Once there was a fine Roman city, Tolosa, and just outside its walls was a temple to one of their gods. Over the centuries, the city became Toulouse, and where there was once a temple, there’s now a concert hall. The building that was once outside the city walls is now quite definitely part of central Toulouse. What happened in all those years in between?
The first thing was that in the 4th century the Romans left Tolosa, pursued by the Visigoths. And Visigoth Christians (who resembled Cathars more than they did the official Catholic variety) used the temple site to build a simple church. You can still see and visit its foundations today, and its ancient sarcophagi holding the bones of the long-dead.
This church building served its purpose for many years, until the 10th century, when the count of Toulouse gave it over to the Benedictine order whose most important monastery in the area was at Moissac. And they built and extended the church which was and is known as Saint Pierre des Cuisines. Nothing to do with kitchens. The word is a corruption of the word ‘coquinis’ – artisans, of whom there were many in the busy streets nearby.
Over the years, the church became more important as a parish church to the local population, rather than as a centre of worship for the Benedictines, so in the 16th century, the church became the property of the silent order of Cistercians. 18 monks had the use of the church and surrounding land and buildings. Their simple uncluttered contemplative life was in stark contrast to that of the nearby citizens of Toulouse, crammed into the narrow overcrowded streets where they lived and worked.
The church continued to be used as a religious building until the Revolution. Then, as for so many other churches, another secular use had to be found for it. And one was. The nearby arsenal was the local home of the army, and they took over the building to use it for … cannon ball manufacture. When this slightly inglorious use for the building came to an end, it remained unused until the University of Toulouse took it over during the 20th century. Eventually the funds were found to restore it, and the building is now a concert hall with magnificent acoustics. So it’s now an established asset of the conservatoire, and part of that area of the university campus still known as the ‘arsenal’, in memory of its history.
It’s a beautiful and austerely simple building from the Romanesque and early Gothic periods, and a contrast with the other church we went to see just round the corner. This church, Saint Pierre des Chartreux was begun in 1612 to meet the needs of the Cistercians who had moved to the site. It has a very unusual feature. The high altar is right in the middle of the nave. Why? So the parishioners could worship at one end of the church without being able to see the contemplative Cistercians at the other end of the building. Much of the church is decorated in restrained grey and white stucco work, though there are stained glass windows by Louis-Victor Gesta, whose work is in several city churches, and ancient hammered ironwork.
Whilst in the area, walk round the corner and see the remains of the old Cistercian cloisters. Little is left, but there’s enough to show that a meditating monk would get a decent work-out by doing a single circuit.
And now it’s time to wander off and explore the little streets nearby: you’re never far from a lunch-spot in Toulouse.
We discovered these monuments and learnt their story courtesy of Elyse Rivin and one of her Toulouse Guided Walks.