Clermont-Ferrand is the largest town in the Auvergne and the prefecture of the Puy-de-Dôme. Today it is known mostly as the home of the tire giant, Michelin, once the largest employer in the town. But the history of the town is filled with momentous events. One of the oldest cities in France, it was the oppidum of the Arverni tribe and was called “Nemessos“, the Gallic word for sacred grove.
The great Averni war chief Vercingetorix was born there, close to the site of the current Cathédrale Notre Dame de Clermont and nearby he defeated the Romans in battle on the plateau of Gergovie in 52BC. Today there is a great monument to that battle standing outside of the city.
In the Middle Ages, Clermont and its sister city Montferrand were important centers – Clermont was an episcopal city and Montferrand a comital one. In 1095, Pope Urban II preached the first Crusade in Clermont, launching the movement of Europe into the Middle East.
Wedged in among a number of residences and commercial buildings on a side road down the hillside from the cathedral stands perhaps the greatest of the Auvergnat Romanesque churches, Notre Dame du Port. The shrine of Our Lady of the Port is one of the most ancient in France, dating backing to the 6th Century. Saint Avit, the bishop of the Auvergne, built a church on a piece of open land that was often used as a marketplace in Montferrand. This area was called the “Port” after the Latin portus, meaning “a place of commerce”.
Today the exterior is difficult to see because it is hard-pressed by the neighboring houses, but it is classic of the Auvergnat style. There is a superb chevet and a two-story central tower set on a barlong. The church is constructed of both arkose and granite. One interesting characteristic of these churches are the wide bands of red mortar that line the black lava stone – because of a peculiarity of the volcanic soil, this mortar was rendered as resistant as stone.
Notre Dame du Port’s interior features a nave of four bays, two side aisles, short transepts and an apse with a beautiful hemicycle delineating the ambulatory. We can see the high arcades carrying the double-arched tribunes. There is no clerestory level and the long barrel vault springs directly from the tribune level, undivided by transverse arches.
The side aisles are tall and narrow and are topped with groin vaults. Notice how the nave piers each have four engaged columns, each topped with a superb capital. A matching pier on the external wall helps support a transverse arch separating each groin vault. This provides a lovely rhythmic variation to the long passage.
The large windows in this side aisle are made possible by the groin vaulting, and these provide most of the natural light in the nave since there is no clerestory. Some light comes in from the small windows on the tribune level.
The apse is a classic oven-vaulted structure with an eight-column hemicycle. It is provided with ample light because of the windows in the radiating chapels and the clerestory windows above.
The hemicycle columns are topped with a superb set of capitals that we did not have the time to photograph, including one in the ambulatory signed by the maker – “Rotbertus me fecit“. We are returning in May and will correct the oversight. We look forward to a post on these capitals and the rest of the sculpture in the future.
The entire apse is raised above the level of the nave, transepts and side aisles, as we see in this shot of the entrance to the ambulatory. We can also see the groin vaulted bays and the capitals atop the columns.
In this shot of the ambulatory we can see the small radiating chapels along the well-lit passageway. One very successful feature of the recent restoration is the cleaning of the masterful capitals.
At one time there was a narthex at the west end of the church, but the original was destroyed during the French Revolution. The reconstructed version that we can see in the distance on this shot from the altar was built in the 19th century, modeled after the narthex at the Basilique Saint Nectaire.
The crypt is the earliest section of the church, built in the 11th Century. Because the church is built on a hill, part of the crypt is above grown as evidenced by the windows in the distance. Today the sanctuary houses an 18th Century Black Madonna, Notre Dame du Port, a small statue that replaced the famous original that was destroyed in the Revolution. We can see that she is still venerated because of the large numbers of candles still burning nearby. Visible at the foot of the fine marble altar is a small well, the water of which has long been considered miraculous. Notre Dame du Port was the site of a major pilgrimage in the Age of Faith, considered one of the five most celebrated shrines to the Virgin in France, equal even to Notre Dame de Chartres.
The wonderful Elizabeth Boyle O’Reilly once wrote of the church, “Every morning one can see the men and women of the city gather in the crypt of Notre Dame-du-Port to beg a blessing on their working day. They may not be able to put into words what it is each feels in that subterranean chamber impregnated by the petitions of those of their race who have gone before them, but each knows that here is prayer that has plenitude … One fears God in the cathedral, one loves God in Notre Dame.”
Location: 45.780651° 3.089548°