Diary of a Trip to Tours #4: Cathédrale Saint-Gatien

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I can still vividly see the stained glassed of the Cathedral of Tours if I close my eyes. This is what you get for spending hours in the impressive confluence of Romanesque and Gothic architecture that is the Cathedral dedicated to Saint Gatien.

Apart from the windows that illustrate religious accounts, the Cathedral’s windows offer an interesting insight into political power from ages past. There are the windows that contain symbols and crests of families whose descendants are still part of Tours history from the middle ages.

Then there are the depictions of those rare figures in French religious and political history whose names have managed to reappear at different times in French political and other debates. Saint Martin is one such figure. To my understanding, he is the patron saint of France (along with Jean d’Arc and Saint Thérese? – I stand to be corrected on this). A stunning set of stained glasses retell the acts of charity and supernatural prowess performed by this local of Tours who became nothing less than the patron saint of France. The cynical modern eye may be a bit skeptical about the accuracy of some of the reported achievements of St Martin of Tours – but all would have to agree that the stained glasses are commendable works of art, at the least.

The story of the Cathedral itself is quite an interesting tale in resilience. It was first built from 337 to 371, burnt down almost 200 years later, restored again – only to be burnt down again when Louis VII had a spat with the King of England, Henry II in the 12th Century. Somewhere within this testosterone-filled angry exchange that led to the burning down of the cathedral was Elinor of Aquitane who married Louis VII first before switching over to Henry II amid a lot of chat about her not being able to bear a male heir, or her being too closely related to Louis, depending on who you spoke to then. It was all a bit murky – was it that she was barren? Incestuous? That she had a fetish for monarchs? Immoral and disrespectful of church authority? Not quite clear. Whatever it is that happened, the cathedral was razed to the ground yet another time.

Through various phrases and the work of several architects between the 12th and 16th century, the current imposing catherdal took shape and was dedicated to Saint Gatien, the first bishop of ‘the see’ of Tours.

It’s a great piece of architecture with a fascinating history, intricate detail that one can easily miss – and interesting stained glass windows.

Like a lot of the old architecture of Tours, it is beautiful to see both during the day and even more so in the still of the night. (The night time lighting of monuments is something that Tours takes pride in, and actually mentions in their city promotion material. It is certainly well worth leaving the hotel room to have a look at all the monuments at night.)