In the Footsteps of St Bruno: Grenoble Cathedral

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Notre-Dame Cathedral, Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Grenoble, Grenoble, France

In my travels in France I have learned one thing about its churches: what you get on the outside isn’t necessarily reflective of what’s on the inside.  A good example of this is Grenoble’s cathedral, which has a somewhat unimpressive exterior, literally squished between other buildings – and somehow it fits in with the city’s somewhat understated confidence and grandeur.

The church is built in an area which was occupied by the Romans, and was within the city walls – as can be seen in the basement of the Old Bishop’s Palace next door.  The first mention of the cathedral is from 902, but the whole structure has been frequently rebuilt and amended, most notably in the 13th century.  The entire cathedral was, like so many of its siblings, entirely remodelled during the 19th century, and a concrete facing was placed on the front to make it more harmonious and visible amongst its neighbouring buildings.  Moulded cement was very popular in Grenoble in the 1880s, and there was some controversy when this facing was removed in 1990, because it was felt that one of the city’s most emblematic constructions had been lost.  The grumblers probably had a point, because now the outside is so dull that I didn’t even take a picture of it.

Luckily, the inside is more interesting.  One of the building’s most striking features is the fact that it is a rare surviving example of the double church; the cathedral has a parish church joined on at the side, which is accessible through the door shown below.  This is the entry into St Hugh’s Church, a small, simple church which is probably the oldest in Grenoble.  It was originally dedicated to St Vincent, but was named after Grenoble’s bishop, St Hugh, in 1134, after his canonisation.  St Hugh was a popular bishop who defended his diocese against the self-interested rulers who wanted to overpower the town.

Perhaps his most enduring act, however, was his involvement in the creation of monasteries.  He is particularly remembered for his association with St Bruno, who set up the Carthusian order in the Massif of Grande Chartreuse.  Of course, St Bruno himself had had an important role in the religious world of the Middle Ages, but the modern era is probably more interested in the fact that his monastery subsequently produced the famous Chartreuse liqueur.  That is something to be proud of, since the enterprise obviously makes the order a nice sum of money, but I wonder what St Bruno would make of the whole thing…

And now we’re back into the main body of the cathedral.

The back of the choir is decorated with panels of carved and gilded wood, depicting scenes from the life of Christ, which date from the 18th century.  The main altar has a double tabernacle – the upper tabernacle dates from the 16th century and was gifted to the monastery of the Grande Chartreuse by the Charterhouse of Pavia. Unfortunately it wasn’t possible to really see these.

On the right you can see the 15th century ciborium, commissioned by Bishop Siboud Alleman.  It still looks very impressive, but it had its statues destroyed by Calvinists in 1562.  Again, you couldn’t really see it very well, because you weren’t allowed to get anywhere near it.

On the right hand side of the altar is the chapel of the Sacred Heart, decorated with frescoes by the abbot Laurent Guétal.  The original chapel was decorated in fulfilment of a vow in memory of the deliverance of the city by Austro-Sardinian troops in 1815.  It was demolished in 1862 when the cathedral was being restored, and was later recreated in fulfilment of another vow – this time the vow of the bishop during the siege of Paris during the Franco-German war of 1870.

So In Summary

The Cathedral was really lovely, and had some fascinating details to explore.  It was also wonderful to see that, on a weekday afternoon, it was quite busy with worshippers popping in and praying in the various chapels – which was one reason why I didn’t take that many pictures.  The many changes to the structure over the centuries has left the building with unexpected traces of medieval art amongst the blowsy, flaking Victorian decoration.  It makes for a charming mix – not exciting, not breathtaking, but certainly the type of place that makes itself conducive to contemplation and prayer.

Further Information

It is free to visit the cathedral.

The cathedral has its own website (in English!) which gives all the basic information about services and visits that you’ll need:

How To Get There

It is quite a schlep from the train station to the main heart of town.  I recommend getting trams or buses.  Of course, I was there during a heatwave, so perhaps the walk wouldn’t have been so arduous at other times, but still, here is a link to the local transport site:


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