Narbonne Cathedral: Between Heaven and Hell

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Cathedral of St Just and St Pasteur, Cathédrale Saint-Just et Saint-Pasteur, Narbonne, France


The city of Narbonne is very close to the Spanish border, so it seems appropriate that its cathedral is dedicated to two Spanish martyrs, the brothers Just and Pasteur.  Actually, like many churches in this region, it retains its title of Cathedral despite the fact that the archbishopric of the city was removed to Carcassonne in 1803.  Still, it is a magnificent building and deserves to be explored – we got chucked out because of a wedding, so we sort of rushed round…

Because of the way the Cathedral sits next to the complex for the Bishops’ Palaces, you get great views of the decorative elements and buttresses from some of the rooms of the Old Palace Museum.  There is also access to the cloisters, which are being cleaned, but which are very attractive and provide a cool and shady spot to recover for five minutes on a hot day.

The origins of the cathedral are in 1272 when construction started, with the choir being completed in 1330.  The Hundred Years War brought a halt to construction in 1345 and it basically remained halted until the 18th century brought large-scale work back to the site.  Nevertheless, its most peculiar aspect is a hark back to the Gothic style, with the ‘body’ of the church, namely the apse and altar and choir, being a walled-off section in the centre of the building.  It’s a bit weird when you first walk in, because you don’t have a clear view of the altar – in fact, you don’t even see the altar except for the top parts peeking out over the wall.

One of the most dramatic tombs belongs to a fellow who was really quite fascinating.  Guillaume Briçonnet (1445–1514) was a French cardinal and statesman, son of Jean Briçonnet, who was secretary to the king and collector-general of Customs.  His father may have helped him secure the post of Superintendent of Finances in Languedoc, but through his integrity and efficiency he made Secretary of the Treasury during the reign of Charles VIII, and became a useful adviser to the King.  He was also heavily involved in the bad decision made by Charles which saw the French march into Italy in an attempt to assert their control over the Kingdom of Naples (over which Charles felt he had vague rights).  The campaign began well, but ended badly, but Briçonnet became cardinal, so it wasn’t so bad for him.

With the death of Charles VIII, Briçonnet’s influence was superseded, but he was the one who crowned Louis XII in 1498 and continued to be involved in the Council of State.  He retired to Rome for two years, during which time he opposed Pope Julius II and enticed a group of cardinals to form a council in opposition to him. Briçonnet was excommunicated by the Pope, but rewarded by his king, who gave him the Abbey of St.-Germain-des-Prés and the government of Languedoc.  When Julius II died, his successor, Leo X, absolved Briçonnet.  Briçonnet spent his last years in Narbonne, and has a rather fine, though quite humble, tomb.

The highlight of the cathedral was the Our Lady of Bethlehem chapel with a reconstructed 14th century altarpiece.  It was roped off at quite a distance so you couldn’t actually get close enough to see the details – it was only because of the zoom on my camera that I managed it, but in spite of this drawback it was still amazing to look at this vivid image of medieval scaremongering.  Its bad state of repair is due to the fact that it was found in fragments under 18th century panel decoration, and was restored over a period of ten years.  There are three registers, with more than 200 figures, including musicians, saints, scenes from the life of Jesus and, most dramatically, depictions of Purgatory, Limbo, Hell and Paradise.  Not much of the latter has survived, but tormented souls have survived… and they’re still screaming…

So In Summary

The cathedral is a stunning building: it combines architectural impressiveness with dainty artistic details with some fabulous survivors of the Middle Ages.  The highlight was the altarpiece from the Our Lady of Bethlehem Chapel – it’s a shame you couldn’t get close to it, because it is amazing to still have the colours on a work of this type and the level of detail would be better admired if we could get even within a metre of it.  Nevertheless, the whole experience of visiting the cathedral was just wonderful, and hopefully if I ever get back there, I can spend more time just absorbing the atmosphere of this historically and artistically rich building.

Further Information

The cathedral is free to enter.

There doesn’t seem to be a website for the cathedral, but there is some information (in French only) about places to visit in Narbonne, with some downloadable pdfs:

How to Get There

The walk from the train station to the centre of town is pretty straightforward, but if you want information about buses, this is the official site with Google-translate English, or just pretty basic French:

To get to Narbonne by train from Spain or elsewhere on France’s south coast, check out the excellent national site in English:

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