A Tale of Two Cities – Oloron-Sainte-Marie – Part One (Dennis Aubrey)


The town of Oloron-Sainte-Marie is located at the confluence of two gaves, or mountain rivers in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques; the Aspe and the Ossau. This divides the town into three parts. To the west on the left bank of the Aspe is the ecclesiastic city with the imposing Cathédrale Sainte Marie. This area is known as the Quartier Sainte Marie. To the south on the high ground is the feudal city, which actually started life as a Celtic settlement and subsequently became the Roman oppidum called Iluro (which later became corrupted to “Oloron”). The history of Iluro disappeared with the Visigothic invasions that decimated the Roman province of Gallia Aquitania in the 5th century. Today the high ground of the Quartier Sainte Croix is dominated by the Église Sainte Croix, a fine Romanesque structure. There is the modern Quartier Notre Dame on the right bank of the Aspe but the church there, the Église Notre Dame, is Romanesque in style only, having been completed in 1893.

Nave, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In the 4th century, the oppidum became the Christian city of Sainte Croix. The churches of the region were decimated with the invasions of the Visigoths in the following, but the Visigothic king Alaric II permitted Sainte Croix to be designated a bishopric. The first bishop was Gratus, who is celebrated in Oloron-Sainte-Marie every autumn during the Fêtes de la Saint Grat. From the festival logo shown here, my suspicion is that something of the original spirit of the festival has been lost in time.

Sainte Croix did not have much better luck in subsequent years. In the 6th century, the Vascones crossed the Pyrénées and pillaged the area, and in the 8th century the Saracen invasions left Sainte Croix in ruins. The city was almost deserted for two centuries. We will pick up the story of Sainte Croix and the town of Oloron in the next post, because today we will concentrate on the Cathédrale Sainte Marie.

The cathedral is a Romanesque structure built in the 12th century but only the western portal and parts of the transepts remain of that structure. The nave, composed of three great bays, was rebuilt in the 13th century after a fire caused by a riot destroyed the church. It was later raised to a greater height and side aisles added in the 14th century. Of this nave, only the two great pillars flanking the transept remain of the Romanesque church.

The travails of Sainte-Marie continued, unfortunately. The Protestant forces under Mongommery pillaged the cathedral in 1569 and it was not repaired until 1617. It was augmented in 1749 with the construction of the four lateral chapels and redecorated. The main restoration of the church by the Monuments Historique was finished in 1859.

Nave, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In this shot of the nave from the side aisle, we can see the lateral chapels that were added in 1749. We also get a sense of the strength of the structure with its massive engaged columns springing to the vaults above. We also see the nave windows that fill the space with light.

Nave from side aisle, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ Aubrey

The ambulatory reveals the 14th century chevet and the sanctuary, enhanced with high arches. Having been rebuilt during a single time frame, this is the most harmonious part of cathedral. The high ogival windows fill the ambulatory with light.

Ambulatory, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ Aubrey

This shot of the side aisle from the ambulatory shows the 18th century decoration and the 14th century side aisles that were added at the same time as the nave height was raised.

Chapel, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ Aubrey

The east end chevet is Gothic, of course, resulting from the 14th century reworking of the cathedral. The ambulatory chapels are clearly visible from the exterior forms.

Chevet, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ Aubrey

The crowning glory of the Romanesque portion of the church is the magnificent sculpted west portal, one of the earliest of its kind. We are lucky that the wars and disasters of the past have spared this masterpiece. The unique iconography of this ensemble is thought to be the work of two master sculptures, one who is known as “The Master of Oloron.” His hand can be seen in the tympanum and its depiction of the descent from the cross, as well as the atlantes supporting the trumeau.

The descent illustrates John 19:38-40 – “And after this Joseph of Arimathaea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, besought Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus: and Pilate gave him leave. He came therefore, and took the body of Jesus. And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight. Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury. (KJV)”

West portal, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ Aubrey

The portal trumeau shows two figures straining to hold up the weight of the columns, indeed the cathedral itself. These atlantes by the Master of Oloron are some of many fascinating details to be found in this sculptural array.

Trumeau detail, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The portal is sheltered by an open narthex that empties directly onto the parvis. This Gothic portal was carved into the massive Romanesque tower that dominates the western profile of the cathedral. We can see from this shot that Sainte-Marie is an integral part of the local quartier that bears her name. We can see another of the atlantes supporting the exterior columns here.

Narthex to parvis, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ Aubrey

One of my personal favorite details of the portal are the figures on the central band of the archivolt. They represent the works of the seasons – in this case we see a wheelwright, a mason, and a cooper, but other vignettes include a butcher, forester, cobbler, smith, baker, cook, and even a musician.

Archivolt detail, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Another detail familiar to lovers of Romanesque sculpture are the squatting figures supporting the columns just to the north of the archivolt, clearly unhappy with their burden. The entire portal dates from about 1120, so this is one of the earliest depictions of this pair, others of which are found at the Église Saint Pierre des Tours in Aulnay-de-Saintonge and elsewhere.

Exterior capital detail, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Today Oloron-Sainte-Marie is known mostly as an important stop on the pilgrimage to Santiago Compostela, the collection point for the Via Tolasana from Arles. While we were there we saw pilgrims in both the cathedral and the Église Sainte Crois. In the latter, we actually saw a pair of walkers changing their clothes in the middle of the church! I guess we surprised them in the otherwise empty church. Our next post will be about the interesting Romanesque church of Sainte-Croix.

Location: 43.187846 -0.615936

As so often happens, there is a story that goes with this post to show how history is ever-present in France, or at least it has been for me since I was a boy. We have wonderful family friends who live outside the small town of Vivonne just south of Poitiers. The Clain River runs through the Gayet’s property and I was fascinated by the fact that the Saracens followed the Clain on their way to despoil the city of Tours in 732. Just north of Poitiers the Saracen army was met by the forces of Charles Martel and was defeated on October 10, 732. This was the first check in the Muslim conquest of Europe. But even more fascinating to my young mind was a small hill crowned by a flat field that was owned by the Gayet family. It was a lieu-dit called the Champs d’Alaric. The local legend is that after the battle of Vouillé (where Clovis defeated Alaric II and the Visigoths) Alaric was buried with a great treasure on this spot. When we visited the Gayets, I often walked to this hill and and dreamt of the pageantry and tragedy of Alaric’s death.

6 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Cities – Oloron-Sainte-Marie – Part One (Dennis Aubrey)

    1. Carol, am not sure about the date on that. My 19th century references do not talk about this at all, although it must have been in place because it is not modern. It may well be a Gothic intervention placed when the narthex was carved out of the Romanesque tower.

  1. That is some magnificent church! I love the sculptures, and those colors in the chapel must have been brilliant! Thanks, Dennis and JP.

    1. Yuri, as wonderful we found the Oloron cathedral, I just finished the next post on the second church in Oloron – the church of Sainte Croix. That church is absolutely stunning.

    1. Steve, thank you so much. The health has improved so much lately and this was such a pleasure to do. Finished part 2 of the post about the Église Sainte-Croix in Oloron today, will publish tomorrow. It is so wonderful to have the energy and stamina to actually research and write like this again.

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