The Ancien Cathedral of Saint-Lizier (Dennis Aubrey)


The small town of Saint-Lizier in the rural Ariège has been for many centuries the possessor of two proud medieval cathedrals. Part of the town – the ville haute – is perched on a steep hill above the turbulent waters of the Salat River, rising from the nearby Pyrénées. This section is crowned by the smaller of the two cathedrals, Notre Dame de la Sede, built in the fourteenth century, probably on the site of an ancient church of St. Martin. The second, the present Cathedral of Saint-Lizier, occupies the lower section of the town and was consecrated by its Bishop, Saint Raymond of Durban, in 1117, though part of the structure dates from earlier days. It was greatly supplemented in the latter half of the thirteenth century.

PJ’s photo of Saint-Lizier shows the Palais des Evêques on the ville haute while on the left we see the octagonal bell-tower of the Cathédrale Saint-Lizier in the lower town.

Ville Haute, Saint-Lizier (Ariège) Photo by PJ Aubrey

The cathedral is composed of a nave but no side aixles, short – almost stubby – transepts, each with an echeloned chapel, separated by a groin vaulted chancel crossing, and then the central apse. The nave is dominated by a curious deviation on the axis from the apse. This means that the transept arch is completely off-center and the long three-bay nave comes in at an extreme angle. We have not discovered why the church was built in this way, but we have come across a church in Moustiers-Saite-Marie in the Provence that also has such a nave. In that case, the church was scheduled for a major reconstruction. The choir was rebuilt, but the Cardinal Pierre de Pratis died before the project could be completed and the nave was never constructed. The ill-fitting church that we see today was the result. It does not seem that the cathedral in Saint-Lizier suffered in this way, however.

Nave, Cathédrale (ancienne) et cloître à Saint-Lizier, Saint-Lizier (Ariège) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Looking at the chevet from the exterior, we see short transepts and chapels projecting from them. Between the is the apse that dominates the church today. Notice that the two chapels are not of the same size and were possibly built at different times. Dominating the skyline is the superb octagonal tower. Construction of this bell-tower began in the 12th century but wasn’t finished until the 14th century.

Chevet, Cathédrale (ancienne) et cloître à Saint-Lizier, Saint-Lizier (Ariège) Photo by Daniel Villafruela (Wikipedia Commons)

The central apse is the glory of the cathedral. It is covered by an oven vault while the choir is covered with the original barrel vault. The oven vault is graced with a magnificent 12th century Christ in Majesty while the blind arcades of the semi-circular apse are filled with other superb Romanesque frescoes from the same time. The arcades feature upper and lower registers with different sequences of paintings in each. Starting on the north side (the left side looking from the nave) the lower register presents the Annunciation, then the Visitation and a worn and faded Nativity. There are also the remains of the Adoration of the Magi. The upper register shows the Apostles and some other saints, probably of local renown.

Apse, Cathédrale (ancienne) et cloître à Saint-Lizier, Saint-Lizier (Ariège) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We can see the blank arcades in the choir, they appear to be without any signs of frescoes. But they were undoubtedly painted at one time as we can see from the photo from the north transept in PJ’s shot.

Apse from south transept, Cathédrale (ancienne) et cloître à Saint-Lizier, Saint-Lizier (Ariège) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In this shot from the north transept, we can clearly see the traces of the painting in the choir arcades, especially in the upper register. Imagine how spectacular this painted apse and choir would have looked in 1117 at the consecration ceremony.

Choir and Apse, Cathédrale (ancienne) et cloître à Saint-Lizier, Saint-Lizier (Ariège) Photo by PJ Aubrey

The next photo shows one of the many wonderful details of the cathedral, this time sculpted decorations on the column pediments in the transepts. We have almost never come across this particular embellishment in any of the Romanesque churches that we have photographed.

Column pediment, Cathédrale (ancienne) et cloître à Saint-Lizier, Saint-Lizier (Ariège) Photo by PJ Aubrey

The cloister of the Saint-Lizier cathedral, of the twelfth century, is the only one still standing in the department of Ariège. It is located southwest of the cathedral, in the corner between the nave and the south transept. The cloister has four galleries and comprises a Romanesque ground floor and a second floor built in the fourteenth century. On the ground floor, the gallery is formed by Romanesque arches supported by thirty-eight marble columns topped with decorative capitals.

Cloister, Cathédrale (ancienne) et cloître à Saint-Lizier, Saint-Lizier (Ariège) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The capitals are ornamented with four styles – there are stylized plants such as palms, acanthus leaves and other plants, there are figurative styles with masks, and fantastic animals, geometric motives like basket work and braiding, and finally, narratives filled with hunting scenes, visions of temptation and a couple of scriptural references, including Adam and Eve.

Capital – Samson fighting the Lion, Cathédrale (ancienne) et cloître à Saint-Lizier, Saint-Lizier (Ariège) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In this next shot, we can clearly see the upper gallery of the cloister. This section was added to the Romanesque cloister in the 14th century.

Cloister, Cathédrale (ancienne) et cloître à Saint-Lizier, Saint-Lizier (Ariège) Photo by PJ Aubrey

The old cathedral in Saint-Lizier is blessed with abundant riches; it possesses a superb cloister and Romanesque paintings in the apse that are among the finest that we have seen. This was our third attempt to get to this region of France, but illness prevented one and another we had a change in schedule. We are so delighted that we were finally able to photograph here.

To close this post, I can’t help but quote a wonderful legend about the construction of the Romanesque bridge that still crosses the Salat River. It is a familiar tale, a variation of the Faustus story with its own clever variation.

“The master craftsman in charge of the enterprise concludes a pact with Lucifer: the bridge would be built in one night, before the rooster crowing, and the entrepreneur would give to Satan a Christian soul – was it his? that of someone I know?

The horned-footed man was careful not to refuse, and that night there was a great commotion in hell, and in the Couserans a great commotion. The devils made the chain, the blocks of stone arrived with the rapidity of lightning. And the astonished waves of Salat saw four pillars rise with dizzying speed, and the arches connect these pillars: the work was coming to an end.

However, the imprudent workman lamented his bet, and, anxious, sought the means of eluding his criminal promise. He lit his lantern … Is it chance? Is it Providence? He casts his light on the henhouse. It is the salute: awake with a start, the cock does not doubt that he is late for the awakening, and quickly, very quickly, it sounds the most sonorous cocorico. Lucifer had lost his wager: he had almost finished the work, and he would not have the coveted soul! Disappointed, he fled with all his devils. But a stone was missing at the bridge: it can never be consolidated, even with iron tenons. “(Ch. Gros in 1912)

Location: 43.001667 1.1375

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