Façade de la Cathédrale Saint-Pierre

Saint-Pierre cathedral

Rennes cathedral – a monument in a unique style

The Saint-Pierre cathedral in Rennes is a unique example of a Roman basilica in Brittany. It is an absolutely unmissable monument to see during your visit to Rennes, especially to see the new treasury, in which the crowning piece is an extraordinary 16th-century altarpiece from Antwerp that has just been restored.

Saint-Pierre cathedral – a treasure of Rennes’ cultural heritage

Saint-Pierre cathedral towers over the heart of the historic centre and can be seen from a distance with its two towers, each almost 50 metres tall. Its history is closely linked with that of the Dukes of Brittany, who came here to be crowned after having entered the city through the nearby Portes Mordelaises. The cathedral, which was classified as a monument historique in 1906, has stood for centuries and seen many changes in style, both in its external architecture and its interior decoration, which was recently restored and completed with new statues.

The cathedral is among the unmissable monuments to visit in Rennes. During summer, guided tours are given every Wednesday by the Tourism Office so that you can explore the marvels of the cathedral. Notable examples of these include the pieces of gold- and silversmithing and an extremely rare Flemish altarpiece, which has been returned after a tragic theft in 2007.

Saint-Pierre cathedral has transformed over centuries

Inside the Saint-Pierre Cathedral
Destination Rennes – Franck Hamon

Today, nothing remains of the first cathedral that was built in the 4th century. There are also few surviving traces from the Gothic church built from 1180, apart from an arcade at the rear of the façade. “Despite a very long construction time, lasting over two centuries, the first Gothic cathedral was undoubtedly not well built” says Philippe Bohuon, assistant to the head of architecture and cultural heritage at the Tourism Office. “As of the 15th century, the Gothic façade was in a very poor condition and finally collapsed in 1490. The reconstruction works were then started by Yves Mahyeuc, a Dominican, superior at the Couvent des Jacobins and confessor for Anne of Brittany”. This important figure, who became bishop of Rennes, started a construction site that endured for a long time: the façade was only completed in 1704, after 163 years of building interrupted by religious wars, a lack of money and incessant changes in architects.

The result bears no resemblance to the original façade, nor to the rest of the Gothic cathedral that is still standing. At the time, there were no concerns about differences in style: the new façade is in a classical style with 44 imposing columns made from Chausey granite. The monument’s style is typical for the “Grand Siècle”, even “Baroque”, which later went on to inspire the rest of the building, which was built between the end of the 18th and start of the 19th centuries. Another original feature of the façade, the coat of arms of Louis XIV, the Sun King, is represented on a Tuffeau stone pediment between the two towers. Visible on the façade are five shields belonging to the governors of Brittany, bishops and lieutenants, which represent the political, religious and military powers.

Constructing the new façade took more than a century

“Imagine that the façade we see today was built against a Gothic structure in the 18th century. Building the façade took more than a century, and during this time, the builders were less concerned with the nave and the rest of the structure, which also showed signs of weakness,” explains Philippe Bohuon. “Stones began to fall in the choir. In 1754, it was decided to demolish it as a precaution and to rebuild the structure in the same style as the façade. However, the new construction was only completed in 1844!”

In the interim, the Saint-Yves chapel, then the Saint-Melaine church from 1803, were used as temporary cathedrals. The demolition dragged on between 1756 and 1768 and the work site for the reconstruction, which only started in 1787, also had its own many delays. The French Revolution halted all progress and the works were finally able to start again in 1816.

During this long period, the architects took inspiration from the façade to rebuild the interior based on the model of a Roman basilica. They did this by using the same number of columns on the inside: 44 white granite columns are interspersed throughout the inside of the monument in a pared-down style. Completely unlike what is there today, because a very important figure in the history of the cathedral stepped in right before the end of the works: Godefroy Brossay-Saint-Marc, the new bishop of Rennes, who was continually giving the cathedral a much more ostentatious style.

Changes in the decor according to Mgr Brossay-Saint-Marc

“When Mgr Brossay-Saint-Marc became bishop of Rennes in 1841, the building was still not finished. However, he was not at all happy with the decoration of the inside, as he considered it too austere and thought that the columns were not worthy of a cathedral” explains Philippe Bohuon from the Tourism Office. “Brossay-Saint-Marc wanted marble columns and went on to completely change the inside of the cathedral”.

To totally redo the decor, the bishop of Rennes, who came from a wealthy family that made its fortune in the candle trade, called on the generosity of the faithful. However, he also used his own “network”. As a close friend of Pope Pius XI – the two prelates knew each other well and respected each other – he successfully had Napoleon III, who visited Rennes in 1859, make the Breton capital an archbishopric. Until this point, bishops in Brittany were answerable to the archbishopric in Tours. Brossay-Saint-Marc therefore became the first archbishop of Brittany and the cathedral made Rennes a city. This recognition kick-started a new construction site.

An ultramontan style that is unique in Brittany

Destination Rennes – Franck Hamon

Major works began to transform the interior decor. Carried out by Jobbé-Duval, the Tro Breizh, the region’s iconic pilgrimage, was represented on the nave, the bishop’s palace and in the ambulatory. However, it was impossible to replace the granite columns with marble, so architect Charles Langlois found a solution by covering the columns with stucco to imitate marble. They blocked the windows of the choir and transept and ordered for the full interior of the monument to be filled with stained glass, stucco and gold. This transformed the cathedral into a “ultramontan” neoclassical monument, like a small Roman basilica. It is the only cathedral of this kind, using Roman codes, in Brittany. Even across France, there are few examples of comparable religious monuments, except for Sainte-Marie Majeure cathedral in Marseille and Sacré Cœur de Montmartre basilica in Paris, which are in a more Roman-Byzantine style and date back to the end of the 19th century. Rennes’ cathedral, on the other hand, has been part of the neoclassical period since the first half of the 19th century.

A cathedral is a permanent construction site

Destination Rennes – Franck Hamon

A cathedral is essentially a permanent construction site, which is demonstrated wonderfully by the history of Rennes’ cathedral. Brossay-Saint-Marc also had other immense projects to give ever more grandeur to “his” cathedral: notably, he wanted to have the two towers of the façade crowned with domes. Furthermore, in his opinion, the cupola was not tall enough, so he wanted to add a drum of 15 metres. The department of historic monuments, which had just been created by Prosper Mérimée, had to put a stop to this extravagance.

Construction came to a sudden stop upon the death of Brossay-Saint-Marc in 1878 and even the four statues of winged angels that were intended to overlook the square of the transept were never installed. The hooks remained empty until June 2019, when four statues made specially by the artist Laurent Esquerré took their places during the opening of the new treasury: they represent the tetramorph, as well as the stories of each of the four evangelists. This is a step closer to ending the cathedral’s long history of construction – even if this continues with restoration works on the chapels, the stained-glass windows and the organs to restore to its full glory a Rennes monument that is well worth a visit.

A new treasury

Since summer 2019, visitors to the cathedral have been able to admire its treasures in a new room. The crowning piece is a Flemish altarpiece dating back to 1520. It is a masterpiece that has just been restored to rediscover its original colours and gold. This altarpiece has had its own adventures and finally led to the creation of the treasury. “A dramatic event was needed to spark the project of the treasury again and take it out of storage,” tells Cécile Ouhlen, curator of historic monuments at the Brittany Regional Department for Cultural Affairs (DRAC).

The drama happened in 2007: there was a theft in the cathedral and three reliefs on the altarpiece, which had been displayed since 1872 in a side chapel, were stolen. Some were finally recovered and a long restoration process was undertaken to reveal the original colours of the Antwerp altarpieces, which date back to 1520. Underneath the layer of varnish and patina, the restoration team uncovered the multi-coloured wood of this masterpiece from the end of the Middle Ages. “The Rennes altarpiece has a unique style in the appearance of figures and sophistication of decorations; it has been fashioned from a very solid, slow-growing oak,” explains the DRAC curator.

One of the most beautiful altarpieces from the end of the Middle Ages

It is a wonderful example of an Antwerp altarpiece, which were largely made between 1470 and 1570. From one century of production, there remain 180 specimens in the world and only around 20 in France. The one in Rennes is dedicated to the life of the Virgin Mary and is the only piece of furniture remaining from the Ancien Régime. Although solid, the altarpiece was removed. Following the tumultuous reconstruction of the cathedral, it was first placed in the Sainte-Anne chapel, even left on the floor of the Saint-Melaine church when it served as a cathedral, and then removed and stored in the loft of the episcopal palace. 

Monseigneur Brossay-Saint-Marc had even planned to sell it at auction before finally putting it in the cathedral’s Saint-Melaine chapel in 1872. Several items were stolen in the 19th and 20th centuries. It was protected by a display case from 1975. After a long investigation that made it possible to track down some of its reliefs to museums in Cluny and Riom and restoration by the regional centre of Vesoul, it was showcased in the new treasury, which reflects the character of the monument from the 19th century, the period in which the cathedral’s treasury was built. In addition, a video allows you to follow the different stages of its restoration and telescopes will soon be installed so that you can see the smallest details.

The treasury also holds other remarkable items that are shown in the display cases: gold- and silversmithery, processional crosses, wafer boxes, a rock crystal censer, liturgical vestments and a gold chalice given by Pope Pius IX. There are also many other items that make up a “chapel” and are needed by the bishop for worship. Many of these items on display were commissioned by Brossay-Saint-Marc, and his coat of arms, decorated with a pelican, can also be seen. This figure, who is vital to the history of the cathedral, left his mark on the monument. He is even represented in some of the stained glass. Seeing the treasury is an absolute must if visiting the cathedral to learn about why its history and style are so unique.

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