The Church of the Jacobins is a large brick building whose construction started in 1230, and whose architecture influenced the development of the southern Gothic style. The relics of Thomas Aquinas are housed there. In the two centuries following the dissolution of the Dominican Order at the time of the French Revolution it served various different purposes before undergoing major restoration in the 20th century. In the early 21st century it is a museum.
The name Jacobins is the nickname that was given to the Dominican Order in the Middle Ages. Their first convent in Paris was located in the rue Saint-Jacques, (Latin Jacobus), and that name came to be attached to the order itself.
In Languedoc in the early 13th century, Catharism, which the Catholic Church considered a heresy, was strong and growing. In 1215, the future Saint Dominic founded in Toulouse a small community of monastic preachers to combat the heresy, and starting in 1230, the monks began the construction of a small church in which to preach. Built entirely of pink Roman brick, this first building was half as long and half as high as the present church, and very simple in design, in line with the order’s vow of poverty. It consisted of a double nave, one side for the monks, and one for the congregation, separated by pillars and screens.
Over the next century, as congregations grew, the church was enlarged and embellished. Between 1245 and 1252, it was extended with the addition of a choir with side chapels. Between 1275 and 1292, the height of the choir was increased, and a vaulted roof constructed. In response to the technical difficulty posed by creating a vaulted roof for the new space, the builders installed one oversized column in the centre from which the ribs radiated outwards in all directions. This feature has come to be known as Le Palmier des Jacobins, the palm tree of the Jacobins.
Between 1275 and 1315, the height of the choir was increased, and high windows created above the chapels. The seven-storey bell tower was also added at this time. Starting in 1325, a new, higher vaulted roof was constructed for the nave in order to bring it into line with the choir. The last component of the century-long expansion of the church was the construction of the chapel of Saint Antonin (separate from the church itself), between 1335 and 1341.
Following the French Revolution of 1789, the Dominican order was banned, and the monks forced to leave. In 1804 the conventual complex including the church became the property of the city of Toulouse, and in 1810 the emperor Napoleon requisitioned the church and converted it into a barracks. Floors were installed to create upper storeys for dormitories, while stables and an armoury occupied the ground floor. During the period the building served as a barracks, the stained glass windows were destroyed, and the medieval paintings in the choir were painted over with whitewash.
Citizens who were appalled at the destruction succeeded in 1861 in convincing the army to move to new barracks. In succeeding years, the building housed an exhibition of Arts and Industries (1865), served as a playground for the pupils of the nearby Lycée Fermat starting in 1872, and as a place to safely store treasures from the museums of Paris during World War I.
Several periods of restoration work were undertaken over the course of the 20th century. In 1905 the floors installed by the army were removed; starting in 1923 blocked windows were uncovered and stained glass installed; between 1953 and 1963 the chapels were reconstructed; and between 1965 and 1974 the whitewash covering the medieval murals was removed. Today it functions as a museum.References:
From 1239, Raynaud, the Bishop of Quimper, decided on the building of a new chancel destined to replace that of the Romanesque era. He therefore started, in the far west, the construction of a great Gothic cathedral which would inspire cathedral reconstructions in the Ile de France and would in turn become a place of experimentation from where would later appear ideas adopted by the whole of lower Brittany. The date of 1239 marks the Bishop’s decision and does not imply an immediate start to construction. Observation of the pillar profiles, their bases, the canopies, the fitting of the ribbed vaults of the ambulatory or the alignment of the bays leads us to believe, however, that the construction was spread out over time.
The four circular pillars mark the start of the building site, but the four following adopt a lozenge-shaped layout which could indicate a change of project manager. The clumsiness of the vaulted archways of the north ambulatory, the start of the ribbed vaults at the height of the south ambulatory or the choice of the vaults descending in spoke-form from the semi-circle which allows the connection of the axis chapel to the choir – despite the manifest problems of alignment – conveys the hesitancy and diverse influences in the first phase of works which spread out until the start of the 14th century.
At the same time as this facade was built (to which were added the north and south gates) the building of the nave started in the east and would finish by 1460. The nave is made up of six bays with one at the level of the facade towers and flanked by double aisles – one wide and one narrow (split into side chapels) – in an extension of the choir arrangements.
The choir presents four right-hand bays with ambulatory and side chapels. It is extended towards the east of 3-sided chevet which opens onto a semi-circle composed of five chapels and an apsidal chapel of two bays and a flat chevet consecrated to Our Lady.
The three-level elevation with arches, triforium and galleries seems more uniform and expresses anglo-Norman influence in the thickness of the walls (Norman passageway at the gallery level) or the decorative style (heavy mouldings, decorative frieze under the triforium). This building site would have to have been overseen in one shot. Undoubtedly interrupted by the war of Succession (1341-1364) it draws to a close with the building of the lierne vaults (1410) and the fitting of stained-glass windows. Bishop Bertrand de Rosmadec and Duke Jean V, whose coat of arms would decorate these vaults, finished the chancel before starting on the building of the facade and the nave.
Isolated from its environment in the 19th century, the cathedral was – on the contrary – originally very linked to its surroundings. Its site and the orientation of the facade determined traffic flow in the town. Its positioning close to the south walls resulted in particuliarities such as the transfer of the side gates on to the north and south facades of the towers: the southern portal of Saint Catherine served the bishop’s gate and the hospital located on the left bank (the current Préfecture) and the north gate was the baptismal porch – a true parish porch with its benches and alcoves for the Apostles’ statues turned towards the town, completed by an ossuary (1514).
The west porch finds its natural place between the two towers. The entire aesthetic of these three gates springs from the Flamboyant era: trefoil, curly kale, finials, large gables which cut into the mouldings and balustrades. Pinnacles and recesses embellish the buttresses whilst an entire bestiary appears: monsters, dogs, mysterious figures, gargoyles, and with them a whole imaginary world promoting a religious and political programme. Even though most of the saints statues have disappeared an armorial survives which makes the doors of the cathedral one of the most beautiful heraldic pages imaginable: ducal ermine, the Montfort lion, Duchess Jeanne of France’s coat of arms side by side with the arms of the Cornouaille barons with their helmets and crests. One can imagine the impact of this sculpted decor with the colour and gilding which originally completed it.
At the start of the 16th century the construction of the spires was being prepared when building was interrupted, undoubtedly for financial reasons. Small conical roofs were therefore placed on top of the towers. The following centuries were essentially devoted to putting furnishings in place (funeral monuments, altars, statues, organs, pulpit). Note the fire which destroyed the spire of the transept cross in 1620 as well as the ransacking of the cathedral in 1793 when nearly all the furnishings disappeared in a « bonfire of the saints ».
The 19th century would therefore inherit an almost finished but mutilated building and would devote itself to its renovation according to the tastes and theories of the day.