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A Southern Gothic masterpiece

Cité épiscopale d’Albi

The Cathedral of Sainte-Cécile has a powerful and unique identity. We see here the most splendid manifestation of Southern Gothic art.

Its construction was undertaken around the time of the completion of the great world heritage Cathedrals of Chartres, Bourges, Reims and Amiens. Its conception differs ostensibly - technically, aesthetically and in choice of material - from neighbouring constructions, the Cathedrals of Carcassonne, Rodez, Narbonne, and the choir of Toulouse Cathedral.

This results in a unique structure, an austere masterpiece in which the visitor revels in the openness and enormity of the interior space.

The Cathedral of Sainte-Cécile and the Church of the Jacobins at Toulouse are often represented together as the masterpieces of Southern Gothic art.

The Cathedral of Sainte-Cécile presents the typical characteristics of a particular variant of Gothic art developed in the Languedoc, Gascony and Catalonia: a single, large nave flanked by numerous chapels, an austere architectural style, imposing walls and reduced lighting.

But despite these family resemblances the Cathedral at Albi remains exceptional in the Southern Gothic sphere. If the Cathedral of Sainte-Cécile is an expression of the same Gothic spirit found in the great northern Cathedrals of Chartres, Reims or Bourges, its membership of this family by no means belies its uniqueness.

A building on a grand scale

Albi Cathedral is without doubt the largest building of the Southern Gothic era. By its scale it joins the ranks of the great Cathedrals of northern France, with a nave around 100 metres long. Its vault, at 30 metres, cannot rival the northern giants of Beauvais and Amiens (46 and 42 metres respectively) but it falls comfortably around the average for the large buildings of the Gothic age (32 metres at Strasbourg Cathedral, 30 metres at Soissons and Auxerre, 28 metres at Rouen).

Its scale thus sets Albi Cathedral apart from the principal Southern Gothic churches. No other edifice exceeds 60 metres in length (the Cathedrals of Lavaur, Saint Bertrand de Comminges, Lodève, the Augustinian convent at Toulouse and Saint Jaques de Montauban all fall in this range) except for the Cathedral of Saint Etienne de Toulouse, a hybrid construction, lacking in architectural unity, and the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist at Perpignan. The vault of the Cathedral of Saint Bertrand de Comminges reaches 28 metres but the average height of churches in the region falls between 20 and 25 metres (Notre Dame de la Dalbade, the Church of the Jacobins and the Augustinian convent at Toulouse, the Cathedrals of Lavaur and Lodève and the churches of the lower town of Carcassonne).

We have therefore in the Cathedral of Sainte-Cécile a Cathedral of Northern Gothic scale built in the Southern architectural style.

A unique structure at the service of original plastic art

According to Vivan Paul, Southern Gothic monumental art can be characterised by the play of simple, strongly demarcated volumes, which are skilfully brought together.

The play of light and shade underlines the severity of these voluminous compositions, a far cry from the diaphanous works of the Northern Gothic. At Albi, Southern Gothic art has emphasised the projection of the buttresses upon which the nave rests. These rhythmic vertical elements are often emphasized by horizontal dripstones 1 traversing them. Equally, the lateral chapels constitute a foreground which is strongly detached from the main volume of the nave.

At Albi the elevation of the different components of the Cathedral represent a break from architectural tradition. The height of the lateral chapels being equal to that of the nave, the ensemble appears as a single unit without any real horizontal variation.

The lateral chapels encompass almost the entire height of the buttresses; little more than their summits protrude beyond the level of the walls. The vertical demarcation of the building is thus reduced, whilst the cylindrical form of the buttresses, an echo of the fortifications of the neighbouring Berbie palace, reduces the effect of their protrusion from the walls.

The play of light and shade is thus softened, the architect having preferred subtle graduations of lighting over the stark contrasts of differently lit vertical planes.

The architect’s desire to avoid violent ruptures of line and form can be witnessed in the gentle slope from the broad base of the building to the narrower walls .

This powerful architectural conception reaches its fullest expression at the lower level of the tower which is surrounded by enormous circular turrets.

1The dripstone is the moulded projection from a wall over an opening which serves to prevent the infiltration of water.

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