A place full of history
Sixteen centuries of history for an abbey that overlooks the Yonne. The Abbey of Saint Germain is an outstanding example of this, with some of the oldest wall frescoes in France.
A ROMANTIC FIGURE
Germain was born in the Auxerrois region around 378. Born into a family of wealthy landowners, he had the chance to study hard. To do so, he went to Autun and then to Rome. There he learned the arts of speech and became “one of the great orators of his time”.
According to tradition, when he was 30 years old, he was named provincial governor, the high point of his career in the imperial administration.
In 418, on the death of St. Amatria, Germain, designated as his successor, was appointed bishop by acclamation of the crowd. He then devoted himself to the service of the Church and led a pious life.
He also donated most of his possessions to the church in Auxerre.
A contemporary of Saint Patrick, to whom he is said to have given instruction around 420, he also played an important role in the life of Saint Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris, whom he supported in her religious vocation.
St. Germain fell ill and at the age of about 70, he died on 31 July 448. In accordance with tradition and his last wishes, a funeral convoy was organised to bring Germain’s body back to Auxerre.
He was buried in the Saint-Maurice oratory that he had founded, on the site of the present crypt.
FROM THE 6TH TO THE 18TH CENTURY
Although the origins of the Abbey date back to the 5th century, the oldest preserved buildings date from the 9th century.
These are the Carolingian crypts located under the abbey church. They still house the sarcophagus of Saint Germain as well as a set of wall paintings considered to be the oldest wall frescos in France.
The monastic buildings are architecturally varied, as evidenced by the 12th-century chapter house, the 14th-century cellar and the 18th-century cloister.
The former Romanesque aisle of the abbey church, destroyed in the 1810s, has been the subject of archaeological excavations. An archaeological crypt allows visitors to discover the results of this research.
Throughout the year, the Abbey, City of Speech and Sound, hosts numerous cultural events, as well as the collections of the Museum of Art and History and temporary exhibitions.
Germain, then a high official of the Roman Empire, was named bishop of Auxerre. For 30 years, he was an active defender of the faith and a protector of his city. According to tradition, he founded an oratory devoted to Saint-Maurice on a hill outside the Gallo-Roman city walls. He was buried there on 1 October 448.
According to tradition, Queen Clothilde decides to enlarge the oratory to make it a sanctuary worthy of Germain’s holiness. A large basilica was built (50 metres long). It was given the name of Saint-Germain.
The presence of a community of monks observing the rule of St. Benoit is attested by written sources. The first monastic buildings are constructed. This is the birth of Saint-Germain Abbey!
9th century: under the protection of the Carolingian kings, and in particular that of Charles the Bald, Saint-Germain Abbey experienced the most flourishing period in its history. Lay abbots close to the ruling family succeeded one another at the head of the abbey and royal diplomas granting it privileges multiplied. The abbey was home to a renowned training centre, called the “Ecole d’Auxerre”, where great masters such as Rémi, Heiric and Haymon d’Auxerre (author of the “theory of the three functional orders”) distinguished themselves. It was during this period that the crypts were built, which still contain a series of remarkable frescoes.
Under Abbot Jean de Joceval, the reconstruction of the abbey church begins. Partly financed by Pope Urban V, former abbot of Saint-Germain, the transformation of the church into a radiating Gothic style was completed around 1398.
IN OCTOBER 1629
The monks of the Saint-Maur congregation moved to the abbey to reform monastic life and ensure stricter observance of the rule of Saint-Benoit. Their reform was accompanied by a campaign of major works, including the restoration of the refectory, the dormitories and the cloister galleries.
IN THE 1790S
Following the handing over of the clergy’s property to the nation and the abolition of religious vows, the last 11 monks of Saint-Germain Abbey were forced to leave. Thus ended more than 1000 years of monastic occupation. The buildings of the abbey were left to decay.
IN OCTOBER 1810
A decree announces the rehabilitation of the abbey as a civil and military hospital. The first patients moved in in 1826. The monastic buildings were transformed to meet the new needs, and part of the old nave and one of the towers of the church were destroyed (the remains of which can still be seen in the archaeological crypt).
FROM 1964 ONWARDS
The patients of the Saint-Germain hospital were progressively transferred to the new city hospital, and the last department closed its doors in 1982. At the same time, the enhancement of the abbey as a heritage site began. In 1927, the Carolingian frescoes in the crypts were uncovered. In 1971, the abbey was classified as a Historic Monument and in 1988, the Museum of Art and History moved into the former monastic buildings.