Notre Dame du Port (Dennis Aubrey)


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.

Pope Urban II preaches the Crusade at Clermont

Pope Urban II preaches the Crusade at Clermont

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.

Chevet, Notre Dame du Port, Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Chevet, Notre Dame du Port, Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Nave, Notre Dame du Port, Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Notre Dame du Port, Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

North side aisle, Notre Dame du Port, Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

North side aisle, Notre Dame du Port, Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Side aisle, Notre Dame du Port, Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle, Notre Dame du Port, Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Apse, Notre Dame du Port, Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse, Notre Dame du Port, Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Hemicycle columns from ambulatory, Notre Dame du Port, Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Hemicycle columns from ambulatory, Notre Dame du Port, Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Entrance to ambulatory, Notre Dame du Port, Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Entrance to ambulatory, Notre Dame du Port, Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Ambulatory, Notre Dame du Port, Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Notre Dame du Port, Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

View from chancel, Notre Dame du Port, Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

View from chancel, Notre Dame du Port, Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Crypt, Notre Dame du Port, Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Crypt, Notre Dame du Port, Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey


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°

26 responses to “Notre Dame du Port (Dennis Aubrey)

    • Indeed. I still have some reservations about the restoration but those diminish over time. She was just so beautiful before and much of her mystery is lessened. But what a magnificent church!

  1. When this church was new, would it have had ceilings and/or walls that were painted with religious imagery, like Italian churches? It seems so very plain and austere, although of course very beautiful in its simplicity.

  2. Hi, Dennis’
    I just finished reading a history of the Crusades, so this post was very timely. I wonder if the beautiful capitols would have appeared as powerful over painted columns.

    • The twin towns of Clermont and Montferrand were the center of so much history; the preaching of the Crusades was one of the major events of that era. As far as the capitals, I do think that they still would have been extraordinary. The discontinuity is only in our modern minds because we are accustomed to seeing them against the bare stone.

  3. Dennis, 2 questions: Why are there spikes on an overhead beam in the crypt? Is this cathedral in a port? (Notre Dame du Port). It was good to read about people going to the crypt to pray for blessings for their working day. Your photos tell a good story.

    • Trish, I don’t know the function of those rather threatening spikes. Perhaps there is a gate that closes between these columns. We’ve seen similar in small local churches with treasuries where they store their precious relics. As far as the “port” is concerned, it comes from the Latin portus, meaning “place of commerce”. The church was originally built on open space that was used for a market.

  4. For all that the paint has obviously lightened the interior, I think, for myself, I would have preferred the naked stone instead. Pity there isn’t a clear coat of some kind that would protect the stone yet leave it without looking like anything was on it. Still a beautiful church and, as always, you and PJ have done a wonderful job of showing it to us.

      • Yes, I’m aware that the paint is to protect the stone, I just think it looks off. The yellow isn’t exactly pleasing for that space. I know that some of the old churches were regularly whitewashed inside, which while bright, was not as odd looking as yellow. Perhaps it’s time for someone to invent a clear coating for these types of restorations.

  5. What a fabulous space. When I was looking at the exterior shot, I didn’t quite expect what I saw in the first interior shot. It seemed like a different style almost but became more colorful as the images went on. I would love to spend a week photographing in there. The arches are spectacular. You are lucky to do what you do and very good at it too. That makes us lucky to have someone so talented covering it for the world to see!

    • Lisa, it is an amazing space and we are so lucky to be able to do this. I consider myself doubly lucky – how often would I find a partner who not only accepts this project, but loves it as much as I do and is the superior photographer to boot?

  6. Looking at these photographs I can hardly believe that it is the same church I saw some thirty years ago.
    It was a dim and holy place then seen on a gloomy day and now it seems to float in the light…though i could have done without the dreaded ‘ton pierre’….

    • Helen, so nice to hear from you – Happy New Year. It is a completely different church, absolutely. Not sure if I am totally happy with the restoration (including the “ton pierre”) but Notre Dame du Port is so inherently beautiful that I can’t complain.

  7. Beautiful church rendered sublime by photographs taken by you and PJ. I look forward to your future post on the columns and sculpture. Please post more shots of the chevet in the morning sunlight, also. Jong-Soung

  8. Pingback: Travel in France, Notre Dame du Port | London Life with Bradshaw's Hand Book

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