The Resplendent Baroque High Altar of Saint-Bruno de Bordeaux

One of the most magnificent FSSP apostolates is Saint-Bruno in the port city of Bordeaux. This community in southwestern France boasts one of the most beautiful Baroque altars in the country, an outstanding example of seventeenth century decoration - a triumph of the imagination with statues by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The parish offers an ensemble of Baroque liturgy and music to match, under the patronage of Saint Bruno, founder of the Carthusian order. 

The parish church, built in the 17th century, is located in the city center of Bordeaux. It was the first Baroque church to be build in the city and the property from its inception included a cemetery, the oldest and largest in the city. The f
acade is divided into three distinct parts in honor of the Blessed Trinity. It is notably very tall and narrow, with one entrance door in the middle. Six Corinthian pilasters (a design feature borrowed from the Gesù in Rome), defines the facade. High above the middle in a niche is a stone statue of Our Lady with the Baby Jesus. Above that is a rounded pediment, an architectural element taken from the Pantheon in Rome. Reaching into this is the arms of Cardinal de Sourdis (1574-1628) who was the Archbishop of Bordeaux, the man behind the construction.

Construction of the church began in 1611 when the first stone was laid by Cardinal de Sourdis, in the presence of Henry II de Bourbon, Governor of Guyenne. The Cardinal was fond of Italian art and culture and he was a good friend of Bernini, the famous Italian sculptor, artist, and painter, who also sculpted the Cardinal's bust in 1620. As the leading sculptor of his age, Bernini was no stranger to France. He had visited Paris and for a while was on the list to design Versailles. The church in Bordeaux is a Roman Baroque masterpiece, heavily influenced by Bernini who it is assumed made collaborative contributions to its design. It was completed and consecrated to Saint Bruno on March 29, 1620. 

The Cardinal envisioned a monumental high altar with worthy altarpiece in the apse of the church. His death in February 1628 stopped the work. Work resumed in 1668 with the decoration of the church choir by master architects Julien Foucré and Nicolas Merisson. The year 1672 appears at the entrance to the choir, indicating the date of completion of the work. The sumptuous decoration of the choir is a considerable artistic achievement which recalls the most beautiful religious ensembles of papal Rome. 

The high altar and its massive reredos of immense weight is made of Taillebourg stone from a nearby quarry and polychrome marbles. It includes carven festoons and angels of marble. The reredos presents at its center an image of the Assumption of Our Lady painted in 1672 by Philippe de Champaigne (1602-1674), a classical French painter. The work was completed shortly before his death.

On either side of the high altar stands a statue of the Blessed Virgin on the Epistle side and a statue of the Archangel Gabriel on the Gospel side. These two famous sculptures are attributed to Bernini and his father, Pietro, also a sculptor. These treasures of inestimable value were commissioned and sculpted in Rome between 1620 and 1622, at the request of Cardinal de Sourdis who was then visiting Rome. Gian Lorenzo carved the angel (similarities are evident from his work on Rome's Ponte Sant'Angelo) and his father carved the statue of Our Lady, looking down toward the tabernacle. 

The two massive wings of the altar behind the choir in the sanctuary alternate paintings and statues in their round installed in niches. They represent on the left Saint John the Baptist and Saint Charles Borromeo; on the right, Saint Joseph and Saint Bruno. Saint Charles Borromeo and Saint Bruno were sculpted at the beginning of the 17th century by Otaviano Lazeri, an artist of Florentine origin. Saint John the Baptist and Saint Joseph were made in stucco around 1675 by the sculptor Jean Girouard. Inside the church, the decorative program carried out in the 17th and 18th centuries has been greatly admired from the start and thankfully has been preserved untouched.

Interestingly, Saint-Bruno was originally built as the church of a Carthusian monastery, a Charterhouse called the Chartreuse Notre-Dame-de-Miséricorde. The first Carthusians arrived in Bordeaux in 1383 and settled outside the city. Founded in 1605, the monastery also built a hospital next door named for St. Charles. This monastery was tragically closed during the French Revolution with the suppression of religious congregations. The properties of the Charterhouse were then looted, confiscated and sold as national property. This included the cemetery that was despoiled, with the graves of Cardinal de Sourdis and his family members exhumed and desecrated by the revolutionaries. The church was also desecrated by the same revolutionary thugs and in 1793 it, too, was sold as national property. The Revolution gave birth to a new dogmatism more inflexible and exclusive than the old.    

By God's special protection, the church survived the Revolution, as well as the cemetery, which has since grown to cover the grounds of the former Charterhouse monastery. Although the monastery was unfortunately destroyed (an immense cultural loss of titanic proportions), its memory lives on and its ruined entrance remains today as a witness of history. In 1820, after the Revolution, the church was returned to Catholic hands and restored as a parish under the Archdiocese of Bordeaux. Because the new pastor was a Lazarist, the new name chosen was Saint Vincent de Paul and St. Bruno. Thankfully, the church later took back its original name of Saint-Bruno. In 1836 the frescos were restored. The high altar survived the Revolution untouched, a truly remarkable grace.  

Saint-Bruno's is well-known for the resplendent sunlight that streams through its clear Baroque windows, depending upon the time of day and year. This heavenly aspect adds to the other-worldly effect of praying in this beautiful place. Two little cupolas adorn the rooftop of the barrel vault. The design is nothing short of genius.  

Inside, the Baroque ornamentation includes impressive tompe-l'oeil frescoes all along the ceiling, side walls and rear wall (there is no choir loft). The design includes immense woodwork with rare wainscoting along the side walls. The entire composition, interior and exterior, realizes the classical ideal of harmony and proportion, the rhythmic union of form and idea, of color and emotion in a living Baroque entity. From floor to ceiling to altar, in its many contours of marble and wood, all in the fabulously popular style of Bernini, the same artist who designed the interior of St. Peter's Basilica. 

The original pavement and walls have borne witness to thousands of Masses celebrated atop this altar for over 400-years. An incredible testimony of faith. The floor plan of the sanctuary is spacious and accommodates well the intricate and more solemn rites of the Latin Church, with perfect acoustics and a solid marble altar rail. 

Bordeaux is a world capital of wine and has always been a city of luxury and all the best that France has to offer. This beautiful church is part of an incredible link with the past, and with Baroque culture, a movement that integrated asceticism with mysticism through the common media of art and liturgy. Baroque art is the most important expression of the Counter-Reformation, a great and international phenomenon that manifested the ecstatic mystical power of the spiritual, a union of heart and head that appealed to the masses and still does today to the educated. This is in sharp contrast to the Enlightenment, the last of the great heresies, which produced a land of barren landscape. 

Saint-Bruno continues a tradition of art and liturgy in the Baroque footprint, a vibrant testimony to the survival of Catholic culture amid a background of triumph and tragedy, with a memory for the past. I pray readers of this article might one day experience Sunday Mass here, a tour de force of Catholic culture, amid an enchanting landscape of castles, vineyards, and other beautiful sights of Bordeaux. God bless and preserve this wonderful community of believers in the glorious Kingdom of France.  


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