The costs of construction
Cité épiscopale d’Albi
The renewal of the painted interior of Albi Cathedral must have required significant financial investment. The accounts for this project have not been conserved.
Due to the lack of sufficient information it is not even possible to evaluate the probable cost by comparison to similar works.
Nonetheless, it suffices to consider the extent and situation of the painted surfaces (the vaults, for example, are 32 metres high), to recognise that many experienced specialists must have been required to complete such skilled painting, working in acrobatic positions and without being able to take a step back to appreciate the effect of the detail in the whole.
Without a doubt, master painters were required for the original drafts, the major scenes and the more complicated features such as faces, hands and clothing. Skilled apprentices would also have been necessary to quickly but precisely complete the repetitive ornamental elements. Finally, numerous helpers will have been required to move ladders, hoist platforms, mix paints and to occasionally apply them in areas where skilled workers were unnecessary (for example the blue background).
Simply maintaining the ateliers and paying the salaries would have required large sums of money, even though artistic work was still not highly esteemed at the end of the Middle Ages.
The provision of the necessary materials for the painting will also have required significant funds. The primary material for the colour blue was azurite, a copper carbonate found in abundance at Chessy, near Lyon.
Malachite, necessary for the production of green paint, was much harder to come by. The principle productions were found in Siberia and the Congo, and the transport costs would have been reflected in the price. The many gold leaf highlights also imply significant spending, in addition to the cost of glue, resin and wax. A project like this could only have been undertaken by men of abundant resources such as the Bishops of Albi.
It is difficult to assess the wealth of Albi’s Bishops in the 14th and 15th Centuries but a look at the origins of those who have held this position suggests that it was more than satisfactory. From 1308 we see on the Epsicopal throne at Albi a succession of nephews of the Popes of Avignon, followed by a series of sons of families close to the French throne. After Cardinal Jouffroy (1462-73) comes the Amboises, Robertet, Gouffier, Cardinal Duprat, Lorraine and then, in the time of the Medicis, the Florentines Strozzi, Medici and Del Bene.
The wealth of the diocese results from the political manoeuvring of the 13th Century Bishops, particularly Bernard de Castanet (1267-1308) who obtained the restitution of all the tithes still held by the lay community.
In the Toulouse region (which encompasses Albi), the minor nobility maintained control over the tithes due to the churches that it had founded. These funds were used to maintain the parish priests and to provide for the church funds. The social status of the nobility was thus assured, and they guarded this privilege jealously. However, the Montfort Crusade, followed by the cession of the County of Toulouse to the Capetians, profoundly changed the political landscape.
In 1271 King Philip ’the bold’ became Count of Toulouse. In this favourable context, Bernard de Castanet requested that control of the tithes be passed to the Epsicopal hierarchy. This policy bore fruit and significantly augmented the Epsicopal revenues. Of the 488 churches in his diocese, Bernard de Castanet became patron of 265 and attributed two thirds of the tithes of these parishes to himself. The Bishop of Albi thus held the largest proportion of ecclesiastical revenue of any diocese in the South of France.
At the end of the 13th Century the diocese of Albi was richer than that of Paris and as rich as that of Chartres.
Although John XXII divided the diocese in 1317 to create the diocese of Castres to the south of the river Dadou, the diocese of Albi retained control over three quarters of the parishes and remained one of France’s richest dioceses up until the revolution. The Bishop of Albi and the Cathedral’s canons were therefore extremely wealthy.
This wealth was reinforced at the end of the 15th century with the re-population of the countryside and the rehabilitation of French agriculture. New crops were developed such as saffron and woad.
This renewed agricultural prosperity augmented the tithes and allowed the Bishops to pursue sumptuous developments of the Cathedral and of their homes, beginning with the chapel of the Holy Cross, embellished under Bishop Jean Jouffroy in order to house his tomb.
The real pioneer however was Louis I d’Amboise whose tradition was continued by his nephew Louis II and then by Robertet, Gouffier and the Cardinal Duprat. It was Robertet who completed the painted décor of the Cathedral and also provided it with a sumptuous entrance.