The Gothic Cathédrale Ste-Cécile of Albi, built in the 13th century in the heart of Cathar country, is the largest brick building in the world. Perched high on a hill above the River Tarn, it looks more like a fortress than a cathedral - and that's no accident.
The Cathedral of St. Cecilia in Albi was built as a defensive fortress and statement of strength after the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229), a holy war waged by the Catholic Church against the heretical Cathars and the count of Toulouse.
Construction on Albi Cathedral began in 1282 under the direction of Bernard de Castanet (1277-1307), who was Bishop of Albi and Chief Inquisitor. Construction was mostly done by 1383, but the cathedral was not fully complete until 1492.
What to See
Although the architectural style of Albi Cathedral is Gothic, it has none of the delicate stonework or wall of glass that characterize the style in northern France. Instead it is made of solid brick (a material both cheaper and faster to use than stone) with modest lancet windows. It features solid rounded buttresses, which were probably inspired by existing fortifications around the Bishop's Palace (late 1200s and still standing).
The cathedral's great mass culminates at the west end in a great tiered belfry (1355-66), rising 78 meters into the sky. The tower is roughly square with rounded buttresses at the corner; each tier supported by a rounded quarter-arch and decorated with a quatrefoil railing. At the top is a newer octagonal portion (1485-92). The tower is nearly as wide as the nave, which has no side aisles. Viewed from the west, the cathedral looks a bit like a great pink rocketship.
Along the roofline on all sides of the cathedral are white stone gargoyles, which were added during 19th-century restorations. The elaborate south porch was added by Bishop Dominique de Florence (1394-1410), incorporating an earlier round tower, while the ornate, Flamboyant Gothic baldaquin over the south door dates from the 16th century.
Based on its sober, fortress-like exterior, one would expect the interior of Ste-Cecile to to be austere, plain, and practical. But the cathedral is literally covered in religious art on the inside. The walls, vault and side chapels are richly painted, the choir is enclosed inside an ornate screen, and sculptures stand on many of the pillars. The structure itself, however, is simple - a unified space with no side aisles.
The most interesting of all this decoration is the huge (16.4m x 15.6m) mural of The Last Judgment that covers both sides of the rounded west wall of the nave. Painted between 1474 and 1484 by unknown Franco-Flemish artists, it is considered one of the most important works of art of the Late Middle Ages. The painters of the Last Judgment were contemporaries of Hieronymus Bosch and some of the horrifying scenes of Hell are reminiscent of his work.
The scene is divided both vertically and horizontally: the Blessed are on the left and the Damned are on the right; Heaven is shown along the top, with the Resurrection of the Dead below, and Hell at the bottom. Interestingly, it lacks a Christ in Majesty, an element common to virtually all other medieval depictions of the theme. The vision of the underworld stars a variety of monstrous demons and suffering humans, organized around the theme of the Seven Deadly Sins. Labeled in Old French, they depict (from left to right): Pride, Envy, Wrath, Greed, Gluttony and Lust. Sloth is missing - maybe the painter didn't get around to it!
The decorative murals on the nave walls date from c.1509-20 and have been restored several times. The vault frescoes are the largest (97 meters long by 28 meters wide) work of Italian Renaissance painting to be found anywhere in France. Commissioned by Louis II d'Amboise and dating from 1509 to 1512, the work was carried out by a team of Italian painters from Modena and Bologna. Set against a background of deep blue sky, the frescoes depict various designs, pastoral scenes, and major characters and events from the Old and New Testaments. Two sections are dedicated to St. Cecilia, patroness of the cathedral.
The large open space inside the cathedral was interrupted in the late 15th century with the addition of a rood screen surrounding the choir and a beautiful, Flamboyant Gothic jubé (c.1474-84) delicately carved from limestone.
The 15th-century choir screen is especially famed for its abundance of skillfully-carved and painted statues. Dating from c.1480, these consist of 33 Old Testament figures, 15 New Testament figures (Twelve Apostles plus the Virgin, John the Baptist and St. Paul), 70 angels and two emperors (Constantine and Charlemagne over the north and south entrances). Each figure is carefully sculpted with an attention to detail in both their expression and appearance.
The classical French organ, built by Christophe Moucherel in 1736 is considered one of the three finest in France.
There are many side chapels filling the niches beneath the buttresses, all of which are painted. One chapel has a polychrome replica of the sculpture of St. Cecilia's body from Santa Cecilia in Trastevere in Rome.
Another, in the north ambulatory, is called the Chapel of the Holy Cross and once contained a relic of the True Cross (destroyed in the Revolution). Its walls depict scenes from the legends of the Emperor Constantine and his mother St. Helena, who is credited with finding the cross in Jerusalem. There are also portraits of Cardinal John Joffrey and his nephews Helion and John, each shown kneeling with his patron saint (Jerome, Cecilia and John the Evangelist respectively). All three are buried in the chapel.
Quick Facts on Albi Cathedral
|Names:||Albi Cathedral; Cathédrale Ste-Cécile|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||43.928530° N, 2.142699° E (view on Google Maps)|
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Map of Albi Cathedral
Below is a location map and aerial view of Albi Cathedral. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.
- Personal visits (July 5-7, 2008).
- Delia Gray-Durant, Blue Guide Southwest France, 2nd ed. (2006), 250-55.
- Sainte-Cecile Cathedral - Town of Albi
- Cathédrale Ste-Cécile - Frommer's Attraction Review
- Cathédrale Ste-Cécile - Architecture Religieuse en Occident
- Albi Cathedral - Structurae
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