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Comparison with other Episcopal cities of the South of France

Cité épiscopale d’Albi

Albi’s Episcopal city is differs markedly from other Episcopal cities in Southern France.

At first sight Avignon and Narbonne share common points with Albi: a vast, fortified mediaeval Episcopal palace (the Papal palace in Avignon, the Archbishop’s palace in Narbonne), next, or close to the Cathedral (respectively Notre Dame des Doms and Saint-Just-Saint-Pasteur).

However, Avignon differs from Albi in the significant disproportion between the Papal palace and the Romanesque Cathedral. This is a reflection of the political importance of the ancient papal court which in some sense absorbed the Cathedral district. The construction of these monuments was also spread over time (the Cathedral goes back to the 12th century while the palace was built in many stages beginning in 1316), leading to a certain stylistic and architectural confusion which is underlined by the particular topography of the ’rocher des Doms,’ the rocky spur on which the town is founded.

Narbonne’s Episcopal city is closer still to that of Albi. The Epsicopal centre consists of a vast fortified palace organised around numerous courts and crowned by an impressive keep (the tour Gilles Aycelin) which is joined to the Cathedral’s choir by a small cloister. Like Albi, the majority of the construction took place between the late 13th and the 15th century. Only a few earlier vestiges (the tour de Théodard and the tour de la Madeleine) attest to the Romanesque and pre-Romanesque occupation of the site.

As in Albi, the construction of the Gothic Cathedral (begun in 1272) spared the previous Cathedral, situated further south. Narbonne’s former Cathedral was destroyed in the middle of the 15th century during the construction of a cloister. The major difference between Narbonne and Albi, outside of the use of limestone, lies in the adoption of a more northern manifestation of the Gothic style.

The Cathedral Saint-Just-Saint-Pasteur, with its choir-aisles, its ambulatory and apse chapels, the variation of its elevation over three levels (the arches, the triforium and the clerestory1) and its flying buttresses, is characteristic of Northern Gothic architecture. The stylistic, and symbolic, choices of Narbonne’s Archbishops are therefore diametrically opposed to those of Bernard de Castanet in the same period at Albi. Finally, the incompleteness of Narbonne Cathedral, limited to a choir and the beginnings of a transept, contrasts with the completed mass of Albi’s Sainte-Cécile.

Unlike in many of France’s famous Cathedral cities such as Laon, Noyon, Bourges or Beauvais, the Bishops of Albi did not look to the King for their authority but considered themselves subjects of the Pope and felt unconstrained by the architectural codes of northern France. They opted therefore, for the distinctive architectural style seen in the Cathedral of Sainte-Cécile and the Berbie palace, bearing witness to a distinctly southern style.

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