Notre Dame de Nazareth, Vaison-la-Romaine (Dennis Aubrey)


Originally known as the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Vaison, Notre Dame de Nazareth contains some of the oldest Christian structures in France. Built originally on the site of a temple in the Roman town of Vasio, the current structure is mostly Romanesque except for the eastern end. Surprisingly for a Provençal church, there is little architectural decoration. When one thinks of nearby cathedrals like Saint Trophime in Arles and Saint Gilles de Gard that were built in old Roman towns, this seems like an oddity.

West front, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Nazareth, Vaison-la-Romaine (Vaucluse) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

West front, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Nazareth, Vaison-la-Romaine (Vaucluse) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The interior continues the theme of architectural spareness – the church features a nave of three bays with an ogive barrel vault. This vault has clerestory windows piercing it, which I am not sure are original.

Nave, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Nazareth, Vaison-la-Romaine (Vaucluse)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Nazareth, Vaison-la-Romaine (Vaucluse) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In the photograph of the nave elevation, we can see how the wide arcades are carried by powerful pier clusters. The entire structure exudes strength and solidity, an appearance that is magnified by the lack of sculptural adornment. Except for the running cornices along the base of the vault and atop the piers, there is no decoration.

Nave elevation, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Nazareth, Vaison-la-Romaine (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

Nave elevation, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Nazareth, Vaison-la-Romaine (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

Arc rampant

Arc rampant

The tall and narrow side aisles contain a fairly rare structure, the arc rampant, known in English as the r‪ampant round arch‬. The arc rampant is defined as an arch where the springing points are not of the same height. This is different from the more familiar half-barrel vaults.

In the photograph of the south side aisle we can see the arc rampant high up supporting the ogive vault. I am not sure why this was used in Vaison, but it is a unique feature.

South side aisle with arc rampant, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Nazareth, Vaison-la-Romaine (Vaucluse)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

South side aisle with arc rampant, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Nazareth, Vaison-la-Romaine (Vaucluse) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The eastern end consists of the chevet and three apsidal chapels and is Merovingian, very early Christian, possibly from the eighth century. Beyond the round chancel arch is a large and impressive oven vault.

Apse, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Nazareth, Vaison-la-Romaine (Vaucluse)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Nazareth, Vaison-la-Romaine (Vaucluse) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The simple altar is centered in the raised sanctuary. PJ’s shot shows it from the east, looking back to the main entrance of the church, with the small platform for the priest.

Altar, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Nazareth, Vaison-la-Romaine (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

Altar, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Nazareth, Vaison-la-Romaine (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

One of the most interesting features is the sunken apse behind the chancel crossing. This is a magnificent structure, filled with Roman and Merovingian carvings and boasts a cathedra, the throne of the bishop, at the far eastern wall. The benches along the wall were placed there for the canons in attendance to the bishop. The sarcophagus in the center was uncovered in 1950 and is believed to contain the remains of Saint Quenin (Latin: Quinidius) who died in 578. Quenin was a hermit who lived in Aix until summoned to his birthplace at Vaison to serve as an archdeacon by Bishop Theodosius and subsequently elected bishop.

Sunken apse with cathedra, Sunken Apse, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Nazareth, Vaison-la-Romaine (Vaucluse) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Sunken apse with cathedra, Sunken Apse, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Nazareth, Vaison-la-Romaine (Vaucluse) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The cathedral has no transepts, but the central crossing is covered with an octagonal cupola. In the corners under the squinches one can see the only architectural sculpture in the church itself – there are small figures representing the four evangelists.

Chancel dome, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Nazareth, Vaison-la-Romaine (Vaucluse)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Chancel dome, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Nazareth, Vaison-la-Romaine (Vaucluse) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The cathedral also shelters an admirable rectangular cloister that dates from the 12th century..

Cloister, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Nazareth, Vaison-la-Romaine (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

Cloister, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Nazareth, Vaison-la-Romaine (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

From the cloister we can see the fine central garden and the sturdy bell tower that dominates the northeastern view.

Cloister and clocher, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Nazareth, Vaison-la-Romaine (Vaucluse) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Cloister and clocher, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Nazareth, Vaison-la-Romaine (Vaucluse) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The cloister capitals were carved on blocks of marble rescued from Roman remains in the medieval city.

Cloister columns, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Nazareth, Vaison-la-Romaine (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

Cloister columns, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Nazareth, Vaison-la-Romaine (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

There is an interesting anomaly associated with this cathedral. Normally one would find the cathedral in the center of the town, usually at the highest point. But in Vaison, the cathedral is in the flat land, outside of the city proper, on the site of the Roman town of Vasio in the valley along the ‪Ouvèze‬ river. There is a good historical reason for this. In the late 12th century there were disputes between the church and the Count of Toulouse who held sway over Provence. The secular ruler ordered the looting of the town and he founded a castle on the hill above the Roman town. By the 13th century, the inhabitants had fled the old town and moved to the ville haute on the other side of the river.

Side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Nazareth, Vaison-la-Romaine (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Nazareth, Vaison-la-Romaine (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

Today, Notre Dame de Nazareth sits peacefully in a park, no longer part of the bustle of the town of Vaison, but basking in the Provençal sun and content to recall the days when she was the center of a thriving early Christian civilization.

Location: 44.241695° 5.069133°

14 responses to “Notre Dame de Nazareth, Vaison-la-Romaine (Dennis Aubrey)

    • Thanks, Michael. The Provence is full of wonderful finds – partly because of the influence of the significant Roman remains, partly because of its background as an occitan province, and partly because the Saracens holed up here long after they were cast out of the rest of France.

  1. Fascinating Cathedral. The contrast between the centuries reflecting the construction was so marked and very interesting. In P.J.’s last photo I was charmed by the small glow of light emitting from the lit votive candles. Thank you Denis and P.J.

  2. I have seen drawings of the arc rampant but never a photo, very interesting. But that Merovingian sunken apse is incredible, especially that it has survived in, what looks to me, almost intact condition. Thank you, Dennis and PJ for this post and photos.

    • Aquila, I have only seen the arc rampant a few times – for awhile I thought it was a remnant from a later renovation where part of the arc had been walled up. As far as the sunken apse is concerned, it is truly wonderful. It looks like a baptistere as well, but I have found no reference to that. The sarcophagi are beautiful.

  3. Amazing beautiful in its simplicity. Should go and see /enjoy/ it with my own eyes. First time seen Merovingian sunken aps and arc rampant .Thank You!

    • Elvira, thank you so much for your kind words. Definitely worth a visit, and the nearby Roman ruins are spectacular. The cathedral is built on the site of a Roman temple and their are excavated remains just on the exterior at the east end.

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