An Aix-eptional Experience: the Cathedral of Aix-en-Provence

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Cathedral of St Saviour, Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur d’Aix-en-Provence, France

The elegant town of Aix-en-Provence has an unexpectedly low-key cathedral.  There isn’t a huge square in front, there’s only one bell tower, and the outside looks a tad decrepit.  Once you go inside, however, the dark interior gradually brightens up and offers a cosy space for exploration and worship.

The cathedral is built on the site of the Roman forum.  It started out as a chapel, which, according to tradition, was built by St Maximinus of Aix and was destroyed during the Saracen invasions of the 8th and 9th centuries.  At the beginning of the 12th century, a new church was built on the site and new sections were added and old sections were rebuilt so that the Romanesque style was replaced by the fashionable Gothic design.  There is a mish-mash of styles in the Cathedral which adds to its charm, and the neo-Gothic decoration of the nave from the 1850s fits in very well.

The facade is basically early 16th century.  There are statues by Jean Mone, and Jacotin Paproche, while the centrepiece, showing St Michael and Dragon, is by Jean Paumier and dates from 1507.  There were also statues on the tympanum, but these were destroyed during the French Revolution.  It’s interesting that the rest wasn’t destroyed too.

At the beginning of the 6th century, the original baptistry was built – the octagonal baptismal pool and lower parts of the wall date from that period, as probably do the columns. You can see the bases of the porticos from the Roman forum from a viewing hole.  The fragment of fresco on the wall from the 12th century shows how beautiful and rich the decoration was, telling stories from the lives of saints.  As it is, the walls are now covered in striking 19th century paintings representing the seven sacraments, which stylistically work well in the space.

Actually, I was struck by just how many fine paintings are on show, many of which had been loaned by the Louvre.  Unfortunately a number of them were difficult to see and weren’t lit too well.  The finest painting, though, is the so-called Burning Bush Triptych by Avignon-based Nicholas Froment, the court painter of King René of Anjou.  It is an exceptionally fine painting, originally in the funerary chapel of René in the Church of the Grands-Carmes in Aix.  It was moved to the cathedral in the 19th century.  Until 2010, it wasn’t possible to view the painting, but since its restoration it is sporadically open.  Check the website if you want to be sure to see it when you visit.

The other highlight is the Altar of the Aygosi, by Audinet Stéphani.  Like the above painting, this was originally in the Church of the Grands-Carmes in Aix and was moved here in the 19th century.  The whole creation is very striking, from the beautiful face of St Maurice, to the stoical pain of Christ on the cross.  And it’s interesting seeing St Margaret of Antioch and the dragon who swallowed her; apparently he vomitted her out because the cross she wore irritated his innards.

So In Summary

Even though it doesn’t look like much in my pictures, the cathedral has a really lovely atmosphere.  I visited on a hot summer’s day, on a Sunday, right after the service was finished.  There was a considerable turn-out, which was nice to see, and it was great to hear the organ in action.  However, the highlights were the exceptional artworks, which is great to see in situ – even if not in their original situ – and not in a museum.

Further Information

There is a website in English:

The 12th century cloisters and lapidarium are not open all the time – both were closed when we visited, which was a shame because they looked very interesting.

How To Get There

Aix-en-Provence is quite a small town.  The Cathedral is in the centre and easy to walk to, even in the heat.  For information on how to get to Aix, please check out my post here.


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