Le Puy Cathedral (Cathédrale Notre-Dame du Puy) is an exotic edifice perched on a volcanic rock overlooking the city of Le Puy-en-Velay in the Auvergne region. Despite its remote location, Le Puy has nevertheless been an important religious center since pre-Christian times - remains of a prehistoric dolmen and a Roman temple can still be seen in the cathedral. Since the Middle Ages, Le Puy Cathedral has been the main starting point in France for the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.
History of Le Puy Cathedral
The rock on which the cathedral stands, known as Mount Anis or Corneille Rock, was originally a Celtic and then a Roman pagan site. The dolmen that figures in early Christian legends is a remnant of the ancient pagan shrine. A Roman temple was built there in the 1st century AD, dedicated to a local god Adido and the emperor Augustus. Built near a sacred spring, it incorporated the dolmen. The temple had a similar design and size to the Miason Caree in Nimes and was destroyed in the early 400s by order of the Christian Roman emperors.
The first cathedral on Mount Anis was begun in 415 AD by Bishop Scutarius of Le Puy. His seat had previously been located in the settlement of Galabrum (now Espaly-Saint-Martin). The bishop was clearly a strong believer in the power of the dolmen, for he incorporated it in his cathedral at a time when toleration of paganism meant immediate excommunication. Interestingly, the stone used for his epitaph has the 1st-century dedicatory inscription of the Roman temple on the back.
Bishop Scutarius built his church on the ruins of the Roman temple, incorporating some of its masonry. The church had a single nave of two bays and measured 12 x 24 meters (40 x 80 ft). Side aisles were added in the 6th century, using ancient Roman tombstones in the walls, with Scutarius' tomb placed in the south aisle.
To accommodate increasing numbers of pilgrims, the cathedral was lengthened to the west by a third bay sometime before 1000 AD and a fourth bay was added in the 11th century. Finally, in the 12th century, the last two western bays were added.
A major restoration was carried out in the 19th century, which like most work of that period was over-creative and rather destructive. Today only the third and fourth bays of the cathedral are in their original state; the rest has been almost entirely rebuilt.
Myth and Mystery
According to a legend dating from the 8th century, a woman suffering from a fever in 1st-century Le Puy was inspired by a vision to visit the rock on which the cathedral now stands. There she fell into a feverish sleep. When she awoke, her fever had gone and she saw the Virgin Mary seated on a dolmen next to her. The Virgin said she wanted a church to built in that place. Although it was July, several inches of snow covered the ground and a stag marked out the floor plan of a huge church with his hooves.
St. George was Bishop of Le Puy and he came to see the miracle for himself. He wished to obey the Virgin's request, but he had no money for such a grand church. So he made do with planting a thorn hedge over the ground plan until such funding could be found. The next day, the hedge bloomed with flowers.
Some time passed, and another healing occurred. The bishop (now a man named Vozy) therefore went to Rome to ask for permission to build a cathedral on the site. It was granted, and the pope provided a Roman architect to build it. When it was completed, the bishop set out for Rome again to arrange its consecration, but two old men appeared to him on the way and said, "we shall go before you and take charge of all." Returning to the cathedral, the Vozy found it bathed in strange light, its bells ringing by unseen hands.
For the fate of the dolmen, see "The Miraculous Dolmen" below.
What to See at Le Puy Cathedral
The unique, eastern-inspired west facade of Le Puy Cathedral is suspended over the hillside on great pillars. It stands at the top of Mount Anis overlooking the town, approached by the steep Rue des Tables. The street gets its name from the merchants' tables that were set up to entice medieval pilgrims. The monumental staircase of the cathedral dates from the 19th century.
The facade is divided into three parts both horizontally and vertically, its black and grey volcanic stone enriched by striped arches and mosaic decoration at the top. It has three tall open portals, which lead into a cavernous porch. The first bay of the porch has a roof boss of the Virgin and Child surrounded by the Four Evangelists. Two steps beneath the arch of the second bay bear a Latin inscription: "If you do not shun crime, then be sure not to cross this threshold, for the Queen of Heaven seeks a worship free of all stain."
The second bay contains 13th-century frescoes and the famed Cedar Doors, which despite their name are carved of pinewood. These splendid doors from the mid-12th-century show strong Arab influence, which would have been derived both from contact with Muslim Spain and the Crusades. The left door is carved with reliefs of the Nativity of Christ; the right door depicts the Passion of Christ. The reliefs are surrounded by mock Kufic script and Latin inscriptions in a similar style.
The staircase ends at a central portal known as the Gilded Door, which has two ancient porphyry columns. The name refers to some decoration nearby that no longer survives. In the Middle Ages, the stairway continued all the way to the middle of the nave, emerging in front of the choir screen. Of this unusual arrangement a friar famously commented, "You used to enter the chruch of Our Lady through the navel and come out through the ears." This layout was changed in 1781, when the central stairway was walled up and the right-hand stairway was adapted to lead into the south aisle. This is the entrance visitors use today.
Le Puy Cathedral has a simple floor plan of a Latin cross, with three aisles and a transept. Made of black stones and over-restored, it is not immediately attractive, but there are several notable details to look for. The most dramatic of these is the nave ceiling, which has six large cupolas instead of the usual vault. This is yet another example of the strong Byzantine influences at Le Puy. The cupolas rest on octagonal bases made of striped arches.
The Romanesque capitals of the nave are mostly carved with foliage, but a few have figurative scenes. The fine pulpit is a 17th-century work by Pierre Vaneau, as is a gilded wooden panel of the crucifixon of St. Andrew. Across the nave from the pulpit is a 14th-century polychrome wooden Christ. The high altar has 18th-century bronze statues by Caffieri and the 18th-century copy of the famous Black Virgin. Notable paintings in the side aisles include The Plague Vow (Jean Solvain, 1630) and The Consuls' Vow (Jean Francois, 1653).
The north transept is home to several important medieval frescoes. One of the chapels has a 12th-century fresco of The Women at the Empty Tomb in a Byzantine style. The other chapel's fresco, depicting The Martyrdom of St. Catherine, dates from the 13th century and has a softer, more lively quality. In the gallery above is a huge Byzantine fresco of Saint Michael (5.55 m/18 ft tall) from the late 11th century, along with other frescoes of the same date.
Le Puy has possessed a revered image of the Virgin Mary since its earliest days, but unfortunately it does not survive today. The original ancient icon was replaced by a Black Virgin around 1000 AD. This was venerated by pilgrims for eight centuries until its violent destruction by Revolutionaries on June 9, 1794, when the wooden image was publicly burned on the Place du Martouret. As the statue burned away, a secret door in its back was revealed, the door opened, and a roll of parchment fell out. Tragically, no attempt was made to read the parchment before it was consumed by the flames.
Fortunately, before its fiery demise the Black Virgin statue was thoroughly described and sketched by Faujas de Saint-Fons. It was made of cedarwood and depicted the Virgin Mary seated on a throne, holding the Christ Child on her lap. The faces of both Virgin and Child were black, but their hands were painted white. The Virgin wore an oriental-style robe of fine material in red, blue-green and ochre and a helmet-type crown of gilded copper and precious stones.
Faujas de Saint-Fos opined that the Black Virgin was an ancient statue of the Egyptian goddess Isis transformed for Christian use. Another theory has it that the statue is of Ethiopian origin. Perhaps more likely, however, is that it was carved in Le Puy around 1000 AD by an Arab craftsman. The Black Virgin in the cathedral today is a replica of the late 18th century. It is carried in procession on feast days of Mary.
A dolmen - a prehistoric tomb consisting of upright stones supporting a horizontal stone slab - has been part of Le Puy Cathedral's heritage since its foundation. As described above, the dolmen was part of an ancient pagan sacred site and an early Christian legend described a woman's vision of the Virgin Mary sitting on the dolmen.
From the foundation of the cathedral in 415 AD, the dolmen stood in the east end of the ancient cathedral and was much revered as the "Throne of Mary" and for its miraculous healing properties. The full legend of the bishop, the pope's approval, the snowfall and the stag arose in the 8th century in the midst of a controversy over the dolmen's pagan associations. At some point around this period, the dolmen was dissassembled. The flat stone continued to be revered, and sick people slept on it or next to it in hopes of healing. Eventually someone saw the need to give it this Latin inscription: "Those who lie on this stone and sleep are healed. Do you know why? The power belongs to the altar."
In the 11th century, the flat stone of the dolmen was squared off and placed in the pavement of the south aisle, where it stayed for 800 years. Crowds of sick people, particularly fever sufferers, slept not only on the stone but filled the entire aisle. In the 18th century, the clergy became fed up with this practice and moved the stone to the west facade. It has since been moved back in the cathedral, and now occupies the floor of the Saint Crucifix Chapel left of the altar.
A door in the south choir aisle leads out to the For Porch, built in the 12th century as an entrance for popes, cardinals and prelates. It is exquisitely decorated, with striped arches, patterned columns, and some fascinating sculpture. In the northwest corner, a hand humorously holds up the springing of an arch. Over the door is the 5th-century epitaph of Bishop Scutarius: SCVTARI PAPA VIVE DEO, "Scutarius, Father of the Fatherland, live with God." The other side of the stone bears the dedicatory inscription of the Roman temple that stood on this site.
The capitals in the porch are carved with the Seven Deadly Sins. Gluttony is represented by hungry mouths; wrath by a human face between two angry wolves; pride as eagles glaring at each other; envy a dog gnashing its teeth; lust as a double-tailed mermaid; greed as a purse with strings firmly tied; and sloth as a seated man facing south (perhaps he is sun-bathing?).
Around back of the cathedral, a small courtyard provides a clear view of the 5th-century east wall of the church. It incorporates materials from the 1st-century Roman temple that preceded it, including animals from its sculptured frieze and an inscription: "This fountain, by divine aid, is a remedy for the sick, helping them without payment when Hippocrates' art fails." This refers to the nearby well, which was fed by a sacred spring.
The bell tower dates from the 12th century, but was entirely rebuilt (faithfully to the original) in the 19th century. It has seven stories, rises to 56 m (184 ft), and contains three bells. Inside the bell tower is a large porch, which includes the 6th-century wall of the north aisle. Here are more fragments from the Roman temple: reliefs of cupids disarming Hercules, scenes of family and market life, and a memorial inscription.
On the north side of the cathedral is the Portal of St. John, with original 12th-century iron hinges on the door. The badly damaged tympanum depicted Christ in Glory with angels and a Last Supper.
The Romanesque cloister dates from the 11th and 12th centuries. It has an unusual and exotic apperance, with stong Byzantine and Arab influences. The arcades have striped arches made of alternating color stones and upper walls with a mosaic pattern of black, red and white geometric shapes. Running along the top of the entire cloister is a carved cornice depicting a menagerie of battling animals, mythical beasts, monsters and a few humans. The Four Evangelists are in the corners.
The capitals of the cloister date from different periods and most are carved with foliage designs. But a little over a dozen capitals have figurative sculptures, which include typical motifs such as the Lamb of God, the Four Evangelists, and doves drinking from a chalice, as well as some unusual and entertaining ones, especially in the west gallery:
At the end of the west gallery is a 12th-century Romanesque gate with beautiful Moorish-style ironwork.
A carved portal in the east gallery leads into the chapter house, also known as the Chapel of the Dead since it was used as a burial place for canons since 1639. The end wall is covered with a wonderful fresco from around 1200 depicting the Crucifixion. Christ is shown in great agony and the other figures are highly expressive as well.
The central crucifixion scene, which incorporates the traditional elements of the Virgin and St. John, sun and moon, is flanked by the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea and Philo Judaeus (a.k.a. Philo of Alexandria; d.50 AD). Each prophet holds a scroll with the text of their prophecy about Christ. An inscription above the fresco proclaims that it was executed in "a hundred days minus one." A coin-operated lightbox next to the door illuminates the fresco.
Among the early pilgrims to Le Puy was the Emperor Charlemagne (742-814), who visited twice. Six popes have made the pilgrimage, including the 11th-century Pope Leo IX, who declared: "Le Puy is the most important shrine to Mary in France." Among many saints who visited are Anthony of Padua, Dominic, and Colette.
The first French pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, 1600km away in northwest Spain, was undertaken in 950 AD by the Bishop Godescalc of Le Puy. The Santiago pilgrimage quickly increased in popularity and Le Puy became one of the primary departure points in France. Known as the Via Podiensis, the pilgrimage route beginning in Le Puy passed through Conques, Cahors and Moissac before crossing the Pyrenees into Spain. The pilgrimage reached its height in the 12th century.
The pilgrimages continue today. Pilgrims setting out on the Camino de Santiago are blessed beneath a statue of St. James at 7am each day.
Quick Facts on Le Puy Cathedral
|Names:||Cathédrale du Puy · Cathédrale Notre-Dame du Puy · Le Puy Cathedral|
|Categories:||cathedrals; World Heritage Sites|
|Dedication:||Virgin Mary (Annunciation)|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||45.045980° N, 3.886349° E|
|Address:||Le Puy-en-Velay, Auvergne, France|
Le Puy, France
|Lodging:||View hotels near Le Puy Cathedral|
- Personal visit (June 15, 2008).
- Cécile Gall, Discover Le Puy-en-Velay (MSM), 45-49.
- Peter Strafford, Romanesque Churches of France: A Traveller's Guide (London: Giles de la Mare, 2005), 185-90.
- Cathédrale Notre-Dame du Puy - official website
- Notre Dame du Puy - Architecture Religieuse en Occident
- Photos of Le Puy Cathedral - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Le Puy Cathedral
Below is a location map and aerial view of Le Puy 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.