It was late afternoon on a June day in Arles. There was a warm breeze as I sat at a white iron table outside a café at La Place de la République, enjoying a glass of pastis. Beneath the blue, white and red awnings, I found the simple pleasure of pouring water into pastis in a glass and watching it turn cloudy, to be a minor miracle. Before me was the expansive square, surrounded by several historic buildings including the City Hall, the Eglise Ste. Anne, l’Hôtel de Ville, and the Cathédrale Saint-Trophime d’Arles. In the center was the Egyptian Obelisque d’Arles. 50 feet tall, it dominates the square, and is surrounded by a classical water fountain creating mini rainbows in the sunlight. The effect is calming, serene and refreshing. There were few visitors around, the tourist season would not begin for another few weeks.
The exquisite detail of the Cathedral of St Trophime
Built upon the fifth century Basilica of Arles, the construction of St. Trophime began in the eleventh or perhaps early twelfth century. It was expanded, renovated and repaired through the next millennia. It has an extraordinarily beautiful twelfth century entrance portal. The West Portal – the main entrance – offers incredible scenes of Christian imagery. The most impressive are of the Apocalypse as described by both St. John and St. Matthew. Another is of Christ seated in the tympanum above the entrance, with religious symbols surrounding him. A man for St. Matthew, the ox for St. Luke, the eagle for St. John and the lion for St. Mark. Christ is also shown entering Jerusalem.
I was enthralled by what I saw, the power that such scenes played in the lives of the faithful is evident. There are other images: Christians on their way to Heaven on the left side of the portal, sinners on their way to Hell on the right side. There are scenes of the Baptism of Christ, the Annunciation, Herod and the Magi, the slaughter of the Innocents and more. The lower level of the portal holds statues of saints related to Arles, while the bases of the columns to either side of the entrance show statues of Samson and the lions and Samson and Delilah. It is a most remarkable entrance into St. Trophime.
The Cloister has different vaulting for its galleries. The North and East Galleries (thirteenth to fourteenth centuries) are Romanesque, while the later South and West Galleries (late fourteenth century) are early Gothic. Constructed in the second-half of the twelfth century and the first half of the thirteenth century, the Cloister was intended for the use of the Canons, who assisted the bishop and maintained the cathedral and its grounds. Since they lived like monks, the Canons shared common areas with them: Dormitory, Refectory and Cloister.
UNESCO listed site
Within a few years after the construction of the cathedral, Arles declined in importance when the Counts of Provence moved from there to Aix-en-Provence. St. Trophime’s power and its leaders then moved to the papal palace in Avignon, part of the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. A century later, the Canons left the dormitory and moved to houses within the cathedral walls. The dormitory, refectory and chapter house were then turned into granaries and storehouses.
The North Gallery was built in the mid-twelfth century. It is Romanesque, with a high, barrel-vault ceiling. The carvings of the columns’ capitals show scenes from Easter, as well as the glorifying of Arles’ patron saints. Others show how the Old and New Testaments were related. A single pillar is devoted to St. Trophime, the patron saint of Arles. The Western Gallery dates to 1375. It focuses on some events in the history of Provence as well as other moments known to local residents, including the stoning of St. Stephen, Samson slaying the lion and being seduced by Delilah, and the Coronation of the Virgin.
To recognize and preserve its historic significance, in 1981, the cathedral was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, part of the Arles, Roman and Romanesque Monuments Group.
Overall, the cathedral of St. Trophime is a wonderfully enriching experience and well worth an hour to visit.
By John Pekich producer, director, actor and writer, especially of original Sherlock Holmes and Victorian Mysteries in Cape May, New Jersey, USA