French Basque Country Typical Churches
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French Basque Country Typical Churches

The French Basque Country religious architecture was at its zenith at the end of the 16th century, and remained lively even in the 19th century. It has an original style, owing a large part of its appeal to the virtuosity of its carpenters. We are going to visit the Labourd, Basse-Navarre and Soule Regions.

The French Basque churches, in their white limestone and solidly buttressed, would resemble nothing so much as well-built  farms if they were not given away by their towers in the middle of the village. Their simple but truly attractive façades owe much to their modesty as they loom up out of the verdant hillside. The apse may be in angled sections, as at Saint-Fructueux Church in Itxassou, or semicircular as at Ainhoa. Sometimes, the belfry is no more than a stone wall with arches in which the bells hang; though it may also recall the great Romanesque towers, sturdier in the Labourd Region, higher in Basse-Navarre. A very large porch traps the west wind and reminds the faithful that the house of God is also the house of men; benches are placed so that the villagers can meet and sit there. 

When you open the door, you are suddenly faced with a precious world. The golds of the altar-piece shine out in the gloom and a painted ceiling, hiding the carpentry of the roof, reflects its own colours. Two or three superimposed galleries of oak, with carved balustrades, run around the nave; here the faithful will come to attend divine service. This arrangement is typical of the Labourd Region and is found in the smallest villages there, and extends into Basse-Navarre, but is virtually unknown in Soule.  The retable at the end of the choir is adorned with coloured wooden statues.

The richest, perhaps the most luxurious of these churches, Saint-Jean-Baptiste at Saint-Jean-de-Luz, was the scene of the marriage of the Sun-King on 9th June 1660 with the Infanta, in the heart of this richly dressed court and countless men at arms. This vast rectangle, panelled  and with a wooden floor, ends with a monumental altarpiece with striking gold-varnished twisted columns, and saints in three rows. Martin de Bidache was the artist responsible for this masterpiece. The nave here is like an upturned boat, it recalls the maritime activities of the townspeople. Saint-Jean-de-Luz was a port used by pirates as they went about their business in Louis XIV's reign. 

Iholdy church, is another typical example of the local style with its outside wooden gallery, its graveyard and the façade designed for pelota game. Above the half-timbered houses with their added wooden balconies, the curious tower of Ciboure church seems to protect this fishing village where trawlers prepare to leave the port. 

Church of Saint-Fructueux at Itxassou - Photo here :

Church at Ainhoa - Photo here :

Church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste in Saint-Jan de Luz. The typically Basque interior with galleries and gilt retable.

Image source:

Retable of Saint-Jean-de-Luz. Photo here :

Portal of Saint-Jean-de-Luz Church. Photo here :

Church of Iholdy. Photo here :

Retable of the Church of Ciboure. Photo here :

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Comments (1)

Hi Francois, happy to see your beautiful articles again. Wishing you well, Ron.