In the Sainte-Croix district, which lies mid-way between the Saint-Michel quarter and Saint-Jean railway station, there are a number of...

The abbey, the fountain, the wall and the statues: the sights of Sainte-Croix

In the Sainte-Croix district, which lies mid-way between the Saint-Michel quarter and Saint-Jean railway station, there are a number of unusual sights to take in. Here is the Invisible Bordeaux guide to four of those sights, bearing in mind that they are all interconnected in many ways.

Sainte-Croix church 

This magnificent church was originally an abbey that formed part of a Benedictin monastery whose roots can be traced back to the 7th century. As with many churches, sections have been added over the course of time: the right-hand bell tower dates back to the 12th century, whereas the left-hand bell tower is a relatively recent addition, conceived as it was in the 19th century by the architect Paul Abadie, who we have already encountered on the blog and who is perhaps best-known as the man behind the famous Sacré-Coeur church on the heights of Montmartre in Paris. 

The exterior is a remarkable succession of impressive details, such as the hundreds of individual carved figures above the main door. And I’ve always been a bit of a fan of the sculpture of Saint George slaying the dragon, which can be spotted over to the left-hand side of the main façade.

One of the most characteristic features of the church is its organ. It was originally installed in the 1740s by one of the abbey’s monks, one Dom Bedos de Celles. The organ was considered to be so good that, in 1812, the archbishop of Bordeaux decided he wanted it to be moved to the city’s cathedral. A straightforward “organ swap” and each church installed the other’s organ, as it were (other than the cabinets, which remained in place). In the 1970s, the cathedral decided to commission a new organ and the original Dom Bedos creation was transferred back to Sainte-Croix in 1984. The move as overseen by organ specialists Pascal Quoirin, who meticulously followed instructions drafted by Dom Bedos 250 years earlier. The relocation was a success and is regarded as a milestone event in the recent history of organs!

Sainte-Croix fountain (also known as Fontaine des Bénédictins)

In the grounds behind the church, known as Square Dom Bedos, a Baroque style dressed stone fountain which is now dry can be spotted, its twin staircases leading down to the basin which lies below ground level. It was first installed here in 1735 by another group of Benedictin monks, who were decidedly productive during that period! The fountain was listed as an historic monument in 1890, the year after the nearby abbey monastery building was converted, by architect Alphonse Ricard, into the city’s Ecole des Beaux-Arts.

The fountain is a veritable work of art, with various carved figures to take in, a pair of rather magnificent columns, the word “pax” prominently displayed towards the top, and a pleasing sense of symmetry that wouldn’t look out of place in the grounds of a royal residence. The piece is topped off by a shell-shaped motif. The fountain’s main initial purpose was to embellish the old city wall which ran alongside the grounds of the monastery, and that is our next stop.

Remnants of the old city walls

Over the course of its history, Bordeaux has gradually expanded, and in medieval times the fortified city walls had to be revised and rebuilt to keep up with the city’s outward evolution. The section of wall that can be viewed here is referred to as Bordeaux’s “troisième enceinte”, in other words the third-generation city wall. It was erected between 1302 and 1307 at a time when Bordeaux was under English rule. So, in a way, this is a little bit of England in Bordeaux!

Looking at it today, it is not too difficult to imagine archers positioned on the wall, their heads peering above the parapet to protect the city from intruders. On the city side of the wall, doors are positioned either side of the fountain. What could possibly be behind those doors? Another section of the “troisième enceinte” city wall can be found just a few hundred metres away. Invisible Bordeaux investigates the subject, one of the city’s hidden gems, here

École des Beaux-Arts

We finish up outside the École des Beaux-Arts, the city’s fine arts college. Within the grounds, near to the aforementioned fountain, a fine wrought iron gate can be admired. It is among the features retained by Alphonse Ricard when he overhauled the building ahead of the educational establishment moving in. Another door also proudly displays the word “pax”, a carved legend from the Benedictin monks’ era that has stood the test of time. But perhaps the most surprising exhibits are to be found outside the main entrance to the Ecole, where several pieces are on display and used by students for their artistic projects. To visitors, it feels more like walking into an archaeologist’s dream.

There is an elegant frontispiece that (according to a ground-level plaque nearby) was originally designed to end up on Place de la Bourse, sculpted by Claude Francin, whose work does indeed grace the buildings on Bordeaux’s most picture postcard-friendly square. Other sources suggest it was part of the "Porte Neuve" decorative gate that used to stand in the Capucins district. Which version is correct? And there are four statues, “muses” which stood atop the Grand-Théâtre until they became so weather-beaten that they had to be replaced by newer versions of themselves (in all likelihood around the end of the 19th century). It is fascinating to be able to have a closer look at these figures which remain the direct counterparts of the famous opera house statues that can only really be viewed from ground level and therefore from a certain distance.

> Find them on the Invisible Bordeaux map: Sainte-Croix church, Sainte-Croix fountain and city wall, École des Beaux-arts. 
> NB: Square Dom-Bedos (where the fountain is located) is only open daytime until 6pm and is closed at weekends.  

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