica of Notre Dame de la Daurade, in Toulouse, France, is the home of the cult of the Black Virgin, La Vierge Noire, which stretches back to somewhere in the 10th century.

The statue of the virgin was not always black, but this particular one is the patron saint of pregnant women, so she had many fervent followers.  Over the years the candles burned at her altar by worshippers turned her, first into the ‘brown virgin’, and eventually into the ‘black virgin’, complete with a black baby Jesus.  So the story goes.

The Black Madonna shrine, with the statue of the Madonna dressed in a cream robe surrounded by frescoes and mosaics

The shrine of the Black Madonna, in the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Daurade, in Toulouse, France

This particular statue is not the original.  That was stolen in the 15th century, and a new one put in its place.  That statue was taken out and burned during the French Revolution.  That, in turn was replaced a few years later, in 1807, by this one, supposedly a copy of its predecessor.

Close up of the face of the Black Madonna and Black Baby Jesus

The Black Madonna of Toulouse, dressed by Jean Paul Gaultier

In 2008, the statue’s clothing was so worn and shabby that the church appealed to French couturiers to design new clothes for her.  Apparently the likes of Prada, Dior, and Lacroix were invited to dress La Vierge Noire, and now she has a whole new wardrobe, which is ceremonially changed on special days in the Catholic calendar.  My guide for the day when I was there assured me that this particular robe is the one designed and donated by Jean Paul Gaultier.  Only in France.

Madonna Superstar

This stained glass window looks to me like it could be a poster for a ’60s rock musical.  And in a way, it was, except a century or so earlier.

Before TV, before the Internet, before even electricity, about the only place ordinary people could go and hear good music, or see beautiful entertainments that took them away from their drab and difficult quotidian lives, was in church on Sunday.  The services in the church of Notre Dame de la Daurade in Toulouse were presided over by this splendid image of the most popular superstar of them all – not Kylie, or Lady Gaga, but the real Madonna.  She is the one the fans came to see.

Lady Madonna window from the church of Notre Dame de la Daurade, Toulouse, France.

Lady Madonna window from the church of Notre Dame de la Daurade, Toulouse, France.

This window is not ancient, because one of the roundels contains the name ‘PIE IX’.  Pope Pius IX was pope during the middle of the 19th century, so that roughly dates this artwork.  The longest serving pope ever, Pius IX convened the first Vatican Council in 1869, which decided two important things – the doctrine of papal infallibility, and the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which is the idea that Mary, Christ’s mother, was also born without original sin.  What evidence they thought they had to back up that claim is a mystery, but perhaps if you are infallible, you don’t need anything other than your imagination for things to be true.