Constructed in the late 11th Century, the great Romanesque cathedral of Saint Trophime in Arles has endured the profanations of war, religious disputes, revolutions, and the ravages of time. The church survived relatively untouched during the turmoil of the French Revolution where it was converted to a Temple of Reason. What remains is one of the best preserved examples of Provençal Romanesque architecture, a living breathing church of striking beauty. The cloisters and the church were classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1981.
The Cathédrale Saint-Trophime dominates the Place de la République in the center of downtown Arles. The 12th Century western portal is considered one of the crowning achievements of southern Romanesque art and benefits from a significant restoration in 1988-1996. Illustrating the Last Judgment, the souls are sent on a journey of damnation or salvation. The superb tympanum of Christ in Majesty dominates the center of the ensemble.
PJ and I shot Saint Trophime on an early May morning. The church was empty and we could quietly absorb the beauty of the structure. The great barrel vaulted nave and the gorgeous soaring side aisles particularly captivated me.
Saint Trophime is a fine example of a basilica style church with its nave with side aisles, clerestory windows, and an apse at one end. The cloister on the south side reinforces the Roman origins of this church style.
The interior of Saint Trophime lacks the sculptural decoration that many admire in Romanesque churches, but that may be why we admire it so much. It is possible to concentrate on the purity of the line and the austere transcendence of the architecture itself. Considering that Saint Trophime was the starting point of the Via Tolosana of the Santiago de Compostella pilgrimage, one would have thought that there would have been more ornamention, but perhaps perfection is adornment enough.
The chancel reminds us that Saint Trophime was a house of worship, the seat of a bishopric, and the place of ritual. Here we see that the rites of the church represented the canon of belief of the religion itself.
All that was missing at San Trophime that May morning was the scented cloud of incense and the melodic counterpoint of Gregorian singing, and the imagination even provided those.
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