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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The cathedral also shelters an admirable rectangular cloister that dates from the 12th century..
From the cloister we can see the fine central garden and the sturdy bell tower that dominates the northeastern view.
The cloister capitals were carved on blocks of marble rescued from Roman remains in the medieval city.
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.
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°