Saint-Saturnin : the Priest, the Minister’s Mother and the High Altar

1. Contemporary installation of the choir
in the church of Saint-Nectaire after
the removal of the neo-Romanesque high altar
Photo : Virginie Vandier

The wave of vandalism affecting French churches in the 1960’s up to the early 1970’s was devastating. The pretext claiming to apply the directives of Council Vatican II was used as a practical excuse for as we know, Italy for example, did not undergo anything of the sort. In order to "observe" the new liturgy, the clergy aggressively removed church furnishings under, at best, the indifferent eye of administrative officials for historical monuments. Thousands of objects (pulpits, high altars, pews...) were at times placed elsewhere, often simply destroyed. The trend was a return to "pure" religious buildings...
Is the practice now back in style ? There is cause for fear given recent events in certain churches in Auvergne, sometimes with the consent of the French Ministry of Culture.

2. Choir in the church at Ponteix
before the removal of the high altar
Photo : Balade dans le Puy-de-Dôme

3. Choir in the church at Ponteix, today
Photo : Virginie Vandier

4. The high altar in the church at Ponteix
relegated to one side and left without sculptures
Photo : Virginie Vandier

Two years ago, during a restoration campaign for the large Romanesque churches in Auvergne, the neo-Romanesque altar by the architect Victor Ruprich-Robert, dating from the 19th century, located in the church at Saint-Nectaire was eliminated. It was replaced by an altar and pews in a very appropriate pistachio green color as seen in the photograph (ill. 1). The term "ESPACE SACRE CHOEUR" [Sacred heart/choir space] was obviously added as a much-needed reminder of the choir’s original purpose, that is to house the tabernacle. The altar in the small church at Ponteix (ill. 2 to 4) recently suffered the same fate. The photographs show the way it was literally massacred : a beautiful high altar was replaced by a cube and relegated to one side, damaged and deprived of its sculptures (where are they now ?). The church of Notre-Dame-du-Port in Cermont-Ferrand, and the one at Orcival were subjected to the same vandalism in the 1970’s.

5. A view of the church of Saint-Saturnin
Photo : GO69

Today the church of Saint-Saturnin (ill. 5), currently undergoing restoration, wishes to recover its "Romanesque purity" (no doubt in a green pistachio shade). To do so, the high altar taking up space in the choir needs to go ! The parish priest and the Commission diocésaine d’art sacré have thus decided to remove it and replace it with a new contemporary altar without for the moment presenting a detailed project, as confirmed by Didier Repellin, Inspector for historical monuments.
There is however a slight problem : the entire church was listed in 1862 and the high altar in 1875 (ill. 6). Quite old, it is made up of an altar dating from the late 18th century, surmounted with an even older altarpiece (16th or 17th century) including a tabernacle. According to the Palissy entry, this was a gift from Queen Marguerite de Valois at the time she lived in the château of Usson. In fact, not much is known about its historical background. Despite a lack of evidence, some claim that it came from the chapel of the local château but it is also possible that it was produced for this spot where it fits perfectly though its flat back leads others to think it was designed for another location, such as a wall. In any case, it is historically linked (at least since the 19th century) to this church, at this exact spot.

6. The high altar in Saint-Saturnin
Photo : C. B.

In order to move this high altar, the Direction Régionale des Affaires Culturelles must give its authorization. This is where Mrs. Marie-Claude Hortefeux steps in. The name must sound familiar to the French since she is the mother of the former Minister of the Interior under Nicolas Sarkozy. We should not therefore be surprised to learn that at the time, the minister himself decided to call Arnaud Littardi, Directeur régional des affaires culturelles, as well as the Minister of Culture, Frédéric Mitterand, who in turn called the director. The removal of the altarpiece thus became a matter of state and, on 8 February 2011, the DRAC, representing the Minister of Culture, granted its authorization, on principle, to remove this altar which had stood there since at least 1875, and most likely even longer. We attempted to contact the DRAC offices several times but they stubbornly refused to respond to our inquiries. After sending an email addressed directly to the Director for cultural affairs the same day this article appeared, asking him in particular if it was true that he had authorized the removal of the altar and the reason for scrapping a high altar protected by a listing as a historical monument, we received the following answer : "Moving a listed object does not mean scrapping it, rather changing its location. The DRAC would never authorize the removal of a listed object without ensuring its safety and conservation."
No one is claiming that the DRAC is not concerned with the safety and conservation of the high altar. But the director appears to believe that an altarpiece located in a church is the same as a museum object to be moved around according to whim, and not fixed property due to its function, with a specific purpose and location.

In late January 2012, some residents, angered by the project, created the association Sauvegarde de l’église Saint-Saturnin in order to actively oppose this removal.
The situation is now particularly tense between, on the one hand this association, and on the other, those supporting Mrs. Hortefeux, the priest and the Commisson d’art sacré. Caught in the middle, the city mayor, Mrs. Nicole Pau, seems very upset. We got in touch with her to find out her opinion. She said she did not wish "to be caught up in politics which do not concern her". When we pointed out that this indeed concerned her since city hall owns the church and she would in fact be considered responsible for the project if the altarpiece is moved (for which she needs to give her permission), she stated : "I forbid you from quoting me because I can also attack" !

7. The high altar in Saint-Flour cathedral
Photo : Monuments historiques

This is beginning to resemble a vaudeville skit except that the stakes are actually very important. The value of our churches does not reside only in the quality of their architecture. Their valuable furnishings accumulated over the centuries, unless foolishly destroyed, are an essential element of their charm and history which should be preserved in their original location. The Minister of Culture is supposed to guarantee their conservation. Once again, the safeguard of our heritage seems to be in the hands of its citizens : Saint-Saturnin has about 900 inhabitants and the association now includes 300 members. On 14 September, an "information" meeting will take place with the DRAC and the project developers, although the mayor has already said she refuses to participate. We are now waiting for the French Ministry of Culture to play its role and refuse, once and for all, to have the altarpiece moved. We would like to remind them that this was the case in 2010 when the clergy attempted to get rid of the Baroque high altar in the Saint-Flour cathedral (ill. 7), in the Cantal region. But perhaps that was because there was no meddling from a minister’s mother...

Version française

Didier Rykner, mercredi 1er août 2012

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