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Palace of the Popes

30 November, 1999

Martin Gani visits Avignon and learns about the infamous “Babylonian Captivity”.

World Heritage site
In a quiet corner of Provence, distant from the glittery and hedonistic coastal resorts like Cannes, Nice and St Tropez, lies the profoundly spiritual Avignon, reverentially referred to as la ville d’esprit de la France. A fortress-like sandstone structure with crenellations and towers heaves above the rooftops. This is the famed Palais des Papes where seven successive French popes chose to administer Christendom during the 14th century instead of from Rome. The imposing palace-fortress has dominated the skyline of Avignon for some 650 years and added a significant chapter to the history of the Catholic Church. During the French Revolution, though, it was seriously threatened with demolition but later it was transformed into an army barracks and remained such till 100 years ago. In 1906, the army left the palace and a massive restoration was begun which has continued to this day. In the meantime, Palais des Papes has returned to its former sacred splendour and was declared a World Heritage site in 1995. It is the most visited monument in France after the Basilica of Mont St Michel.

Like a pilgrim, I join hundreds heading for the ‘Palace of the Popes’ through the Porte de Loulle, one of ten or so gates along the medieval walls and turrets which circumnavigate the entire town centre. Amazingly, the ancient walls are still almost completely intact and act as a sort of timeline beyond which the clocks seem to go back several centuries. The incongruous sea of cars parked along the walls as well as the din of modern life are left on the outside, a peaceful enclave of old buildings, some transformed into atmospheric hotels, restaurants or shops, narrow cobblestone-laid streets, delightful little squares remain inside as if captured in a time capsule. At the main square, Place de L’Horloge, the sense of peace suddenly gives way to a vast quadrilateral, which is a succession of cafés and eateries all of them bubbling with human conviviality.

I felt dwarfed by the popes’ gargantuan palace. The architecture of the slender, tall, blind arches is austere; a four-sided tower with battlements rises on the left; next to it lies the cathedral, Notre-Dame des Doms. From its bell-tower a statue of the Virgin Mary looks down, her frozen gesture seems to be throwing blessings at us. A staircase, below two pencil-like towers merging with the wall, leads to the entrance. Inside, a vaulted, frescoed hall teems with tourists anxious to learn the intriguing history of the building, the lives of the popes who lived here and why they left Rome in the first place.

Pope Boniface VIII
It all began when Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303) published two edicts, Clericis Laicos, which prohibited the taxation of the clergy, and Unam Sanctam, which asserted the supremacy of papal rule, threatening to dethrone rulers, and proclaiming that obedience to the Pontiff was absolutely essential for the salvation of every human being. Expansionist Philip IV, King of France, needed the clergy’s money to finance wars against his neighbours, England in particular. He had the Pope kidnapped at his hometown of Anagni, near Rome; but the King’s men failed to take him to France. Boniface died of shock shortly after. In his place, the Archbishop of Bordeaux was elected as Clement V as head of the Catholic Church. With encouragement from the French King, Clement left Rome for good and settled in Avignon in 1309. There was nothing extraordinary about taking up residence outside Rome during times of political turmoil; in fact between 1198 and 1305 the popes spent only 40 years in the Eternal City. What was new was the Pope’s exceptionally long absence from Rome, till 1377, and his subservience to the French King, despite the fact that Avignon was separated from French territory by the Rhône River and remained so till 1791.

Two palaces
Palais des Papes is really two palaces, an old one (Palais Vieux), built by Pope Benedict XII starting in 1335, and a new one (Palais Nouveau), completed by Clement VI some 20 years later. Popes Innocent VI and Urban V made further modifications and contributed the walls during the next decade. Both palaces developed around a central courtyard as a two-storey structure and in a way reflect the background of Benedict, an ex-Cistercian monk, who naturally believed in simplicity, and Clement who came from a noble family, and who favoured opulence and appreciated art; hence Clement commissioned the Italian artist Matteo Giovanetti to paint magnificent frescoes to decorate his palace. Sadly, most have now disappeared but what remains gives a good idea of what the rest must have been like. For instance, in the Great Audience Hall where Clement attended to matters of justice, full portraits of the 18 prophets from the Old Testament, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, still adorn a portion of the vaulted ceiling on a sky-blue background.

Huge, bare and dimly-lit halls and chapels on the first and second levels are linked with straight, wide staircases. As expected, Clement’s Grande Chapelle is bigger than Benedict’s Chapelle Pontificale. There is the Consistoire where the cardinals met, and the Grand Tinel where formal dinners were held. The kitchens are in a tower with a pyramid-like chimney. Here I learn that at Clement’s coronation ceremony 1,023 sheep, 118 cows, 101 calves, 914 lambs, 60 pigs, 3,043 chickens, 1,195 geese, 50,000 cakes, 600 kilos of almonds, 39,380 eggs were consumed. The most interesting locations are all in the Vieux Palace. In the Tour de Pape (pope’s tower), conveniently above the treasury, lies Benedict’s bedroom; strangely Clement didn’t have one built for himself and moved into Benedict’s. The room is richly decorated with Arabesque-like vines with birds interspersed between the branches and leaves on a blue background, Why did the Cistercian Benedict allow such elaborate decorations? Did Clement have something to do with it? Standing in the middle of the room, where once the most powerful men on Earth slept, one can’t help feeling like a curious intruder. The feeling is renewed peeking into the studium next door, where the Pope spent his private hours reading. The discovery of the 14th-century tiled floor with colourful geometric decorations in 1963 put the studium off limits. Adjacent to the Pope’s room is the famous Chambre du Cerf (deer’s room) where Clement ordered Matteo Giovannetti to paint the room freely and elaborately with frescoes. The result is a chamber totally covered with a dark forest depicting hunting and fishing scenes amazingly still in perfect condition. The other visually rewarding places are the two small chapels, St Martial and St John, one on top of the other. The walls and ceilings of the two chapels carry wonderfully restored depictions of the lives of the two saints.

Three popes
As I leave the palace, my eyes need a few moments to adjust to the bright daylight of Provence. A string of weary tourists are sipping drinks at a café opposite. A street entertainer is sinuously dancing to an upbeat crackling tune from a dusty tape recorder. The winding street takes me to Rocher des Doms, the highest point in Avignon. A park shaded by trees and cooled by a pond, with a gracious female statue emerging from it, offers a tranquil corner and a worthy vista of the Rhône and beyond. A 13th century bridge, Pont St Benezet, spans the river only halfway, just as enigmatically a chapel, St Nicolas, has stood on the bridge ever since it was conceived. It was across Pont St Benezet that Pope Gregory XI decided to return to Rome and end what the Italian poet Petrarch defined as the Catholic Church’s ‘Babylonian Captivity’ after the 70 years of Jewish captivity in Babylon. In 1378, a year after the Pope’s arrival in Rome, the cardinals elected Urban VI, an Italian, hoping to calm the waters, However, by then out of 134 cardinals 111 were French and they hoped the new pope would remain subservient to France. When the new pope declined, the French cardinal retreated to Avignon, elected a second pope, Clement VII, and precipitated the famous Great Schism. Thus, Christendom had two popes, two colleges of cardinals and two curiae. In 1408, the Council of Pisa attempted to resolve the problem by electing a new pope and effectively forcing the two existing heads to resign. This only added to the confusion because none of the popes resigned and until the Council of Constance settled the question in 1414, the Roman Catholic Church had three popes! It’s unsurprising then that with all this fascinating history behind it, Palais des Popes should be one of France’s most visited monuments.

This article first appeared in The Word (October 2008), a Divine Word Missionary Publication.

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