The Church of St.Hilary the Great was built in honor of the one of the earliest and most important French Christian figures, Hilary of Poitiers, who was pivotal in the spreading of Christianity into Northwestern Europe. Although constructed nearly seven centuries after his death, Hilary’s tomb was moved within, and the church became an important stop on the pilgrimage roads of the Middle Ages. It is one of several ancient and historic churches in Poitiers, including the city’s baptistery, which was actually built by Hilary during the 4th century. The Church of St. Hilary the Great is part of the Routes of Santiago de Compostela UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Hilary of Poitiers was one of the first great leaders of the Church during the post-Nicaea era. With Christianity recently legalized, Hilary was among the first Christian leaders to be able to work freely, without the constant threat of persecution hanging over his head. He was a key figure in establishing Christianity in Poitiers and spreading the Gospel throughout the Roman province of Gaul. In his later years he served as bishop of Poitiers, possibly the first man to hold the post. Hilary was believed to have been a married man at the time.
While Christians were finally free to worship openly during his lifetime, the Church was faced with the threat of a great schism between its Cathlolic-Orthodox and Arian factions. Like most of the great Christian leaders of the time, Hilary was an ardent anti-Arian, and he became famous throughout the Christian world for his staunch efforts in opposing the heresy. Hilary was also a prominent and prolific theologian, and while he is not considered one of the four great doctors of the Catholic Church, he was the earliest to have lived who later received the designation. His death in 368 was believed to be a peaceful one.
The Church of St. Hilary the Great in Poitiers is the primary namesake church of the city’s most famous Christian resident. Although not constructed until the 11th century, it was home to the relic of St. Hilary from the Middle Ages through the French Revolution. It is unknown whether or not the church was built over the tomb or if the body was interred there at a later time. The Church became a major pilgrimage stopping point thanks to its proximity to the pilgrimage road that ran to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
Unfortunately, this medieval structure was the target of violence several times during its history. In the 16th century it was assaulted by Hugenots. It is believed that Hilary’s corpse was taken from the church at this time and destroyed. It was later ransacked again during the French Revolution, though it was restored a century later. While Hilary is no longer interred here, the tradition of his tomb being on the site, along with the countless pilgrims who have visited the place over the centuries, keeps it one of the more popular Catholic shrines in central France.
The city of Poitiers is a veritable museum of magnificent Romanesque architecture, and the Church of St. Hilary the Great is no exception. Although it has been damaged and repaired numerous times over the years, the core of the church essentially dates back to its original construction in the 11th century. The exterior features classic features of the period, such as detailed carvings incorporated into the masonry work.
The interior of the church, which is largely built of white stone and enjoys considerable window exposure, has a surprisingly light and airy feel for a medieval church. Interior decorations include more exquisite masonry carvings, as well as frescoes dating back as far as the construction of the original building. While the body of St. Hilary is no longer interred within, a shrine marks the location where his sepulcher was once located in the crypt.
The Church of St. Hilary the Great is located close to the old city center of Poitiers, approximately 190 miles southwest of Paris. The church is open Mondays through Fridays from 9:00am-7:00pm. There is no cost of admission. Web: http://uk.poitiers-tourism.com (official tourism website of Poitiers)
Poitiers was one of the earliest and most important Christian centers in west-central France during the Roman era. It was clearly one of the most crucial points from which Christianity spread into Northern France. As such it boasts some of France’s most historic Catholic sites. Most noteworthy is the Baptistry of St. John, a mid-4th century chapel which was constructed under the supervision of St. Hilary. It is now believed to be the oldest Christian structure in France. Also in Poitiers is the Church of Notre Dame-la-Grande, the world’s oldest existing Romanesque church building.