The basilica of Saint-Michel contains some remarkable Gothic style stained glass windows, among them a traditional rendering of the Tree of Jesse, illustrating the long ascendancy of Christ. Even more astonishing are the contemporary stained glass artworks. In fact, Bordeaux was bombed on June 21, 1940, the explosions blowing out large parts of the bays of the basilica. At the end of the war, efforts were made to restore the city’s splendour and a competition was launched in 1954 for the creation of new windows.

In the Service of Traditional Iconography

While touring the basilica one discovers the works of the artists Pierre Gaudin and Jean-Henri Couturat and their depictions of the great episodes of the life of Christ and some of the great saints in the history of the Church. They thus take up the classic themes of the religious iconography of stained glass in a resolutely modern style.

Pierre Gaudin – The Baptisme of Christ (click to enlarge)

Pierre Gaudin would be in charge of the 11 windows of the north and south collaterals. He is the heir to the famous Studio Gaudin in Paris, created by his grandfather, who after showing his talent in his hometown Clermont-Ferrand acquired an international reputation at the 1900 Universal Exhibitions held in Paris.

Two notable examples of Pierre Gaudin’s works are The Massacre of Innocent Saints, whose bluish tones and elements borrowed from cubism – a style typical to the artist – bring out the dramatic cruelty of the scene. In The Baptism of Christ, on the other hand, the bright and warm colors underline the subject.

– The Basilica is a must-visit place for anyone who is on the road to Compostela in Spain and arrives in Bordeaux

Jean-Henri Couturat – The calling of Saint-James (detail – click to enlarge)

Finding ourselves in the ambulatory next to the choir – walking in the footsteps of the pilgrims of yesterday – we stop in front of a stained glass window dedicated to Saint James (Saint Jacques). Indeed, the Basilica is a must for anyone who is on the road to Compostela in Spain and arrives in Bordeaux. It is Jean-Henri Couturat who gives an account of the vocation of the saint in a window of the same name. Here, the artist, a painter of classical formation and laureate of the Prix de Rome, returns to the traditional composition of the vertical stained glass window. The softness of the line of the artist contrasts with the brutality of the style of Gaudin.

Abstraction Allows for Intimate Interpretation

Finally, after a tour of the Basilica, we will be contemplating the decidedly contemporary and abstract windows in the apse (choir) created by Max Ingrand. This French artist was certainly one of the most prolific in the years between 1945 and 1965. His prodigious creativity took him to more than 200 sites throughout France and abroad, including numerous renown cathedrals and castles. In Saint-Michel, he is also the author of other stained glass windows, such as the ones in the south transept.

Max Ingrand

The stained glass windows of Saint-Michel are not the only outstanding elements of this basilica so dear to Bordeaux, but they constitute a remarkable concentrate of the new artistic forms that appeared in the second half of the 20th century. The artworks, ranging over brutality, softness, abstraction and saturated colorimetry, are symbols of a post-war Europe rebuilding itself and seeking its identity in the wake of the horrors of war.

The abstraction, in contrast to the aforementioned figurative scenes, allows for free rein according to the sensibility of each viewer, supported by the subtle play of shapes and colours.

World Heritage

Saint-Michel, first classified Historic Monuments in 1846, was elevated to the rank of minor basilica in 1903, before joining the list of Unesco World Heritage sites in 1999, under the Routes of Santiago de Compostela in France.

The French version of this article was first published in February 2019. Original text by Blanche de Balincourt
All photos by Asgeir Pedersen, Spots France