The Fortress Cathedral of Albi (Dennis Aubrey)

“La vérité n’est point a nous, nous n’en sommes que les témoins, les défenseurs, et les dépositaires.” Jean Baptiste Massillon (1663-1742)

Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile in Albi is a church of immense contrasts. From the exterior it is a forbidding and dominating fortress. Within, it is a splendid and opulent medieval shrine. The cathedral was built in this manner because of its founding between two great wars in the Languedoc – the Hundred Years War and the Albigensian Crusade.

Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile d'Albi, Photo by ByacC (GNU Free Documentation License)
Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile d’Albi, Photo by ByacC (GNU Free Documentation License)

The intervening years were not peaceful. The Cathars were a heretical religious sect, aggressive and often violent. When the Count of Béziers accepted a censure of the local Cathars he was murdered in the cathedral of Béziers by an uprising of his people. Forty years later to the very day of that murder, Béziers endured the most brutal of retributions.

Nave, Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile, Albi (Tarn)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Nave, Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile, Albi (Tarn) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Sainte-Cécile d’Albi was built by Bernard, Cardinal de Castanets, the local bishop who detested and was in return detested by his own people of Albi, of whom he was the feudal master. He built his cathedral as a fortress bulwark against the rebellious Albigensians. This was not an imprudent move. All of the Languedoc was at war and the countryside was described by a visiting bishop as, “On all sides is the image of death, villages are in ashes, churches in ruin, and the inhabitants living like beasts.”

West apse, Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile, Albi (Tarn)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
West apse, Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile, Albi (Tarn) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The Cathars called themselves the Bons-Hommes, the good people. They were dedicated to eradicating poverty and to reforming the Church. Eventually, that reforming zeal became the denial of the authority of the church and they are looked on as the predecessors to the Protestant movement of subsequent centuries.

We read today of the peaceful Cathars destroyed by the intolerant Catholics of the day, but the truth is far more complex.

Vault, Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile, Albi (Tarn)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey" width="467" height="700" class="size-full wp-image-13321" /> Vault, Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile, Albi (Tarn)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Vault, Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile, Albi (Tarn) Photo by Dennis Aubrey” width=”467″ height=”700″ class=”size-full wp-image-13321″ /> Vault, Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile, Albi (Tarn) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Catharism actually derived from the much earlier Manichean heresy, re-imported to Europe during the Crusades. It found fertile soil in the Languedoc where the people decried the excesses of the church. This Gnostic reform movement believed that two principles, good and evil, ruled the universe. Jehovah of the Old Testament created the visible world, which is Hell. Moses was a sorcerer and a thief. John the Baptist was an incarnation of the Devil. Christ was the God of Good who created the world of the spirits and the Albigensians denied his earthly existence. In practice, the Cathars believed that life on earth was Hell and suicide a virtue. They did not believe in clergy and held that marriage was sinful and sexual license acceptable.

Nave elevation, Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile, Albi (Tarn) Photo by PJ McKey
Nave elevation, Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile, Albi (Tarn) Photo by PJ McKey

These beliefs were not only anti-Christian as practiced in Europe, but threatening to the social fabric. Many attempts were made to mend this breach in the Church, but the Cathars were not always the peaceful brethren as portrayed in most fiction. Bernard de Clairvaux, the most beloved man of his generation in Europe, was stoned in the streets of the Midi.

West wall and organ, Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile, Albi (Tarn) Photo by PJ McKey
West wall and organ, Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile, Albi (Tarn) Photo by PJ McKey

The Church in Rome recognized the danger and attempted diplomatic negotiations for a century, but in 1208 the papal legate Pierre de Castelnau was murdered by retainers of Count Raymond of Toulouse and a crusade was declared by Innocent III. This war of northern France against southern Languedoc became the most terrible conflict of its age. Elizabeth Boyle O’Reilly wrote, “Cruelty and perfidy marked both sides. The Midi lords boasted that no crusader escaped them with eyes, fists, or feet, and they cut into little pieces the nephew of Albéric de Humbert, archbishop-builder of Rheims Cathedral. In retaliation Simon de Montfort cut off heretics’ ears and noses.”

West altar, Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile, Albi (Tarn) Photo by PJ McKey
West altar, Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile, Albi (Tarn) Photo by PJ McKey

That such a devastating religious conflict could produce a church of the undeniable beauty of the Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile is one of those miracles of faith and history. The interior vault was painted at the same time as the Sistine Chapel and Prosper Mérimée called Albi’s screen “a splendid folly before which one is ashamed to be wise.”

Rood screen, Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile, Albi (Tarn) Photo by PJ McKey
Rood screen, Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile, Albi (Tarn) Photo by PJ McKey

We read in these bloody histories some familiar lessons. The overweening pride of the established powers provokes reform and rebellion. The arrogance of the true believer creates a conviction that anything is justified in pursuit of the truth. Somewhere in the middle, the bulk of humanity is brutalized and butchered as they are forced to choose between the two.

Location: 43.928530° 2.142699°

31 thoughts on “The Fortress Cathedral of Albi (Dennis Aubrey)

    1. Tom, the post started out as a rather standard description of the church; you know the type – nave, ambulatory, vaulting, etc. But in trying to come up with an explanation for the contrast of the exterior and interior, the post shifted themes. In doing the research, there was so much published nonsense on the Cathars (thanks, Dan Brown) that I gave up and went back to my old scholarly books. Anyway, glad you liked the post.

      1. For a “non-scholarly” fantastic read (but written by a real scholar) I’d recommend Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s “Montaillou” to anyone.

        Thank you Dennis for fantastic images (as ever) of the interior of Toulouse-Lautrec’s home cathedral. And what colour! For the power of the exterior, I’d recommend the wonderful sketches of the architect Louis Kahn.

        (PS meeting the Santiago trail further south last week – S Michel de Cuxa, S Martin du Canigou in heavy rain! – we never got as far north as Albi, sadly.)


      2. John, thanks for the recommendation – another book to order! Glad you liked the shots of Sainte Cécile – it is spectacular inside. I wish we could have shot the apse and the rood screen, but the crowds were so thick there that it was impossible to set up. Also, just looked up the Louis Kahn images of the cathedral, which led me to his other sketches. Wonderful stuff – the Ronchamp sketch, especially. Looks like I’ll be spending some time on this site.

        You are walking the Camino? Did you get to visit Saint Martin du Canigou? Please, keep us posted, this is a way for us to live vicariously!

  1. As you say, unbelievable beauty created at a time of unbelievable ignorance and cruelty. What a spectacular church, whose beauty endures, while the names of those who fought and shed blood are only whispers in old books, unknown to the multitudes who now admire the beauty of this edifice. What remains is the result of faith, whose two extremes create hell between them.

    1. Ann, it is positively brutish on the exterior, but inside, refined and sophisticated. This church, as much as any other that I can think of in France, exemplifies these two extremes.

  2. Behind conflicts of ideas lie conflicts of power… It is in the human nature to remain quiet and humble with one’s own ideas when one believes he is isolated in a conservative society with which he disagrees. But when the same ideas start spreading and a following is formed, social forces come into play. Those who were heretics become the “believers” and the “righteous” as soon as they are a majority in their own land.

    If there was not this human obsession about convincing others that We are right and they are wrong, there would be no war, and no human History.

    1. You are correct, Joel. Long before Simon de Montfort’s depredations in the Crusade, rival lords were fighting bloody campaigns against each other. The result was the destruction of a great culture of the langue d’oc and the aggrandizement of France.

  3. Fantastic interior! What a change in contrast to many of the Romanesque churches you feature – but just as beautiful. Thanks for the history lesson too. Context always enhances one’s viewing experience.

  4. Nice to see an external shot to complement the lovely interiors. Also, that shot of the vaulting looking straight up presents a wonderful effect when viewed at the same time as scrolling the page up and down 🙂

    1. Graham, PJ and I have decided to spend more time shooting the exteriors of the churches next year. We don’t spend enough time searching for the right vantage point (often at some distance) that allows us to get the best shots. That will mean some adjustments for our schedules but will be worth it. Thanks.

  5. Dennis:

    What beauty and what a great history lesson. Two more books to order. When we travelled through that section of France several years ago, I wanted to investigate more of the area because of my readings, but time didn’t permit and I’m afraid my reading was tending toward the romantic. I look forward to the new books.

    1. Emily, we’re thinking about a post of Saint Sernin in Toulouse, so you’ll know that one surely. Also, you mentioned another church in Toulouse that you liked, but I can’t remember. We’re preparing our spring trip and we’ll be going back to Toulouse.

  6. Although I usually don’t comment on posts, your photography is absolutely stunning! The addition of the historical information puts the glory of the cathedral in context with the times. Thanks so much for sharing….

  7. Dennis apologies – I am replying to your comment to me of September 16th last year!… I have been out of commission (ie not looking at Via Lucis, as well as less important parts of life) since them, partly through bereavement followed closely by a slipped disc keeping me away from the seating position, and also partly by getting our new business of European cultural tours up and running ( if I dare advertise!)… and one tour we are working on is up the valleys of Tet and Tech, from around Perpignan deep up into the Pyrenees, focusing on two very different strands – the paintings of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who lived in Port-Vendres and up these valleys, and the wonderful Romanesque churches from vast to tiny which he also visited in the 1920s… The notion of continuing on foot to Santiago, a dream since my youth, I think, thanks to prolapsed disc, may now have to be postponed (for a future existence).
    Best wishes.

    1. John, we hope you have recovered from your physical and spiritual travails. We looked at Cognoscenti Travel and it looks like a wonderful endeavor – best of luck with it. No problem advertising; PJ and I only wish there were a way for us to participate.

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