A Tour of the Cathédrale Saint Sauveur

Looking for things to do in Aix-en-Provence? Travel through time at this historic church.

The Cathédral Saint Sauveur is one of the highlights of Aix-en-Provence, France

The Cathédral Saint Sauveur is one of the highlights of Aix-en-Provence, France

Cathédrale Saint Sauveur
34 Place des Martyrs-de-la-Résistance
13100 Aix-en-Provence, France

Looking through the Gothic nave into what’s known as the choir

Looking through the Gothic nave into what’s known as the choir

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.

During the French Revolution, the statues of the kings of France were decapitated.
Good things come to those who wait: Construction of Saint Sauveur began in the 5th century and went on into the 19th century

Good things come to those who wait: Construction of Saint Sauveur began in the 5th century and went on into the 19th century

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.

Did Jesus really knock up Mary Magdalene, who gave birth to their kid…in the South of France?!

Did Jesus really knock up Mary Magdalene, who gave birth to their kid…in the South of France?!

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.

ANOTHER “DA VINCI CODE” CONNECTION: Saint-Sulpice and the Mystery of the Rose Line

Construction of Saint Sauveur began in the 5th century with the baptistery

Construction of Saint Sauveur began in the 5th century with the baptistery

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.

This area of Saint Sauveur is thought to have been built atop a temple to Apollo

This area of Saint Sauveur is thought to have been built atop a temple to Apollo

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.

The eight sides of the baptismal font represent regeneration — you’ll see octagons all over this part of the church

The eight sides of the baptismal font represent regeneration — you’ll see octagons all over this part of the church

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.

As the cathedral was enlarged over the centuries, it became a mishmash of three main architectural styles 

As the cathedral was enlarged over the centuries, it became a mishmash of three main architectural styles 

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.

 

Romanesque 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.

 

Gothic Nave

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.

There’s a real organ — and a fake one added for the sake of symmetry

There’s a real organ — and a fake one added for the sake of symmetry

Baroque Nave

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.

Three saints can be found in the Baroque nave, including Marguerite of Antioch, off to the right, with an unusual-looking dragon

Three saints can be found in the Baroque nave, including Marguerite of Antioch, off to the right, with an unusual-looking dragon

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.

Stained glass saints in Saint Sauveur

Stained glass saints in Saint Sauveur

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.

In the Gothic nave, you’ll find a modern cathedra, a throne for the bishop. We think it looks more like something he’d take a dump on

In the Gothic nave, you’ll find a modern cathedra, a throne for the bishop. We think it looks more like something he’d take a dump on

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.

Check to see if the Triptych of the Burning Bush, by Nicolas Froment, will be on display when you visit

Check to see if the Triptych of the Burning Bush, by Nicolas Froment, will be on display when you visit

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.

Look for the Roman prophetesses lining the arch of the main entrance, among other sculptures

Look for the Roman prophetesses lining the arch of the main entrance, among other sculptures

Western Façade

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.

Holy Savior! They built a church for you!

Holy Savior! They built a church for you!

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.

Careful, Saint Michael! I know you’re busy killing the Devil, but we don’t want you falling off the roof!

Careful, Saint Michael! I know you’re busy killing the Devil, but we don’t want you falling off the roof!

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