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Pau’s Saint Martin's Church is an all-around artwork whose architecture, décor and furniture were entirely designed by Emile Boeswillwald between 1861 and 1871. The church was built due to the necessity to replace the old Saint Martin's Church, which had become dilapidated and too small.
Its architecture reflects the movement started in France by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who considered the early 13th century to be a “golden age” of aesthetics. His influence can especially be seen in the spire on top of the belfry and the flying buttresses on each side of the chancel. The church is built entirely with stone from Angoulême—almost white and subtly cut around the openings.
Inside, a vast transept projects from the nave covered by ogival vaults. The transept features high-relief sculptures created by Adolphe-Victor Geoffroy-Dechaume. Together they form a tetramorph, which is an arrangement of the symbols for the Four Evangelists: the lion for Mark, the eagle for John, the ox for Luke, and the angel for Matthew. Their unusual positioning at the top of four columns may have been inspired by the famous lion at St Mark’s Square in Venice.
The ambiance drastically changes as you reach the chancel and side chapels, where simplicity is replaced with a myriad of details and colours. The flooring is made of multicoloured inlay marble, while the walls and ceiling are painted with brightly coloured designs featuring gold gilding, undoubtedly commissioned by the architect Boeswillwald himself. Depictions of scenes from the life of Christ can be found in the chancel’s blind arches, painted on canvas in Paris before being applied to the wall using the technique of marouflage to make them look like frescos.
At the centre of the chancel, the ciborium is a gem characterised by true exuberance, inspired by the Neo-Byzantine style. Driven by his passion, Boeswillwald went as far as to design the organ case himself.