Looking for things to do in Aix-en-Provence? Travel through time at this historic church.
Cathédrale Saint Sauveur
34 Place des Martyrs-de-la-Résistance
13100 Aix-en-Provence, France
Tucked amongst the pastel-colored 17th century mansions and narrow streets of the charming vielle ville, or old town, of Aix-en-Provence, France lies one of its oldest and most interesting monuments, the Cathédrale Saint Sauveur. (Try pronouncing it something like, “Seh So-Vurr.) Rising majestically, it occupies the site where the ancient forum of Roman Aquae Sextiae once stood.
A Brief History of Saint Sauveur
Located at a point along what was the Via Aurelia, the principal highway from the Iberian Peninsula to Asia Minor during the dominition of the Roman Empire, the Cathédrale Saint Sauveur evolved in fits and starts, beginning in the 5th century. Delays between the laying of its foundation and its completion due to wars, la peste (bubonic plague) and lack of financing bear witness to the amalgam of ecclesiastical architectural styles that make up the religious landmark.
Saint Maximinus and Mary Magdalene’s Voyage
According to Christian tradition, Saint Maximinus arrived in Provence from Bethany, a village near Jerusalem, accompanied by Mary Magdalene on a rudderless boat belonging to her brother, Lazarus. It was expected that they would perish at sea — however, the voyage brought them to the southern coast of France, landing in the city of Marseilles, where they achieved success in converting the French people to Christianity. In fact, Maximinus became the first Archbishop of Aix. He built a modest chapel here and dedicated it to Saint Sauveur, Christ the Savior.
There’s a popular theory (written about in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code) that says Mary Magdalene was pregnant at the time of her journey — with the baby daddy being none other than Christ himself! The descendants of that child eventually married into the French royal family and started the Merovingian dynasty.
The Baptistery Rotunda
The oldest part of Saint Sauveur is the baptistery, which was built at the beginning of the 5th century and predates the current cathedral by almost 700 years. As the town grew, the cathedral was renovated in the 16th century in the Romanesque style, evidence of the growing economic clout of the Catholic diocese.
This is the area off to the right when you enter the cathedral, and indeed, it has an ancient feel to it.
Allegedly, French historian Jean Scholastique Pitton uncovered an artifact, the orphaned leg of a statue, while excavating the site. He presumed this to belong to the sun god Apollo, and this became the origin of the Provençal myth that the church was built atop a pagan Roman temple dedicated to Apollo.
Eight slender columns of granite and green marble with Corinthian capitals surround the octagonal Merovingian baptismal basin. It was fed by the warm waters coming from the Roman baths. Its eight sides are a symbolic number of regeneration.
A Tale of Three Naves
The cathedral consists of three naves, compositionally connected to one another but nevertheless clearly distinguishable. The north is in the Baroque style, the south Romanesque, which served as the main nave prior to the construction of the central Gothic nave.
At the beginning of the 12th century, the principal nave was constructed next to the baptistery in the Romanesque style and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The front of the nave was demolished during the 15th century and replaced with a new Gothic façade and bell tower.
The cloister, just beyond the baptistery and accessed through the Romanesque nave, was built next to the cathedral between the late 12th century and the beginning of the 13th century. It was reduced in size in the early 18th century to expand the west corridor. At the corners, pillars are decorated with bas-reliefs depicting the four evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
About 200 years later, further expansion occurred, and a second massive Gothic nave and apse were added. The wings of the transept were begun in 1285 and completed in 1316. Bay by bay, the Romanesque church was embellished and transformed in the Gothic style. This is the area you’ll see first if you walk straight into the cathedral.
Just to the left of the Gothic nave as you enter the church, you’ll come to the small Baroque nave. To either side are green and gold organ cases in the Louis XV style, built by Jean-Esprit Isnard. The instrumental part by De Ducroquet dates from 1855. Both are listed historical monuments. An identical but false organ chest was built on the opposite side — just for the sake of symmetry.
A fascinating stone altarpiece commissioned by the Aygosi family, originally installed in the church of the Carmelites in Aix, can be seen in the Baroque aisle. Carved from stone by Audinet Stephani and installed in 1823, it depicts a variety of saints: Marcel, Anne with the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus and Marguerite of Antioch emerging from the shoulders of a dragon who had swallowed her whole.
Apse and Artwork
The cathedral underwent extensive renovation in the 19th century. The nave was redecorated with painted and sculpted neo-Gothic elements added between 1857 and 1862.
The choir gallery of the Gothic nave contains the high altar with a pair of carved giltwood angels, a modern sculptural cathedra, or bishop’s throne, which looks a bit like a gray tankless toilet backed by three wavy, glittering bronze panels symbolic of the Holy Trinity. Nineteenth century stained glass windows feature the coats of arms of high-ranking church clergy.
The cathedral’s most famous work is the Triptych of the Burning Bush by Nicolas Froment. Commissioned by King René for his funerary chapel in the church of Les Grands-Carmes, it is considered one of the most beautiful 15th century paintings in Europe. Painted in 1475 and 1476, it has resided in the Cathédrale Saint Sauveur since the 19th century. Due to its fragility, they only open the case on specific days; sadly, ours was not one of those days.
With the completion of the nave, attention was drawn to the western façade, which was demolished and replaced in the Gothic style. Figures representing the Apostles flank the cathedral doors. Above the portal are the figures of 12 sibyls, pagan fortune tellers from antiquity, surrounded by foliage, fruit and flowers.
During the French Revolution, the statues on the façade, believed to depict the kings of France, were decapitated, and the heads were lost. The current ones are replicas.
The centerpiece of the façade is a statue of the Archangel Saint Michael vanquishing Satan with a cross, made in 1507 by sculptor Jean Paumier.
If you’re in Aix-en-Provence, pull yourself away from the delightful open-air markets to spend an hour or so exploring the choose-your-own-architectural-adventure of the Cathédral Saint Sauveur. It’s a bit like traveling through time, as you make your way from the ancient baptistery to the modern bishop’s throne. –Duke