The exterior of the Cathédrale Sainte-Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie in the Pyrenean town of Elne looks less like a church than like a medieval fortress and there is a good reason for this. As the site of the bishopric of Rousillon, which in medieval times was a border state between various kingdoms of Toulouse, Catalonia, Aragon, and France, Elne suffered inevitable conflict over the years. And while today the town stands about three miles from the Mediterranean Sea, in the Middle Ages it was almost a coastal town. As such it was prey to pirates and raiders of all sorts. In its history, the town was destroyed by the Saracens in the 8th century, by Normans in 10th, and twice by Kings of France. In 1285 the soldiers of Philippe-le-Hardi burned the town and massacred its inhabitants.
The vast Romanesque cathedral surrounded by protective walls that we see today was consecrated in 1069 and was built on a basilica plan with a nave and two side aisles, but no transepts. The nave consists of seven bays that terminate with an oven-vaulted apse. The space is covered with a banded barrel vault. This photograph is taken from the narthex, which fills the seventh nave bay in the west.
The nave elevation illustrates the great height of the arcade arches, carried and supported by massive piers with engaged columns. The barrel vault rises directly from the arcades without the intervention of either a tribune or a clerestory level.
The superb side aisles show the true scale of the cathedral. They are high and wide, providing a magisterial path toward the apsidal chapels in the distance. Like the nave, these side aisles are covered with banded barrel vaults instead of the more frequently used groin vaults. This may be because the width of the nave arcades is so great that the volumes of the side aisle bays are rectangular instead of square.
Elne possesses another of the superb cloisters found in the region. This one was begun by Bishop Guillem Jordà in the 12th century, but not finished for over a century. As a result, the cloister is a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic elements. The south gallery is the oldest and the only one fully Romanesque, while the other three are 13th and 14th century.
Today the garth of the cloister is filled with plants and greenery, but it may not have always been so, because there is no break in the arcades for someone to pass through. Clearly it would have been easy for someone to climb over the low coping parapet, but usually there is a passageway.
The cloister is not made not of stone but of Céret marble. The design follows the architectural pattern established in the twelfth century: each gallery has five solid piers and eight pairs of columns joined by arches.
The capitals show a number of the expected biblical scenes, but also a profusion of exotic plants and animals including eagles, griffins, lions and peacocks. Of special interest are the intricately carved columns, no two of which are alike.
In one gallery of the cloister are Merovingian sarcophagi. We have seen this many times, but seldom inside a church like this and never carved this ornately.
The church contains a lovely white marble baptismal font from the 11th century. Located in the north side aisle, the font was carved from a re-purposed Roman column.
Finally, I would like to draw attention to a modern, but immensely moving, sculptural element in the cathedral, the “Improperia” (outrages to Christ) crucifix. There are two in the church, one in the side aisle near the baptismal font, and another shown in the following photograph. The cross is composed entirely of physical elements found in the crucifixion, from the tools used to secure Christ to the dice the soldiers used to gamble for his garments.
We have only seen a few of these crucifixes in all of our travels. That there are two of these “Improperia” in the Cathédrale Sainte-Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie is perhaps emblematic of the suffering endured by the town of Elne over the centuries.
Location: 42.599164° 2.972289°