Scattered across the endless Aubrac plateau or huddled among the hills of the Quercy Blanc, the region's Romanesque churches vie for our attention. They are everywhere: more in Midi-Pyrénées than almost anywhere else.
In Midi-Pyrénées, 11th and 12th century Romanesque art is rich, diverse and subtle in its manifestations. But purely in terms of bell towers, the region features mainly campaniles, freestanding square towers one or two storeys high containing windows in gemelled arches.
One example is the Basilica of Saint Just de Valcabrère at the foot of the Pyrenees (Haute Garonne), a graceful echo of the Cathedral of Saint Bertrand de Comminges that dominates it. Others include the melancholy chapels in the Dourbie Gorge (Aveyron), testament to the purity of the early Romanesque period, and the Andorran-influenced Romanesque churches of Ariège.
Saint Sernin's in Toulouse: the influence of a great edifice
The major work of this period is the Basilica of Saint Sernin in Toulouse. Consecrated in 1096, it is France's largest Romanesque building.
Its remarkable octagonal bell tower is 5 storeys high. The first three storeys are Romanesque and the top two are Gothic. The building of Saint Sernin's was so influential that this basilica became the inspiration for most of the bell towers erected in the Toulouse area up to the 15th century, which also demonstrates the region's ability to invent its own style.
Indeed, when Gothic art arrived in Midi-Pyrénées from the Paris region in the 13th century, it developed its own twist on the 'French' style. Almost the only example of the Parisian style is in Rodez Cathedral, which as a result stands out as a marvellous exception.
Sainte Cécile's in Albi : the might of the Southern Gothic style
Midi-Pyrénées adopted the best of the Gothic style while remaining true to its Romanesque roots, developing a Southern Gothic art, also known as 'Gothique Toulousain'.
This style is characterised by broad, powerful open volumes, of which Albi Cathedral, completed in 1480, is an impressive example. It also typically involves the use of pink brick and often features an octagonal bell tower or in some cases a wall belfry of Moorish influence. The latter – cheaper to build – in fact became typical of the villages of the Toulouse area as they too absorbed the Gothic influence.
Another distinctive feature of Southern Gothic architecture is the mitre arch, first used in Toulouse in the bell tower of Saint Sernin's but also in the bell tower of the Église des Jacobins.
Mitre arches forming elegant triangular gemelled openings were easy to build and were reproduced almost all over the region, including at Montauban, Montech and Beaumont de Lomagne (Tarn et Garonne), Lombez (Gers) and Rieux-Volvestre, Montgiscard and Villefranche de Lauragais (Haute Garonne).