Jan 09

Orbais l'Abbaye, Abbaye St. Pierre

1170-1210 France, Orbais l'Abbaye (Marne)

Although a torso since the early 19th century the Abbey church of St. Pierre in Orbais still is a splendid example of French early Gothic architecture, offering an interesting mélange of workshop styles from St. Remi in Reims and the cathedrals of Laon and Soissons. Besides the architecture Orbais l'Abbaye is also famous for its stained glass windows executed in two campaigns between 1180 and 1260.

Orbais l'Abbaye, Abbey church St. Pierre
Approaching Orbais Abbey from the west towards the rebuilt facade of the early 19th century (Sept 2014)

Orbais Abbey was founded by Saint Réole, archbishop of Reims, as a house of Benedictine monks in the years 677-680. The abbey survived the Norman invasion of the 9th century and was eventually rebuilt in the late 12th century, probably to give room for the increased number of people living in the monastery. The abbey church of the early 13th century consisted of the choir and transept still subsisting today, followed by a nave of eight bays and a facade flanked by two towers. Shortly after the Treaty of Troyes, signed 1420, the abbey was devastated by the English which lead to fortification works at the towers and the facade. It was probably in consequence of these works that people started to speak of the western parts as the "vieux château".

Continuing decay lead the nave to collapse in 1651/52 and restauration work was undertaken after the Abbey had joined the congregation of Saint Maur in 1667. Following the sale of the former parish church St. Prix in the south of Orbais, which was tranformed into a fodder silo in 1793, Orbais Abbey became the new house of prayer for the villagers. The ancient western facade served as lieu for the peace tribunal and was finally demolished in 1805. By 1810 also the cloister and all conventual buildings were practically gone.

Begun as early as 1167/1170 and most probably favored by donations of the dukes of Champagne, the reconstruction of the abbey church in Orbais counts amongst the finest examples of Early Gothic architecture in Champagne. Looking at the arcades of the choir which probably represent the oldest parts of the building, the resemblance with St. Remi in Reims (1165/70-1200) is pretty striking. The capital ornaments and the treatment of the wall, on the other hand, provide an equally convincing link to the cathedral of Laon (1160-1215). Another notion materializes in the clerestory windows where two lancets are being crowned by an oculus in as much the same way as in the nave of Soissons cathedral (1210-1230).
It would be wrong, however, to consider Orbais a purely eclectic building based on these comparisons. They rather bare witness to the close entaglement of the Orbais workshop in the traditions of its home territories. Virginie Inguenaud provides some more insights on this topic in her article on Orbais.

Remarkable Works of Art and the Monastery Garden

Besides its architectural beauty Orbais Abbey is famous for its stained glass windows dating from 1180-1220 as well as for the carved choir stalls, donated by cardinal Louis de Bourbon-Vendôme in the year 1525.

To be honest, I don't properly recall why I left the church without taking photographs of all the works of art inside when we visited Orbais in September 2014. Maybe I needed a coffee or felt hungry after a full day of walking about in towns and churches.

For those of you who feel really sad about not being able to see the windows and stalls, here's a helpful link.


Strange enough I came back with a number of photos of another feature of the abbey church which isn't even mentioned in any of the guides and articles I've been reading on Orbais: the monastery garden. You'll find it right at the corner of the south transept and nave. It isn't particularly big, but well-tended and displays some of the most common herbs you'll expect to find in such a place. Fortunately the person who cultivates the garden seemed to be familiar with the sort of botanic ignorant I can't deny to be - just look at the neat handwritten plates denominating the plants.


There's quite some literature on Orbais, starting as early as the 19th century. In order to get a quick but comprehensive overview I recommend Virginie Inguenaud's article on Orbais in the Guide du Patrimoine Champagne-Ardenne, edited by Jean-Marie Pérouse de Montclos, Paris 1995, p. 245-248.
Another more recent study is provided by Dany Sandron in his great book, Picardie gothique. Autour de Laon et Soissons. L'architecture religieuse, Paris 2001, p. 295-304.
Alain Villes focuses mainly on the different building campaigns in his article entitled "L'ancienne abbatiale Saint-Pierre d'Orbais", published in Congrès archéologique de France.135e session. Champagne. 1977, Paris 1980, p. 549-589, but receives some criticism by Dieter Kimpel and Robert Suckale, who deal with Orbais only briefly but, as usual, come up with some interesting observations: Die gotische Architektur in Frankreich 1130-1270, Munich 1985, p.213, 293, 527.