Albi, in the shadow of St Cecile’s Cathedral, a scandalous painter, Toulouse-Lautrec

At the Berbie Palace (former episcopal palace), the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum, a child of Albi (Photo FC)

Doesn’t this brick-red Albi Cathedral have everything of a Fortress! This is the largest brick Cathedral in the world (113 m long, 35 m wide, 78 m high) listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Raised on its rock, it is visible from everywhere. It is the heart of the most extraordinary episcopal city of the South (comparable to that of Poreč in Croatia). At its feet flows the Tarn River. A bridge spans it, one of the oldest bridges in France (still in operation). It dates back to the 13th century. Once crossed the canopy (southern entrance to the cathedral), grandiose porch, the only stone element of the building, it is a mind-blowing sight that awaits the visitor: 18,500 m2 of frescoes and decorations. They depict episodes of the Bible under a midnight blue sky making Albi, the largest painted cathedral in Europe. Always on the register of magnificence, in the gallery, the great organs (work of Christophe Moucherel from 1734 to 1736), among the most beautiful in France, with extraordinary dimensions. But, you’ll believe it! A church was raised inside the cathedral. It’s in the middle of the nave. It is the incomparable jube, a “magnificent madness” was said to house the chorus of the canons. Finally, a treasure (whose facsimile is exhibited), the Mappa Mundi preserved for 1300 years by the Albigeois, priceless witness of the history of humanity.  

St Cecile's Cathedral of Albi (from the Episcopal City). Built in the 13th century in the southern Gothic style, it is the largest brick cathedral in the world: 113 m long, 35 m wide. It was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2010 (Photo FC)
St Cecile’s Cathedral of Albi (from the Episcopal City). Built in the 13th century in the southern Gothic style, it is the largest brick cathedral in the world: 113 m long, 35 m wide. It was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2010 (Photo FC) 

 

St Cecile's Cathedral of Albi and its impressive bedside, with its cylindrical buttresses acting as defensive turrets. It was part of the defensive system incorporating the Palace of Berbie and could accommodate 6000 Albigeois in case of danger (Photo FC)
St Cecile’s Cathedral of Albi and its impressive bedside, with its cylindrical buttresses acting as defensive turrets. It was part of the defensive system incorporating the Palace of Berbie and could accommodate 6000 Albigeois in case of danger (Photo FC) 

In the shadow of the cathedral, another world, debauchery! 

But below the cathedral, at the Palace of Berbie, it is another world that is exposed, that of debauchery, prostitution, shopping, that of Paris and Montmartre at the end of the 19th century with the girls of joy, the dancers, the singers…; the world of brothels, cabarets, theatres, café-concerts, balls… It is the work of a child of Albi, Toulouse-Lautrec, expressionist painter, poster artist and lithographer, one who knew how to go beyond all conventions to live a carnal attachment to his art. If he defied morality, he kept his very short life a deeply human look for those (and those) who were his role models. 

At the Berbie Palace (former episcopal palace), the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum, a child of Albi. His paintings, his drawings, his posters, his lithographs are now exhibited in majesty, in the shadow of St Cecile’s Cathedral (Photo FC

Japan’s Empress Michiko in Albi faces Toulouse-Lautrec’s work 

Today, Toulouse-Lautrec is one of the most popular (and expensive) French artists in the world. Albi had the chance to inherit the works that remained in his studio when he died in 1901. Countess Adele of Toulouse-Lautrec wanted to perpetuate her son’s memory. For the record, the Luxembourg Museum declined this legacy probably too considerable! In 1922, the galleries dedicated to Toulouse-Lautrec were inaugurated in this medieval brick fortress that was the Palace of Berbie. It should be remembered that in 1994, Albi received a visit from the Japanese imperial couple. Empress Michiko (from a Catholic background), influenced by her brother (he had a passion for Toulouse-Lautrec) asked to visit the exhibition alone. Doesn’t Toulouse-Lautrec count among the most famous Japanese with Van Gogh or Monet (the art of printmaking). In 2012 and after 11 years of work, a unique place opened in this fully restored episcopal palace finally offering a museography worthy of the largest public collection, in France and abroad, dedicated to the child of the country. 

*In fact, he did not need to sell them financially, even though he saw in the sale the recognition of his art. 

Today, Toulouse-Lautrec is one of the most popular (and expensive) French artists in the world. Albi had the chance to inherit the works that remained in his studio when he died in 1901 (Photo FC)
Today, Toulouse-Lautrec is one of the most popular (and expensive) French artists in the world. Albi had the chance to inherit the works that remained in his studio when he died in 1901 (Photo FC) 

Sainte-Cécile versus Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec 

What a paradox for Ste Cecile, a grandiose cathedral of Albi raised like a red fortress in the face of heresy! It houses the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum in its Episcopal Palace (The Palace of Berbie). It brings together the world’s largest public collection of his works. But Henri Marie Raymond of Toulouse-Lautrec Monfa, born in Albi at the Hôtel du Bosc, a great aristocrat descended from the Counts of Toulouse, embodied the scandal at the end of the 19th century. Her models: whores, singers, dancers, actresses and circus squires. Affected by a bone disease that made her almost a dwarf, he is also this syphilitic and alcoholic dwarf who shows off naked in front of his photographer friends, as a bearded choirboy on Trouville beach. 

*Henri was still a teenager and suffered a fractured left femur and then his right leg. Affected by pyknosis, a hereditary bone disease, its growth stopped. He did not exceed 1.52 m. He never was able to realize his dream: to ride a horse and accompany his father to the hunt. 

Toulouse-Lautrec, this awesome gnome! 

Yet Toulouse-Lautrec, awesome gnome is a giant of expressionist painting. If his model was Montmartre’s brothels, theatres, cabarets and other café-concerts, his work is preclude of humanity showing the inhuman conditions in which these women work! No moralism, nothing scabrous. To the others, the gritty wink. In fact, beauty is almost never the order of the day. See the portraits of these women with aged faces, these expressions of stress, weariness and fatigue: it is a suffering body said to draw suffering bodies. He was never this cursed painter rejected by his family even though his father told him not to sign by his last name. But he was by his side when he died on a stormy night on September 9, 1901 at Château Malromé in Gironde. He was only 36. His paintings, his drawings, his posters, his lithographs are now exhibited in majesty, in the shadow of the cathedral. He is certainly in his place. Didn’t Jesus forgive the sinful woman, this prostitute, who came to spread perfume on his feet (Luke 7:36-50)? 

Albi Museum Toulouse-Lautrec (Photo FC) 
Albi Palais de la Berbie, Toulouse-Lautrec Museum Room (Photo FC) 
Toulouse-Lautrec- Yvette Guilbert- Museum Toulouse-Lautrec-Albi (Photo FC) 

In 2012 and after 11 years of work, a unique place opened in this fully restored episcopal palace finally offering a museography worthy of the largest public collection, in France and abroad, dedicated to Toulouse-Lautrec (Photos FC) 

Renaissance gallery located in the Amboise wing of the Berbie Palace and the décor of its inverted boat hull ceiling with paintings from the late 15th century (Restoration dating from 2012, led by Christian Karoutzos (Photo FC) 

 This dazzling Episcopal City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site  

One must imagine this Episcopal City as an exceptional collection of listed and remarkably preserved buildings. It is structured around its monumental cathedral expressing a unique southern Gothic style, complemented in the 15th and 16th centuries by an exceptional interior decoration (paintings, choir and statuary). Then the Episcopal Fortress Palace (Berbie Palace). It was erected in the 13th century. It is now home to the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum. All this is presented in a perfect visual coherence due to the use of the fairground brick (brick of Roman tradition, large and flat). Then comes the Church of St. Salvi and its cloister*, the Old Bridge and finally the banks of the Tarn between the Old Bridge and the railway bridge. What a sight! 

*St. Salvi’s Church, one of the oldest buildings in Albi. It housed the collegiate of the canons and their abbot. 

The Episcopal Fortress Palace (Berbie Palace) within the Episcopal City. It was erected in the 13th century. It is now home to the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum. All this is presented in perfect visual coherence due to the use of the fairground brick (Photo FC).
Albi, episcopal city, the garden of the Palace of Berbie. They overlook the banks of the Tarn. They were created at the end of the 17th century in place of the old courtyard of the palace (here to the south, the embroidery garden, a real work of goldsmith). The “all by hand” (watering, pruning, cleaning, harmony of volumes and colors) is imposed by the configuration of the site (Photo FC) 

The Palace of the Berbie, a museum that brings together the most important collection of works by Toulouse-Lautrec: 31 posters of the lithograph painter, 219 paintings, 563 drawings, 183 lithographs. The first rooms are devoted to the works of youth around his family, his friends and his favorite theme, animals. Then comes the Parisian world of the painter, the brothels and especially the world of entertainment, the circus. On the second floor, a collection of modern art to evoke the artistic friendships and contemporaries of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: Emile Bernard (1868-1941), Maurice Denis (1870-1943), Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), as well as a group of painters called “Poetic Reality”

St Cecile’s Cathedral of Albi, nearly seven centuries of history 

A cathedral born in the throes of Cathar heresy. Church-fortress, warrior church, monumental cathedral! She’s grand, she’s fierce, she seems impregnable. See its narrow windows pierced like murderers! Albi the Red was erected to protect itself as much from the wrath of men as from the wrath of God. For in these Languedoc lands, home to Cathar heresy, the Church had to fight for its preservation. But let us not see in the red bricks drawn from the clay molasse of the banks of the Tarn any allusion to the dried blood of the Albigeois cathars! And yet, isn’t it with 18,500 m2 of frescoes and decorations, the largest painted cathedral in Europe? 

The paintings of the vaults were made in record time (1509-1514) by Italian painters. They have never been retouched: nearly 100 m long and 20 m wide. It is a veritable biblical encyclopedia on a blue and gold background, evoking the sky around Christ in Glory. They are the oldest in France (DR) 

Strength and profound harmony 

The powerful mass of Albi Cathedral has thus retained, over the centuries, its originality and profound originality. An emblematic expression of militant architecture and a particular style, stripped down but colorful, it represents the grandiose synthesis of the structural rigor of Gothic and a formal rigor of its own. It touches the mind and sensitivity both through its power and its profound harmony. 

Church-fortress, warrior church, monumental cathedral! She’s grand, she’s fierce, she seems impregnable. The exception would be this southern façade, which has been placed on a sublime “canopy” taking place in the old fortified gate (Photo FC) 

Pope preaches crusade against albigeois 

The Albigeoise heresy, also known as catharism, is one of the heresies that periodically put the Church in danger. It developed in the 12th and 13th centuries, in a context that was difficult from both a religious and political point of view. The King of France seeks to regain control of a power that the Counts of Toulouse are not willing to return to him. Among the Cathars, the ideal of poverty and adherence to the principles of Eastern Manichaeism (the permanent struggle between good and evil) are accompanied by the rejection of the authority of the Church. This heresy then developed considerably. Dioceses are being formed; bishops are appointed, dragging behind them a crowd of faithful. Albi, the center of the Cathar world (hence the name of Albigeois given to heretics) then belongs to the Count of Toulouse Raymond VI (1156-1222), known for his great tolerance. But when a legate of the pope, Pierre de Castelnau, is assassinated on his land on January 14, 1208, it is too much. Pope Innocent III reacted by preaching the crusade against the Albigeois. It was led by Simon de Montfort, who, with his army of lords from northern France, carried out massacres and looting; “Kill them all, God will recognize his own” Hence a bloodbath throughout the south of France. 

This cathedral-fortress supposed to protect the bishop 

Although it was at the heart of Cathar heresy (it was taken in 1215), Albi did not suffer from the crusade. It is then that the old cathedral is seriously undermined by a series of riots due to conflicts with the inhabitants who fight for their municipal freedoms. Bishop Durand, known for his involvement in the capture of the Cathar fortress of Montsegur, undertook a semblance of restoration. But it’s true builder arrived in 1277, in the person of the fearsome Dominican Bernard de Castanet. He combines the functions of bishop and inquisitor of the faith. His first decision was to build a new church next to the old cathedral and near the new episcopal palace. Not just any one! A church-fortress in which he feels safe. He entrusted the construction to Pons Descoyl, the great Catalan architect to whom we owe the Palace of the Kings of Mallorca, in Perpignan. A cathedral! Rather an empty auditorium where preachers came to hammer the true doctrine to the heretics. He and the cathedral chapter agreed to give up one-twentieth of their income in the first years, at the same time as the Albigeois were asked for a special tax corresponding to one-tenth of the proceeds from the sale of wheat, until the completion of the building. But nothing but usual, yet things get bad very quickly. Castanet fought heresy with such vigor that he provoked strong reactions of hostility in his diocese. Pope Clement V orders an investigation. At the same time, King Philip the Bel put his property in receivership. Castanet made only brief appearances at Albi, before being transferred to Puy in 1308. 

Albi, Ste Cecile’s Cathedral, this bell tower-dungeon launched as a challenge 78 meters above the city, can only be understood in a conflicting environment (Photo FC) 

A cathedral shamed by the people 

The church-fortress of Albi and its bell tower-dungeon launched as a challenge 78 meters above the city, can only be understood in this conflicting framework.  Since Albi has a cathedral church, it would not have been that the inhabitants had peace with their lord will write a lawyer in the 15th century. It is shamed by the population, who more than once try to force its doors. As often happens in the South or in Spain at that time, the canons had to face a number of revolts, and sometimes the bishop was besieged in his own cathedral, which then became a veritable entrenched camp full of weapons and ammunition. The first stone was laid on August 15, 1282, but by 1301 the construction was only a third advanced  and the vaults had not yet begun. It was not until 1392 that the building was fully vaulted. To leave no grip on the assailant, the new building is a smooth building. Here, no butt arches used in the cathedrals of the North: it is inside that the buttresses thicken to support the vaults. The plan is very simple with its huge nave without collateral or transept. The walls are reinforced with towers and turrets between which were pierced long and narrow windows. The walls are so thick that the chapels are stuck in their thickness. Finally, in front of the western façade, a dungeon of square plan whose height does not exceed that of the nave, flanked by two round towers, brings to this totally blind building a touch of impregnable fortress. The material is brick, used for the sake of simplicity all Dominican, concerning also economy. Clay quarries are plentiful in the area and this brick limits the use of scaffolding. It imposes very thick walls on which we work directly. 

A challenge: from a fortress cathedral to a palace 

But Sainte-Cécile was not to remain the austere building desired by Bernard de Castanet. In the 15th century, its bishop Louis I d’Amboise (1473-1502), came from the North. For this brother of Cardinal Georges d’Amboise, the all-powerful minister of Louis XII, the cathedral can only be a palace. It was he who built in the middle of the nave the incomparable jube, a “magnificent madness”, to use the words used by Prosper Mérimée in the 19th century (he left many coats of arms there). Magnificent and vast jube where, until the Revolution, some seventy statues rubbed shoulders in an extraordinary flamboyant setting made of scalloped arches, niches, canopy and crafted pinnacles. This choir is one of the few of this period, which remained intact. The bishop’s fortune and perfect taste allowed him to gather a plethora of artists who could work quickly to create this work. This perfectly controlled abundance appears in particular to the vaults of the jube and to the canopy above the episcopal pulpit. 

Four-poster porch of Albi Cathedral made of white stone. The local tradition called “Baldaquin” (Canopy), the grandiose porch signaling the southern entrance to the cathedral (the only one open to the faithful until the 19th century). Initially open-air, it gives access to a luxuriously ornate portal and a vestibule covered with a sumptuous vault, made between 1510 and 1515 at the initiative of Charles de Robertet, whose arms he bears. Its flamboyant Gothic style decoration is exuberant but extremely fine (Photos FC) 

 The Choir of the Canons, an absolute masterpiece restored in 2015 

Entrance to the Gothic plyt Sainte-Cecile of Albi, jewels of the cathedral. It is considered the most beautiful in France. Every detail sculpted with finesse recalls stone lace (Photo FC) 

 Sainte-Cécile d’Albi is the only cathedral in France to retain its entire choir. Imagine a sumptuous nave whose choir is the jewel, a real church inside the cathedral. The jube and the closing of the choir were as planned by Louis d’Amboise at the end of the 15th century. More than five centuries old, the choir of the canons dates from the episcopate of Louis I d’Amboise (1474-1503). It had never been the subject of any major restoration. In addition to the fence, which is sumptuously stone-paneled, the choir is decorated with a statuary ensemble that originally included 280 statues, 150 of which remain in place today. The statues from the outside depicting characters from the Old Testament and, inside, from the New Testament. This is the western part of this great choir that was restored in 2015. The work has focused on painted and sculpted decorations, wooden stalls and marble paving. The lighting of the choir of the canons, as well as a new sound system. The whole thing was financed by the private sponsorship of the World Monuments Fund Europe (the European branch of the world’s leading private international organization for the preservation and restoration of heritage). 

*”They had been covered with yellow  Arabic gum, as well as angels to give an antiquarian style patina. The bruises had turned green. We had a hard time removing this layer,” said Pierre-Yves Caillaut, the chief architect of historical monuments. 

Jube and large Gothic choir of St Cecile’s Cathedral in Albi (Photo FC)
The stalls of the Choir of the Canons of The Cathedral of Albi (Photo FC) 

  When elected officials are awakened by the trumpet of the last judgment 

To Louis I d’Amboise we also owe another treasure, a plastered painting dealing with the Last Judgment, of which unfortunately the central part is missing, figure of the radiant Christ, destroyed in 1695 during the drilling of the façade. It shows the elect suddenly awakened by the trumpet of Judgment, coming out of the ground one behind the other entirely naked, in a huge procession. Everyone holds the book of their life tight on their chests. Then comes the crowd of the damned who lament as they are separated according to the seven deadly sins … Louis d’Amboise also raises the 1365 dungeon with a three-level bell tower rising to 78 meters. He dedicated his precious cathedral in 1480. 

Below the great monumental organ built between 1734 and 1736, the Last Judgment painted at the end of the 15th century (Photo FC) 

 The Last Judgment of Albi, one of the world’s greatest pictorial compositions 

Hell in the Painting of the Last Judgment, Albi Cathedral (Photo FC) 

This Last Judgment painted at the end of the 15th century and located below the great organ of St. Cecilia’s Cathedral is one of the largest pictorial compositions in the world. It is 18 m long, 10 meters wide. Executed with a thick paint made from egg yolk, grease, crushed powder and glue, this monumental work with very raw realism remains in excellent condition. The central part was destroyed in the 17th century. It represented Christ the Judge and the Archangel St. Michael, weigher of souls. In the middle register, angels sound the trumpet announcing the Resurrection and Judgment. The dead emerge from their tomb. They come out of the ground and appear, naked waiting for their fate. Open on their chests, their life books on which are inscribed their good and bad deeds. To the right of Christ, the elect advance in procession to go to paradise. To his left, against a backdrop of tormented sky, the crowd of the damned destined for hell. It occupies the entire lower register organized into seven compartments, as much as capital sins. Thus are grouped the sins committed by the damned: the proud, the lazy, the greedy, the envious, the angry and the luxurious. And with each sin, a punishment: the proud are attached to wheels, the envious immersed in frozen rivers, or the gluttons invited to an eternal banquet, during which they are without respite filled with toads and watered with stinking river water. It’s a scary sight. It is linked to the omnipresence of death that dominate this late Middle Ages occupied by wars, famines and epidemics. 

Waiting for the final judgment, nudes and book of their open life (Photo FC) 

Never-edited frescoes  

Louis I was replaced by his nephew Louis II, who arrived in Albi in 1503, and then by Charles de Robertet. They are the frescoes of the vaults of the nave and the grandstands entirely painted in shades of green and ash blue. The lower chapels were decorated between 1509 and 1520. It is a gigantic work made by Italian artists during their visit to France following the wars in Italy. We know the name of the head of the Albi painters’ studio: Joa Franciscus Donela, from the principality of Carpi, who had adopted the French party. They were installed in pods suspended by ropes passing through the vaults through holes that still exist. This décor has been covered with old frescoes. Placed on the southern façade, a sublime “canopy” seems to want to erase the first fortified door. This stone lace rises above the main entrance to the cathedral. It bears the coats of arms of the four bishops who succeeded each other from 1519 to 1550. 

*These paintings of the vault and walls are the work of painters from the region of Bologna (northern Italy). 

The vault of St Cecile’s Cathedral in Albi, seen here above the Grand Organ, is the largest painted area in the world. Never restored, we admire only more the bright color. Commissioned by Louis II d’Amboise by Italian painters between 1509 and 1512 (Photo FC)

 The 19th century raises its roof 

The 19th century was not tender for St. Cecilia. The architect César Daly, to whom it was entrusted in 1848 for thirty years, raised the roof of 7 good meters to protect the paintings of the vaults, thus modifying the appearance of the building, which he crowned with a round path with niches, thereby over lifting the buttresses in the shape of turrets, to mitigate its hardness and break the monotony. The restoration of the frescoes took place in four campaigns by Italian, then Parisian and finally Toulouse artists. 

Stay in Albi in the red city, wine and gastronomy 

The historic, brick-enclosed Mercure Hotel has exceptional views of the Tarn, St Cecile’s Cathedral and the Berbie Palace, which includes the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum. It was built in an old water mill dating from 1770 that served as a pasta factory for the Sun brand (Photo FC) 
An invitation to discover Gaillac wines (Photo FC) 
Breakfast in front of Albi Cathedral (Photo FC) 
Mathieu Carcenac presents the new Gaillac grape variety, the Prunélard (Photo FC) 

 

Albi covered market just a stone’s throw from St Cecile’s Cathedral (Photo FC) 
Albi sunset over the Tarn and St Cecile’s Cathedral (Photo FC) 

 The author of this article  is a journalist, member of the Association of Heritage Journalists (AJP). 

Translated by Lynn Jennings-Collombet

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