Two Forgotten Cathedrals – Digne and Senez (Dennis Aubrey)


Today’s post is on two of the forgotten cathedrals of the Haute-Provence, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg in Digne-les-Bains and Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption in Senez. Both Digne and Senez lost their episcopal standing at the French Revolution, like so many other dioceses in the region. In fact, while we were shooting in this region of the Haute-Provence, we noted an abundance of former cathedrals. In what was known as the Province of Embrun (Alpes Maritimæ) there were cathedrals in Embrun, Digne, Glandèves, Grasse, Nice, Senez, and Vence. In the adjacent province of Aix (Narbonensis Secunda) there were cathedrals in Aix, Apt, Fréjus, Gap, Riez, and Sisteron.

They must all have administered to limited populations. Vence had a total of sixteen parishes, and when combined into one see with neighboring Grasse, they mustered only twenty-five together. Compare this to the diocese of Chartres which numbered 1,338 parishes. The reason for all these bishoprics in the area, so near each other, is because of a singularity – these correspond with the political divisions of the Romans, the civitates.

Digne’s Notre-Dame-du-Bourg suffered an earlier indignity. At the end of the 14th century, the population of Digne moved to higher ground to defend itself against attacks and they built a new church there, the Église Saint-Jérôme. In 1591, the Huguenot leader Lesdiguières (referred to in our article on Embrun) pillaged Notre-Dame-du-Bourg and the see was transferred to Saint-Jérôme in 1591. Now outside the walls, the Église Notre-Dame-du-Bourg was virtually abandoned and served as a necropolis. It was only in 1962 that she regained her status as co-cathedral with Saint-Jérôme.

Exterior from west, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg, Digne-les-Bains (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

Of the two cathedrals, Notre-Dame-du-Bourg is by far more interesting to us. The first church was built in the 4th century around a baptistery, Notre-Dame de Consolation, and expanded a century later with a large church. The structure of the current church was built on this footprint in the 13th century and consecrated in 1330, and – except for a recent authentic restoration – has remained relatively unchanged.

When we arrived, the church was locked but the crypt, the former necropolis, was open as a museum for the archaeological digs that have been ongoing for a century. We talked to the two women who worked there and asked if there was a possibility of photographing inside the church. After some discussion, the senior staffer made a call and then told us to follow her. She unlocked the front door and let me in to the small vestry, which was separated from the church by a glass door. She said that I could photograph from that spot. She must have seen my disappointment because after about five minutes she opened the glass door from the inside and said that we could shoot inside “for a few minutes”. I told her that we would normally spend a minimum of two to three hours in a building like this, but she shook her head. She could only leave her colleague unsupervised for a few minutes.

Western portal, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg, Digne-les-Bains (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

In the time allotted we took as many photos as we could manage. Notre-Dame-du-Bourg is basically a long hall church (164 feet) with a nave, no side aisles, and large blind arcades framing windows on the south. It is covered with a fine banded ogive barrel vault. There are two transepts with echeloned chapels in the east wall of each transept.

Nave, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg, Digne-les-Bains (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The nave elevation shows the blind arcade leading to the cornice which hides the springing of the vault. Like her sister cathedral in Sisteron, Notre-Dame-du-Bourg has engaged columns topped by simple capitals that support the bands of the nave vault.

Nave from south transept, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg, Digne-les-Bains (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

The apse has a flat chevet pierced with three windows and is covered with a barrel vault. Above the crossing on the apse wall is a small oculus. The three windows are by the Canadian artist David Rabinowitch and were part of a 1998 ensemble replacing all of the windows in the church.

Apse, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg, Digne-les-Bains (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

In the crypt, there is a Merovingian autel-cippe (funerary altar) dating from the 5th or 6th century on a mosaic platform that was preserved from the first church.

Autel paléochrétien et mosaïque (Source: Routard.com)

The superb 15th century fresco on the south wall represents the Last Judgment. The representation is quite complex, beginning with the top left that shows Christ in mandorla passing judgment. The top row shows the Seven Virtues – Humility, Liberality, Chastity, Patience, Charity, Abstinance, and Diligence. The second row shows the corresponding Seven Deadly Sins – Pride, Avarice, Lust, Anger, Envy, Gluttony, and Sloth. The bottom row shows the punishments in hell for each of the deadly sins above.

On the north wall of the nave is another century fresco of the Annunciation that we unfortunately did not have time to photograph.

Nave frescoes, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg, Digne-les-Bains (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In discussing these small, remote cathedral towns, some mention must be made of Senez. Elise Whitlock Rose, one of my favorite observers of medieval cathedrals, wrote about this small village. “The hot sun of Provence, which ‘drinks a river as man drinks a glass of wine,’ shone on the long white route nationale that stretched out in well-kept monotony through a valley which might well have been named ‘Desolation.’ On either hand rose mountains that were great masses of bare, seared rocks, showing the ravages of forgotten glaciers; the soil that once covered them lay at their feet. Scarcely a shrub pushed out from the crevices, and even along the road, the few thin poplars found the poorest of nourishment.

Crossing a small bridge, there came into view an ancient village, a mere handful of clustered wooden roofs, irregular, broken, and decayed.

‘It was a city in the days when we were Romans,’ said the Courier, ‘and they say that there are treasures underneath our soil.'”

Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Senez (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence), Photo by Vida Hunt Francis (1906)

PJ and I wended our way down the same route nationale (albeit paved) and through the same unchanged bare, seared rocks, and crossed the same little bridge into what was probably the same little village with possibly the same chickens poking about the square. A young boy went by kicking a soccer ball and scattering the chickens. I hailed him and asked if it were possible to visit the locked church. He took me to a notice posted on a side door and pointed to a name, saying that this woman had the key, but she was not available right now. We would have to come back another day. He went down the small street kicking his ball and we were left in the quiet square in front of the ancien cathédrale. We would not shoot there this year, but will have to come back to Senez some other time. I think the patient Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption – and the chickens – will wait for us.

Note about the windows: One of the reasons that the we regret not being allowed more time to photograph at Notre-Dame du Bourg is that we could not photograph the stained glass windows by David Rabinowitch. Here is a wonderful article (in French) on these windows. The photographs alone are worth a perusal

Location: Digne 44.097253° 6.242990°
Senez 43.913174° 6.406927°

3 responses to “Two Forgotten Cathedrals – Digne and Senez (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. In my mind I compare the churches you so magnificently photograph with my experiences in Florence, Siena, and Rome. One that stands out for me is the Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence that was rebuilt by Arnolfo di Cambio for the Franciscan order in 1294. Michelangelo, Rossini, Machiavelli, and Galilei, are all buried there in elaborate constructs. The marble church façade however was added in 1863 although the tour guides ignore or simply don’t elaborate on that part of the story.

    • Lawrence, we were in Santa Croce last year. The artwork in the church is simply astonishing from the Giotto frescoes to the Henry Moore sculpture. I have never been sure why it was about 150 years after the start of construction that the church was finally consecrated.

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