The current Basilica of St. Martin of Tours is, depending on how you count, at least the sixth church built over the tomb of this popular French saint. Martin, along with his contemporary Hilary of Poitiers, was instrumental in the establishment of Christianity in Western Europe, as well as halting the spread of Arianism. The current incarnation of this church honoring St. Martin was constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, making it one of the youngest major Catholic pilgrimage shrines in Europe. The Basilica’s predecessors were traditionally part of the Routes of Santiago de Compostela, though the current church is not included as part of the UNESCO site.
Martin of Tours was a contemporary and acquaintance of the other great French saint of the period, Hilary of Tours. While Hilary was perhaps more important from a historical perspective, Martin was undoubtedly the more colorful of the two. Born in Hungary into a family of Roman aristocrats, his father was a cavalry officer, and Martin was brought up to follow in his footsteps. It is likely that he saw service in battle against the various Germanic tribes that were then harassing Roman territories in Western Europe.
According to tradition, Martin was leading a force near modern-day Amiens in France, when he shared some clothing with a beggar. He subsequently had a vision of Christ, who recognized Martin’s generosity even though he was at the time still a pagan. He was baptized shortly thereafter, became a pacifist, left the army and became a faithful Christian. He served as a disciple of Hilary in Poitiers, eventually became bishop of Tours, founded a monastery there, and became one of the most important champions against heresy in the history of France.
Hilary was the dominant Christian figure in Gaul in the second half of the 4th century, a crucial time when Germanic barbarians were threatening the western frontiers of the empire. Because of his military service and his ability to rally people under the Christian banner, Martin is often recognized as a protector of France. After his death, his gravesite in Tours became a pilgrimage destination. An early chapel was constructed there in the early 5th century.
Because of its popularity, the first chapel was replaced with a larger basilica around 470. It was replaced by successfully larger buildings in the 11th and 13th centuries. In 1562 it was sacked and nearly destroyed by Hugenots, restored in the 17th century, and nearly destroyed again in 1793 by Aetheists during the French Revolution. In 1860, the relic of Martin was rediscovered, and a new basilica (the current one) completed in 1924.
The Basilica of St. Martin of Tours is a relatively young but architecturally stunning church of neo-Byzantine construction. Unlike the majority of major Catholic shrines in Europe, which are generally older with expansions and renovations, the basilica is almost entirely less than a century old. Only two older church towers, which are not architecturally integral to the new church, are still standing. The exterior design is strangely reminiscent of many European synagogues of the period.
The basilica interior is impressive, with white-stone walls, magnificent floor mosaics and stained glass windows featuring scenes from the life of Martin of Tours. The crypt where the saint’s remains are interred is almost entirely new, with no visible traces of the Roman-era sarcaphogas in which he was originally buried.
The Basilica of St. Martin of Tours is located close to the old city center of Tours, approximately 120 miles southwest of Paris. It’s geographic proximity to and historic connection with Poitiers makes it a perfect combination visit with the Tomb of Hilary of Poitiers. The basilica is open daily from 7:30am-7:00pm. There is no cost of admission. Web: www.basiliquesaintmartin.com (official website)
Tours is one of France’s classic cathedral cities. The Cathedral of Tours, with one of the most breathtaking façades in the world, dominates the city skyline. Several French monarchs are entombed within the cathedral.