Of all of the great Catholic pilgrimage destinations in northwestern Europe, few have a history that can compare with the Basilica of Saint-Pierre-Aux-Nonnains. One of the only fully intact Roman-era buildings in Europe still standing, the basilica has served as a spa, a Benedictine chapel, a royal mausoleum, a church, a warehouse and a concert hall. It is also considered to be the birthplace of Christian music. The basilica has witnessed, and survived, the ravages of dozens of major wars, from the Germanic and Hun invasions of the 5th century to the World Wars of the 20th century. If there is any church in the world which has truly experienced the entirety of French history, it is probably this one.
The Basilica of Saint-Pierre-Aux-Nonnains, one of the oldest churches in the world still standing, was not actually constructed for use as a church. Erected sometime in the 4th century AD, it was originally part of a Roman-era spa when Divodurum, the former name of Metz, was a major military and trade center along the Germanic frontier. Specifically it was used as a pagan gymnasium when Christianity in Western Europe was still in its infancy. It was one of the few buildings in the city to remain standing after the Huns passed through in 451 AD.
Metz was an important cradle of Frankish civilization, with both Merovingians and Carolingians tracing their ancestry to the place. After the conversion of Clovis I to Catholicism, Metz became a Christian stronghold. During the 7th century, the old Roman gymnasium was converted to use as a Benedictine church. During the reign of Charlemagne, Metz was almost chosen as the capital city of the newly founded Holy Roman Empire, an honor which was instead bestowed on nearby Aachen. Neverthless Charlemagne was apparently fond of the old church, and two of his sons were buried in what would later be designated the Basilica of Saint-Pierre-Aux-Nonnains.
On an odd side note, around the same time the basilica at Metz played an interesting role in European music. According to tradition, Charlemagne desired to promote the preservation of musical traditions in Europe, including the devising of away to commit music into a written form. The task fell to musicians in Metz, under the direction and patronage of the Church. Some of the earliest, if not the earliest, codified music in Europe was produced here, so that the Basilica of Saint-Pierre-Aux-Nonnains is regarded to be the birthplace of Christian, if not all European, music.
Amazingly, the original Roman structure remained essentially intact throughout the Middle Ages. Apparently by the 16th century the old edifice was showing its age, and the Church moved out. It then spent over 400 years in service as a warehouse: a perfectly intact thousand-year-old building, one of the best preserved Roman constructions in the world, was then used for storage. Thankfully, its historical importance was recognized in the 1970s and the basilica was restored. It is now used primarily as a concert hall, a fitting tribute to its medieval musical heritage.
The Basilica of Saint-Pierre-Aux-Nonnains is one of the one of the greatest surviving examples of late Roman architecture anywhere. It was originally constructed in the early- to mid-4th century for use as a gymnasium for an adjoining Roman spa. The building is essentially intact, and the exterior appears much today as it did nearly 1,600 years ago. It consists of a typical Roman basilica layout, with a long main building approximately four stories tall with a peaked roof. Remains of additional Roman- and Medieval-era structures surround the church, including a colonnade from the church’s Benedictine period.
The interior is much less Roman in appearance than the exterior, as the whole place was renovated in the 10th century, and again in the 20th century. Although still designated as a Basilica by the Roman Catholic Church, the building’s use nowadays is for musical functions and exhibitions. It is certainly an ideal place to see Gregorian Chant music performed.
The Basilica of Saint-Pierre-Aux-Nonnains is located close to the Mosel River about a half mile southwest of the cathedral and the old city center of Metz, about 200 miles east of Paris. As of this writing no visitor information was available. Web: http://tourisme.metz.fr (official tourism website of Metz)
While Metz was home to some of the oldest church buildings in the Holy Roman Empire, little survives beyond the ancient basilica. Nevertheless there are a number of other interesting Catholic sites in the city, notably the Cathedral of St. Etienne de Metz, which boasts the world’s largest stained glass windows, three of which were executed by famed Jewish artist Marc Chagall.
Really interesting and clear explanation! Excellent introduction with a flair for detail.
Howard Kramer says