During the first few centuries of our era, the gallo-roman town of Juliomagus, « the market of Julius », covered an area on the left bank of the river Maine. In the place later occupied by the Church of St Martin, a north-south road separated two built-up areas. Around the site of the road, archaeologists have brought to light the remains of earth and wood dwellings, a gallery supported by pillars and, further to the west, levelled ancient walls, all of which bear witness to a dense occupation of the site.
During the troubles at the end of the third century, the urban habitat withdrew inside a protective wall and shrank to nine or ten hectares. The residential area on the site of what is now St Martin's was then replaced by a burial ground.
From the 5th to the 7th centuries : the first churches
A first basilica was built as early as the 5th century. With an apse at one end, it was a plain rectangular structure to which extensions were added in the following century. A third building erected at the end of the 7th century testifies to a gradual enlargement towards the east. This latter church reflected a much more ambitious project than the former, with the addition of a wide transept. The adoption of this layout in the form of a cross conferred a whole new dimension on the church, probably built by Saint Loup, bishop of Angers.
Today, the foundations of these early churches can be seen in the archeological crypt.
From the 9th to the 11th centuries : the Carolingian church and the intervention of Foulques Nerra
In the 9th century a new church was erected on the site. The walls of the transept and the choir were built on the exact lines of the previous building while the layout of the nave, entirely reconstructed, was very similar to what we see today. Now a good-sized church, its large arches, typical of the Carolingian style alternating brick and tufa stone, form the transept crossing.
At the beginning of the 11th century, upon seeing the church « in such a piteous state it was hardly enough for two priests to serve God », Foulques Nerra, count of Anjou from 987 to 1040 and his wife Hildegarde, decided to start restoration work. It was then that the cupola at the transept crossing, with its supporting columns and capitals decorated with interlacing patterns and foliage, was put in place. The painting imitating a gothic ribbed vault was not carried out until the second half of the 13th century.
Foulques Nerra and Hildegarde also installed 13 canons at Saint Martin's « to serve God in this place », thus creating a collegiate church.
The Gothic transformation of the 12th century
In the 12th century the Carolingian choir was extended in gothic style. The initial work aimed to transform it by exploiting the 9th century walls and capping them with ribbed vaulting.
Later, the apse and second bay were built by masons who had gained in assurance. The choir thus became a superb example of the Gothic « Plantagenet » style, characterised notably by the more domed aspect of the ribbed vaults. At the base of each rib are statues, or rather copies, the originals having been on display in the museum of Yale University since 1926. The numerous capitals are decorated principally with foliage and with animals or monsters interspersed.
The Chapel of Angels completed the Gothic reconstruction. Here you can see the original sculpted consoles and a rich display of wall paintings.
René and the transformations of the 15th century
St Martin's greatly benefitted from the generosity of « Good King René », duke of Anjou from 1434 to 1480. At the end of the Middle Ages, the walls of the transept were raised and a new wooden ceiling put in place. The painted panels can still be seen today and preserve the coats of arms of territories claimed by René : Anjou, Aragon, the dukedom of Bar and many others.
At the same time, a « confessio », used to house sacred objects and reliquaries, was built in the choir in the flamboyant Gothic style, the gift of Hermann de Vienne, former doctor to René of Anjou, but equally dean of the chapter of St Martin's. He was buried in 1491 in the Chapel of Angels.
The upheavals of the Revolution
The chapter of the collegiate church was dissolved in 1790. After being abandoned for several months, the building lost its religious function and was put to various uses, most notably as a wood store then as a warehouse for tobacco administration. None of which prevented it from deteriorating rapidly. In 1828 the roof of the nave collapsed as did the upper level of the belfry a year later. What remained of the cloister disappeared in 1847 – 1848, and the construction of a building in front of the church brought about the demolition of the porch and facade.
Research in the 19th and 20th centuries
In 1835 Prosper Mérimée, at the time archaeologist and inspector general for France's Historical Monuments, discovered the church in a pitiful state. Immediately recognising the architectural merit of St Martin's, he tried in vain to convince both the municipality and the bishop to restore the church to its true function. In a letter to Ludovic Vitet (the first inspector of public monuments) he expressed a wish which would only come true 140 years later: « we can only make out with difficulty a remarkable building abandoned and practically inaccessible to the curious on-looker. Would it not be possible to obtain an agreement from the département to buy it and preserve these few relics of a time which has left so few authentic traces ? »
In 1902 – 1903 the eastern end of the church was bought by the Canon Pinier, superior of the neighbouring St Maurille day school, now the lycée St Benoit. After the Second World War it became the school chapel. The nave, surrounded by buildings, remained a courtyard.
For ten years, Canon Pinier cleaned and restored the church and organised archaeological excavations. After the church gained its classification as a Historical Monument in 1928, the American archeologist G.H. Forsyth visited on several occasions during the summers between 1929 and 1936 with the intention of building on previous research.
From 1986 : renaissance and re-opening
In 1986 the département of Maine et Loire acquired St Martin's and committed itself to an ambitious project, completed in 2006, of study, restoration and enhancement of the building. The twenty years of archaeological research enabled a better understanding of the history of the monument, emblematic of Anjou's cultural heritage, and made it possible to restore the architectural volumes of the Medieval building. Since June 2006, the collegiate church with its programme of cultural events has been open for the public to enjoy.
A new reception area built in 2019 at the side of the church, is the latest construction to date. This strikingly modern extension improves the conditions for receiving visitors and frees the interior of the monument which has now recovered all of its original architectural glory.