Entering the nave through the elaborately carved door entry, one is reminded of most Spanish Cathedrals and a few others because by being confronted with a large Rood Screen (Jube) walling off the chancel. These are rare in old French churches having been destroyed after the Reformation (exceptions are the open one at St.-Etienne du Mont in Paris, Brou in Bourg-en-Bresse and the rood beams in Bretagne. See our Tips for each). Beside hiding a view of the chancel, the screen also walls off the ambulatory as it does at Notre Dame in Paris. To relax the religious misery of having to look at the west end, Louis I immediately had the vaulting painted with frescos(1409-12) by artists from Bologna done in elaborate detail with expensive azure and gold, covering all of the New Testament , including parables, almost unending., with a different treatment between each vault rib. Above the west end mural is a great organ with an elaborate case covered with musical cherubim from 1734, updated and still in active use.
When Bishop Louis I d’Amboise first decided to decorate his church (1480), he immediately realized that the west front was already finished on the outside and did not look like others. He could not use a tympanum to educate and lecture his flock. Somehow (undoubtedly with the help of Cluny) they located a group of painters who created one of the largest pictures ever made on the inner surface of the brick walls of the west end. They did not cover it with plaster and create a fresco but devised materials based upon egg-yolk as both binder and adhesive incorporating ground pigments applied directly to the brick. The mural has the layout of a magnified version of the tympanum of the Last Judgement at Conques (See our Tips there).There appears to be nothing like it elsewhere in the world, and it still is in its original state with very little attempt at repair. The largest disruption to it occurred in the late 17C when the central midsection was removed to provide an entry to the St. Clair Chapel under the belfry. This section contained Archangel Michael with his scales plus Mary and St. John. Nobody knows who the artists were but it is suspected that they were originally trained by Flemish artists in Burgundy. One or more unidentified “Flemish” masters were around such as the Master of Moulins (Jean Hey; see the Rolin Museum in our Autun Tips). Documents say they were French. At any rate the characters have a liveliness and expression very akin to the work of Bosch and van der Weyden (they were never in these parts). The blessings and sins (with details of the tortures) are delineated in the captions. The punishments for the sinners are easy to see. Above the banner on the left is Heaven with 12 white robed Apostles with a crowd of notables (big-shots who made it like Charlemagne). Just below the banner are the Saved with the Book of Life in their hands. Where did the artist(s) get the source iconography? There is nothing but speculation.
By 1500 Albi had become wealthy due to the growing of woad, a yellow-flowered plant from which a modest amount of the valuable indigo dye could be extracted. Many rich merchants were building fancy abodes and Bishop Louis I embarked upon the beautification of his church starting with the Last Judgement mural on the west wall of the nave in 1480. His last work, started in 1520, was an entry door and porch covered by a canopy, all in carved stone, completed by successors, Bps. Gouffier and Duprat. in 1535. (Their coats of arms are above the door). The stone work has strong Burgundian styling; the choir statues were provided Cluniac workers; my sources are otherwise mute. It is of course Flamboyant Gothic. The roof of the canopy is an intricate design of ribbing. This carries down onto the pseudo-tympanum whose horseshoe arching is studded with Angel statues and swirling columns. The Virgin and Child are at the center. The porch on which all this stands is reached by a long set of stairs that stretches from the older entry gate through which one climbs to enter
The west front of the cathedral is like no other, especially of that time. Instead of portals and an elaborate tympanum, it was tightly closed by a large 15+ m square donjon-like structure which rose only three levels to the roof line. The inner walls are anchored to the rounded buttresses with two more on the outer edges. It was sealed from the nave by a large wall which formed thed the ground for the Last Judgement Mural. In 1485-92 Bishop Louis I d'Amboise, at the time he was ordering the Last Judgement, also had the tower heightened to 78m , by adding another square level plus two octagonal ones. The inner buttress towers were extend whilr small flying buttresses were attached laterally. In oder to get a good view of this, we went around to the west of the church to the r. du Castelviel, but to our dismay the lower levels were covered by scaffolding. For a good picture of this side see the kokoryko Things Tip of 3/8/09.
In 1265 Bishop Bernard de Castanet, who was the Inquisitor for the region (and the number 2 Inquisitor of France) believed that the Cathar heresy was still smouldering. in spite of the incineration of 1244. Accordingly, he modified the Episcopal Palace in construction to a fortress-type of dwelling including a Donjon (today’s Palace de la Berbie). In 1271 he reinstituted the Inquisition; the adjacent 12C church was demolished and the new Cathedral was started in 1282, built to be both protective and demonstrate the unassailability of the church. Much of the money was extorted from “suspects” as proof of their innocence. (Incidentally the architects of this unique church are unknown). It took just over 100 years to finish the basic building. The West Facade was a square Donjon, 3 levels high with no Portal (the present portal covered in another Tip). The structure inside is one vast single aisled nave. The supporting buttresses run through the wall and appear on the outside as rounded columns, while on the inside they extend as partitions between the chapels. Their bases slope outward just as they would in a true fortress. Tall narrow windows appear between them starting 20 m above the ground running up to the (original) roof line. (In the mid-19C the Cathedral was heightened by another 7m when a new roof and reinforcing of the vaulting were done, plus adding a parapet and decorative gargoyles. This can be seen in the lighter color of the newer brick). The church is of completely of red brick like most of the structures built in Albi. This is because stone quarries are quite distant from the town and it was considered too dangerous in the 13-14C to transport such materials for this purpose. The apse is rounded and like the sides. This made the interior quite dark and in the 14C , when dangers had evaporated, a set of lower windows were cut into the walls to help. On the south side to the east of the canopy there is a red brick crenellated tower and a stone portal above a short flight of stairs. This was the first decoration of the original doorway added between 1392-1410 by Bishop Dominique de Florence who is seen in this tympanum being presented to Ste.-Cecile by his patron saint. Below the embrasures were filled with statues but the Revolution has left only one of St. John.
Dare to have a . . . . . rest in Roman toilets! Gentlemen have a rest, go in restrooms, toilets, and ladies go to powder their nose in restrooms, check their appearance or do what they have to do. Roman toilets were latrines, there was no mixing of sexes, as they were common rooms, seats next one to the other, and we do not know if the original Roman here were for male or female. . . . .
In fact the Fontaine Verdusse is an old fountain known here since antique times, and the Roman laid it out, but despite my words above, nothing gives hints there were latrines; it is today a public toilet, and that made me think of roman latrines! So, have a rest in a roman fountain would be more suitable.
This fountain has been built and re-built several times and when you go down the steps inside, it appears to you as it was in the beginning 20th century; at that time it was still used by washerwomen who worked next to big basins fitted with washboards (picture 2); now they are decorated with some plants (picture 3) . The water is not anymore flowing from the lions’ heads (picture 1) as it was in the past as this drawing shows (picture 4).
Well, serious tip: if, in emergency, whilst visiting the old city, you do not want to step in a café or waste time looking for a public toilet, you can run to the Fontaine Verdusse!
Fontaine Verdusse is located at the crossing of Rue Verdusse and Rue du Général Sybille, North west corner of Place La Pérouse, next to the fountain where you will see this modern Siren (picture 5); a small sign indicates “Toilettes publiques”.
Bishop Bernard de Castanet knew exactly what he wanted when he ordered the construction of the cathedral and how it should be built: size and style! The construction of Ste Cecile began in 1282 and the main building was achieved in 1383.
Bernard de Castanet wanted a symbol of strength and power of faith and Roman Catholic religion; Catholicism was the truth, the real faith, it was hell and paradise, and after subduing the local lords and people a strong and spectacular symbol was needed! In some way he more than succeeded in building this cathedral; not only is it impressive by its size, shape, style, using brick for making a massive and very fine gothic (if that is possible, massive and gothic!) style, but it is a real jewel of gothic architecture, with the very high windows, the elegant belfry, and the walls with the half round towers. . . .
What Bernard de Castanet wanted is that the former Cathars (I am “preparing” something about a Cathar tour in southern France), who did not have churches or official priests, could see the cathedral from everywhere in the city, feel that the Catholic Church was watching them, a bit like a “Big Brother”. Let us walk in the streets. . . . We have seen that the cathedral dominates the city, and can see it from far; but in the narrow streets, you cannot escape the cathedral, “she” is everywhere. . . . On the main picture, from the gardens on the west slope of the city, in the narrow streets (picture 2), from the backyards or gardens of the houses of the old city (picture 3, picture 4), you cannot escape her.
From the other side of the city (South East on picture 5), in more modern surroundings, the belfry is watching you; most cathedrals, of course dominate their city, but I wrote the lines above, as it is the first time I had that feeling of “domination” next to a cathedral, probably caused by its “military” style; this being said (written!), walking in the streets of Albi is very enjoyable, and after some time it is even fun or nice to see the cathedral again and again, and in some streets, if you do not see it you will miss it. . . . really! And amazingly, looking that big and massive, it is not a big building finally, compared to many cathedrals of Northern France, with its 113 metres length, 35 metres width and 40 metre high walls; well, the walls are 2.5 metres thick. . . .
Near the southern entrance of the old city, between Place La Pérouse , rue de la Berchede and boulevard du general Sibille, is an open area, at the entrance of which is a fountain with a bronze statue (picture 1); nothing exceptional, just a change from the medieval art we have seen all day; good is to walk to west, under the trees, and soon you will be in front of the war memorial (picture 2); it is always a sad view for me, and here too; note just that this big arch is mainly built with bricks, just a bit white stone to give some relief and the plaques where the names are engraved are also white limestone. Not really art, just red bricks, and to finish the visit today, a look at some tropical plants on the massifs between the streets; laying out gardens and parks is also art, so banana trees and bamboos (picture 3). Albi is located in southern France and the climate allows to grow some plants with tropical origins. . . .
Ah I wrote a few words about the Cathars in the intro ; almost nothing from that period is left in Albi, except some names and it is now more a commercial argument rather than any other thing; if you are looking for a summer house, even cathar estate agents offer their services (picture 1); but Cathars had no external artefacts or signs like crosses, so the crosses above the window have no meaning, despite their original shape.
To the contrary, you will see in Occitania many crosses like the one on the sign on picture 2, and generally red coloured; this is the Occitan cross.
I wrote: you cannot escape the cathedral; even turning your back, you will see “her”, like here in the windows of the half timbered brick houses in some small narrow street (first picture).
Many houses are half timbered brick houses, but some are rendered and painted with more or less pastel colours; another characteristic of local architecture is the small size of the individual houses, and to win a bit space, the first floor is advancing on the street for half a metre or so (picture 2); and in the quiet street the inhabitants do not hesitate to put plants in pots, giving some rural charm.
In more central areas, the houses are bigger, higher, the closed balconies (corbels) advance more on the streets (picture3).
Walking in red streets, is just nice, there is a particular light, even when the sun is not with you; and see little towers, like in rue St Loup (Saint Wolf!) (picture 4) and enjoy the arcades of Place du Cloître St Salvy (picture 5). Ah, just walk, and see the little details here or there, you will always have something to see, and you camera will be busy!
If you come to visit Albi with a car, you will need to find a parking place, and I can recommend this one, as it is close to the old city centre and, getting out of the car you will discover the first interesting vistas and perspectives. . . Here, arches, straight lines, bricks. . . .
On the first picture is the belfry, a bit modest this time, beneath an arch of the railway bridge; on the second picture, from the parking area, you see in the foreground the railway bridge and in background the rue du Castelviel bridge which reaches the area north of the cathedral; I recommend to walk down a bit and walk up along the arcades de Bondidou located just right of the picture; there (picture 3), you have now arches in three directions, and you see the street you will walk up to the old city. You still can have a look at the belfry (picture 4), and when you will walk up the small street, you will not loose its view, and you still will walk in a red brick ambiance, but the arches now are vegetal (picture 5). . . . .
Flamboyant gothic . . . . in fact at the southern entrance of the cathedral you can have an introduction of what is awaiting you when you will enter the cathedral; there is a baldaquin (in French!), a four poster arch, which is a contrast to the austere brick building. The carved arches and vaults (picture 1) are just an exquisite example of flamboyant Gothic architecture, so light, aerial. . .
Angels and apostles stand next the pillars, and you notice (picture 2) the rich detailed carvings, the helical pillar, and the window, on the left with the Virgin in front. Experts may identify easily each apostle or angel, as they are in very good conservation condition (picture 3).
An interesting sundial is on the western side of the entrance (picture 4); this sundial gives only the hours of the afternoon, and not as usual, with the shade of the stick, but with the shade of the lower branch of the star at the end of the stick; but it gives also the inclination of the earth vis a vis the ecliptic, the seasons, the months. . . . To see the morning hours, go to see the sundial on the eastern side. . . . and. . . promised, I will make a picture on a sunny day next time. . . . ! :-) !
At night (picture 5), the baldaquin looks very nice too, and the plays of light and shade give another dimension to Gothic architecture. . . . .
When you walk in the cathedral looking at all the marvels, you will of course notice the vaulted ceiling, and the very rich and detailed paintings; guides write you are in presence of the biggest fresco of the world! Well, impressive is the size, but more impressive is the work it contains, all the details, the numerous stories which are represented, the symbols and allegories, and. . . . . the blue! This blue is said to be unique too; Italian artists from Bologna painted the fresco between 1509 and 1512 and nobody since dared make a single restoration or a change; in some places, the paints look like they had been done yesterday! Would not be the risk to get a stiff neck, you would not stop looking at for long minutes, or even hours. . . . . Real marvels which are so wonderfully integrated in the gothic geometries of the ceiling!
On the first picture (ah! I should buy a wide angle lens one day!) you see the ceiling of the nave, with the golden vaults and you have an idea also of the proportions of the nave, with the high walls and the rather narrow very elegant nave; if you travel with binoculars, here is an opportunity to use them, as the paints are so detailed that you need them if you want to identify the biblical scenes which are mainly represented there.
A detail here (picture 2) where old and new Testament are close by, with apparently the annunciation to Maria, King David, Zacharias. . . . and this interesting angel with multicoloured wings, like a parrot. . . . . and tens and tens of little details everywhere. . . . . Above the choir, Christ and the four evangelists (well, their symbols. . . ) on Picture 3. Other details of the ceiling somewhere, are shown on picture 4, and here on picture 5, just something very simple, only the sky, day and night in naïve representation.
Taking the risk to repeat what I already wrote, a few hours are not too much to explore the ceiling, with binoculars preferably; another option is to go to the small bookshop at the entrance of the cathedral and look at the pictures on the books, even buy a poster, and identify the pictures on the real.
There is also the treasure of the cathedral to be visited; it is said to be very rich and interesting, but I had too much, was exhausted by this multi-hours visit, did not go to visit the treasure.
Leaving the choir, you can walk between the jube and the walls of the nave (ambulatory), there are no low sides in that area, and you will see on the jube wall tens of statues representing characters of the old Testament. Most of these polychrome statues are from the 16th century, and have never been renovated; it is nice to look at them, identify them, try to find out if they have some “message”, or just look because they are beautiful.
I like to see the prophets wearing clothes of the time they were sculptured. . . like Jonas (picture 1), who here does not look like as he is going for a cruise. . . . Four other characters, well known or almost unknown, including Daniel (picture 2), Abdie (picture 3), Simeon, with a severe face (picture 4) and Nahum (picture 5); there are probably more than 40 statues, human size. . . . . some very beautiful, with beautifully expressive faces.
In the low sides of the cathedral, the small chapels are dedicated to universal or local saints, but most of them are “modern”, have baroque or kitsch decoration which are interesting to look at passing by, but I wanted to visit the famous choir hidden behind the jube.
Jubes were quite common in the past in the big churches, but most of them have been removed with “democracy” and modern church design.
Bricks are not suited for the fine intricate gothic architecture or carvings; the white stone used in Ste Cecile is just a beautiful contrast to the brick we have seen outside.
The jube is a wonderful example of flamboyant gothic carving and statuary; on the first picture is Ste Cecile standing between two very richly carved and decorated arches; many other painted statues decorate this wall of the jube.
The chapel hosting the altar in the choir (Picture 2) is just something like gothic art quintessence; you can stand in front and look at all details for long minutes, and realize also the general balance of the architecture and decoration; again, I do not like to use superlatives, but, it is really a wonderful sight, in the quietude of the great cathedral.
The choir, hidden by the jube was in fact the place where the “important” people were attending the masses, and where the priest had their meetings. In the “meeting room” are these benches on two sides, with many angel statues above (picture 3) , but the Napoleonian eagle really spoils the place; and this modern Christ would be more moving in another place probably (picture 4).
The well dressed little angels feel well in the walls of the jube, and even smile at the visitors (picture 5). . . .