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°

Two Romanesque Masterpieces of Stained Glass (Dennis Aubrey)


We are preparing some detailed technical posts on medieval stained glass, but thought that this would be a nice introduction. Stained glass is generally thought of as a Gothic art form, but in researching the history, we found that this glazing was known earlier. The earliest windows with figurative scenes are known from the Basilique Saint Remi in Reims from around the year 1000. These windows no longer exist. The earliest surviving example of pictorial stained glass is a tenth-century head of Christ from the tenth century excavated from Lorsch Abbey in Germany. The oldest surviving in situ stained glass windows are thought to be the five clerestory windows depicting the prophets in Augsburg Cathedral, which date from about 1065.

In France, we still have a few examples of Romanesque windows in Poitiers, Le Mans, and – of course – Notre Dame de Chartres.

In 1194 a fire destroyed the great Romanesque cathedral of Bishop Fulbert of Chartres. This church was filled with stained glass, but of those that survived, only a few were deemed worthy of reuse in the new cathedral – the large windows in the west facade and Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere.

Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere features a crowned Mary a throne dressed in a garment of blue. On her lap is Jesus, with a nimbus surrounding his head. In his left hand he holds an open with the words Omnis vallis implebitur. This is a quotation from Isaiah 40:4,

“Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”

Detail, Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Detail, Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In this closeup we can see the pearled nimbus surrounding the Virgin’s head. In 1906, the glazier Gaudin restored this section of the window. Previously Mary’s gaze was fixed straight ahead, but after the restoration her head inclines slightly to the left.

The Crucifixion window at the Cathédrale Saint Pierre in Poitiers is at the center of the flat chevet, a large (8.45 x 3 meters) stained glass ensemble from Suger’s Saint Denis atelier. It is described by Robert Grinnell as having “an Ascension lunette at the top, a large Crucifixion register in the center, and a smaller quatrefoil in the lowest register containing a Visitation to the Sepulcher, the Martyrdom of SS Peter and Paul, the resurrection of Adam and Eve, and a donor’s lobe with a badly mutilated inscription in the bottom panel.” [Robert Grinnell, Iconography and Philosophy in the Crucifixion Window at Poitiers (The Art Bulletin V. 28 No. 3, September 1946)]

Crucifixion window, Cathédrale de Saint Pierre

Crucifixion window, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The window is located in the oldest part of the structure and ascribed to the second half of the 12th and the first quarter of the 13th century. The iconography is so compelling and powerful that I find it difficult to describe, and for this reason the image we posted is of higher resolution than normal to allow readers to inspect it closely. But let me draw your attention to one thing beyond the brilliance of the reds and blues – the image of the crucified Christ is not an image of suffering as we would expect. Instead, the saddened Christ seems to be embracing the world with eyes open and arms outstretched, beyond the pain and suffering and already taking on his role as Redeemer. This is an astonishing depiction and gives the window a sublime majesty.

Crucifixion window detail - Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Poitiers (Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Crucifixion window detail – Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

While certainly the art of stained glass reached its apogee in the 13th and 14th centuries, these earlier examples demonstrate that the artists well knew both their craft and how to use it for the depiction of sacred scenes. Both of these masterpieces remind us of the genius of these medieval arts. To be able to look back nine hundred years to gaze at them in their perfection is a gift to all of humanity, not merely Christians or art historians.

Cathédrale de Saint Pierre, Poitiers (Vienne)


Saint Pierre nave.tif | Via Lucis Photography.

This is the Angevin cathedral built by Henry Plantagenet and Eleanor of Aquitaine (I almost said Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn).  It is a wonderful example of Angevin Gothic and is graced with one of the most beautiful examples of medieval stained glass, the Crucifixion window at the far end of the shot. Once again the Canon 17mm tilt-shift lens shows how superbly it captures the scale and grandeur of these great churches.

Crucifixion window, Cathédrale de Saint Pierre

This work of art is so beautiful that it is impossible to describe and is worth a trip to Poitiers on its own.  At the very bottom Henry and Eleanor make an offer of the stained glass window.