A sacred place for thousands of years, the Aix-en-Provence cathedral has become a religious landmark in the region. The imposing church features large proportions combining three styles of architecture (Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque) with a few elements taken from the Roman era. Today, Aix cathedral is listed as a national monument and its location in the Old Town makes it one of the most visited sites in the Provençal town.
History of Aix Cathedral
Legend has it that Aix Cathedral was built on a pre-Roman pagan sacred site which was replaced in the Roman era with a temple devoted to Apollo.
There were several interruptions during the construction, due to wars, plagues and lack of finance, which explains the combination of different architectural styles which make up Aix Cathedral as we know it today:
- Roman in the baptistery and its eight antique columns (5th or 6th century);
- Romanesque in the south side aisle (from the 11th century) where massive and regular stones originate from the missing Roman Forum;
- Gothic in the rest of the building with a flamboyant element in the main portal (16th century); and
- Baroque in the north side aisle, added to later in the central nave in the 17th century.
The original construction dates from around 500 with a small oratory named “The Saviour’s Transfiguration” which was later enlarged due to the increasing number of believers. Commissioned by Bishop Basilius, it comprised a group of episcopal buildings including a chapel, a baptistery and other rooms.
In 731, the Saracens destroyed the city of Aix as well as the sanctuary which was rebuilt only in 1057 under the orders of Rostagnus, Bishop of Aix and Benedictus, the Cathedral Provost. The cathedral was dedicated in 1103.
Benedictus had a cloister built next to the cathedral where he established himself with other monks living under the rule of Saint Augustine.
The vast choir gallery was rebuilt in 1285 and following new extensions in the 14th century, a new Gothic nave was added to the original Romanesque nave which was then relegated to a side-aisle.
In the 17th century, a new side aisle was added.
The cathedral underwent a major restoration in the 19th century. The high altar with two angels of gilded wood in the Empire style was added in 1805. The nave was redecorated with painted and sculpted neo-Gothic elements added between 1857 and 1862.
Exterior of Aix Cathedral
The western façade of Aix Cathedral, with its flamboyant Gothic portals, seems quite at odds in Provence, where the Romanesque architectural style has traditionally been used for the edification of churches and chapels throughout the region.
The façade is made up of three elements: the early Gothic buttresses flanking the main flamboyant portal and the blank façade of the Romanesque nave to the right.
The buttresses are decorated with long and narrow niches surmounted with pinnacles which serve to make the massive structure of the buttresses less visible.
The yellowish colour of the buttresses is contrasted with the central structure of the portal which was added later.
The portal was built between 1476 and 1513 in Flamboyant Gothic style and stretches out to 46 metres. With the completion of the nave, attention was drawn to the unfinished western façade.
The red doors were carved from walnut and commissioned by the cathedral’s chapter in 1505.
Three tall statues representing the Apostles stand on each side of the door. The statues of the six remaining Apostles are found in the side buttresses to the right and to the left of the portal.
Between the two doors, the central pillar is decorated with a Virgin and a Child statue.
The tympanum above the doors was ruined during the French Revolution and its decorative panel comprising six statues destroyed. Traces of paint are still visible today as a reminder that in the Middle-Ages, most Gothic portals were colourful.
Three archivolts close the tympanum: a ruined one, a frieze with ten bearded elders depicting the prophets of the Old Testament and the last one representing angels.
The statues of the façade, believed to depict the kings of France, were beheaded and their original heads lost. They have since been replaced by those which can be seen today.
The two doors and the tympanum are surmounted by a fine gable, the two curved sides of which end in a shape evoking something like a curly cabbage.
Above the main portals and the gable is a fine stained-glass window created in the 19th century, which is flanked on each side by two statues.
The façade is finished with a Gothic balustrade on which stands a statue of Archangel Saint Michael, made in 1507, slaying the dragon with a cross, by Jean Paumier.
The Bell Tower
The 16th century flamboyant façade is surmounted to its left by a 64 metre high bell tower. The foundation work of the tower commenced in 1323 under the direction of Pierre de Burle. Suspended for nearly a century for various reasons, works resumed in 1411 and took 14 years. The base of the bell tower has a squared shape which rises above the roof of the nave. It is surmounted by an octagonal tower intersperced with wide bays on each side. Bells were placed inside the octagonal tower in 1430. For financial reasons, Aix Cathedral has only one tower as in Strasbourg and Troyes whereas a typical Gothic cathedral should have at least two. The bell tower was partly restored in the 19th century.
Interior of Aix Cathedral
The nave is 65.66 metres long and 12.60 metres wide. The keystone rises to 20 metres, which is considerably lower than in other French Gothic cathedrals such as Amiens (42.3 m), Metz (41.77m) or Chartres (37m) cathedrals.
What makes this cathedral very unusual is the triple nave: the north aisle in the baroque architectural style from the 17th century and the left Romanesque aisle which used to serve as the main nave before the construction of the central Gothic nave.
The Choir Gallery
Seat of the bishop of Aix-en-Provence, the Saint Sauveur Cathedral contains a cathedra in the choir gallery, the throne of the Bishop. This modern sculpture features a wavy bronze panel which evokes “God’s breathing in of His own life’s breath in the form of the Holy Spirit to fill the great sail as it surrounds the movements of the waves of life”.
The altar represents the Holy Trinity by resting on three bronze shapes.
The Baptistery Rotunda
The oldest part of the cathedral is the baptistery from the 5th or 6th century which is also one of the oldest in France along with those in Riez and Fréjus. The rotunda of the baptistery is formed by a circle of eight antique columns, including two made from granite and six made from cipollino marble and whose capitals and bases are made from white marble. These Corinthian columns were part of a temple dedicated to Apollo which used to stand in the same place.
The basin dates back to the Merovingian era and is octagonal (a symbol of regeneration). It was fed with the warm waters of the Roman therms.
Under the flagstones are found the vaults of local canons and archbishops.
On one wall, some stones have been removed to reveal a Romanesque fresco.
The baptistery cupola was built in 1579 thanks to the generosity of Canon Jean de Leone. It features fine plaster works and decoration known in French as “gypseries”.
The St. Côme and Damien Chapel
Built towards the end of the 16th century, the chapel works as the narthex of the baptistery. It contains a marble sarcophagus from the 6th century believed to be that of Saint Mitre.
The Chancel Organ
Located on the Gospel wall of the chancel, the remarkable “green and gold” organ case is in the Louis XV style and made of pine. Dating back to 1745, it received its instrument in 1855. It features 38 stops over 3 manuals and pedals. In 1900, the pipework was classified by the Historic Monuments Commission as was the organ case in 1978.
For esthetic reasons, an identical organ case was added on the opposite side – the Epistle Wall – to face each other. This addition is a fake organ: although its organ case is identical in its layout and features with the same painted and sculpted decoration, it is to this day empty!
The Burning Bush Triptych of Nicolas Froment
Arguably the most valuable work of art in Aix Cathedral is the triptych of the Burning Bush that can be seen in the St. Lazarus Chapel.
Commissioned by King René to painter Nicolas Froment from Avignon, it is considered one of the most beautiful 15th century paintings in Europe. Built between 1475 and 1476, it shows a representation of the Burning Bush related in the book of Exodus in the Bible.
The central part of the triptych shows an angel (left) and Moses guarding his flock (right) amazed by the vision of the burning bush on which are seated the Virgin and Child.
The two other parts of the masterpiece depict the art patrons King René and Queen Jeanne kneeling in adoration.
It was designed for the funerary chapel of King René in the Grands-Carmes church in Aix but was moved inside the cathedral in the 19th century.
The triptych has recently been restored but due to its fragility, visitors can only view it wide open on specific days.
The 12th century Romanesque cloister on the south side was built upon an old Roman square believed to date from the 1st century AD.
The cloister is supported by slender columns overlooking a squared garden. It has capitals carved with biblical scenes and symbols such as plants and animals. The four angles are each decorated with carvings symbolising the four evangelists: an angel (Matthew), a lion (Mark), an eagle (John) and a bull (Luke).
The dimensions of the cloister are quite small and the galleries are covered with timber instead of vaults.