STEVE AND CAROLE IN VENCE

Cathédrale Notre Dame De La Nativité

November 18, 2020

I can see the top of the bell tower, decorated with its 13th century crenellations, peeking over the rooftops of the old town when I look out the window of my small home office here in Vence. Declared a National Monument in 1944, the Cathédrale Notre Dame de la Nativité (Cathedral of Our Lady of the Nativity) sits in the center of the village. With the small Place Godeau (once the parish cemetery) to the east and the larger Place Clemenceau (home to the city hall), to the west, the cathedral is one of the most visited landmarks in Vence. Noticeable for its diverse architecture and design it features Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque characteristics, all tangled together for a rather unique look that works surprisingly well.

Vence has a long and historic religious heritage and the cathedral served for many centuries as the headquarters of the Bishopric of Vence. Said to be built on the site of an ancient Roman temple dedicated to Mars and Cybele, parts of the current cathedral date back to the 11th century. A Merovingian church existed on the same site sometime during the 5th and 6th centuries, to be followed by a Carolingian church during the 9th and 10th centuries. There is some speculation that the two Roman columns displayed in Vence, one in the Grand Jardin and one in Place Godeau, were at one time part of the old Merovingian church, but there is no definitive proof and so it remains only a guess. There are numerous carved stone plaques, visible today on pillars and walls throughout the cathedral which attest to the existence of the Carolingian church.

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The Smallest Cathedral in France

All throughout the area of Nice, along the coast and up into the hills and mountains, there are many, many churches that are in fact bigger than the Cathedral in Vence. Some might even consider some of these churches to be more elegant, magnificent or grand. When many of us think of a “cathedral” we usually imagine huge, glorious, imposing structures like the Notre Dame in Paris or the famous cathedrals of Chartres, Amiens, Rouens and countless other French cities. So why is this humble, assuming little church in Vence considered a “cathedral” when so many other more grandiose churches are not?

What a lot of people (myself included until recently) don’t realize is that it’s not the size, opulence or style of a church that determines whether it is classified as a “cathedral.” A cathedral is, quite simply, a church that contains the “cathedra” of a bishop. Cathedra is the Latin word for “seat.” These churches, where a Bishop is stationed, thus serve as the central church of a diocese, conference or episcopate and are known as “cathedrals.”

For almost fifteen hundred years Vence served as a diocese for the Roman Catholic Church, thus its church is a cathedral. In fact, it is the smallest cathedral in all of France, probably because the diocese here was the smallest and poorest in the country. Which can be a surprise to some of the tourists who come to Vence expecting to find a huge “cathedral” that matches their expectations and instead are presented with this small, modest church. But, I promise you, if you spend even a small amount of time exploring this fascinating structure you will come away both charmed and impressed. Like any real treasure, the more you look, the more you will see.

In 1988, 477 local volunteers came together to renovate the interior of the Cathedral. Over the course of one short week they worked, day and night, to clean and refurbish the building, contributing an amazing 5,426 hours of labor. Visiting the Cathedral today you may not notice their hard work, which in some ways might just be the highest testament of all to their energy and effort. You won’t find a more endearing example of how much the people of Vence love and cherish their Cathedral.

A long list of furniture and other items in the Cathedral are classified as Historic Monuments including the tomb, the stalls, the busts of Saint Véran and Saint Lambert, the baptismal font, the lectern, several funeral plaques, several paintings, several statues and much more.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Vence

The first known Bishop of Vence is thought to be Andinus who served in the position sometime around 363AD. A long line of successors (around 70), including Saint Véran (451-481), Saint Lambert (1114-1154), Antoine Godeau (1638-1671) and Jean-Baptiste de Surian (1728-1754) followed until the diocese was abolished shortly after the French Revolution. Saint Véran, the first patron saint of the city of Vence, is said to have saved the city from destruction when he met with the king of the invading Visigoths and single-handily convinced him to spare the city. Saint Lambert, the second patron saint of the city served as Bishop for forty years. He was known for his extraordinary kindness to all those he served.

The Concordat of 1801, an agreement between Napoleon and Pope Pius VII, signed on July 15, 1801 in Paris, sought to bring national reconciliation between revolutionaries and Catholics and solidify the Roman Catholic Church as the most important church in France. It did indeed succeed in resolving most of the conflicts and hostilities but as part of the agreement the Diocese of Vence was passed to the Diocese of Nice and no more bishops were to serve in Vence.

Steve and Carole in Vence - Map of Cathédrale Notre Dame de la Nativité in Vence.

A Walk Through the Cathedral

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(1) The Great Christ & The Baptistery

The main entry to the church is easy to find on Place Clemenceau. Before going in notice the two Gallo-Roman stone dedication tablets set in the wall near the ground, one to the left of the doorway and one to the right. The stone on the left reproduces the dedication from the city of Vintium (Vence) in honor of the Emperor Gordien the IIIrd. It dates back to the year 239. The stone on the right shows the dedication in honor of the Emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Pius Felix, also known as Elagabal. It was engraved in December 220.

Walk straight-forward towards the center of the cathedral (the nave). Almost immediately after you enter the church you’ll see, on the wall to the left, a fragment of a Carolingian sculpture featuring a peacock drinking from an amphora. When you reach the center of the church if you look directly to your left you’ll find a large large wooden statue of Christ on the cross (known as The Great Christ). The artist of this work is unknown and it is thought to be from the 16th century.

Ahead and to the left, in the northwest corner of the church, you’ll see the Baptistery which is decorated with a famous 1979 mosaic by Marc Chagall entitled “Moses Saved From The Waters.” Chagall lived in Vence from 1950 to 1966. It was during this time that he created most of the biblical paintings that now reside in the Musée National Marc Chagall in Nice. Long after he had departed Vence he returned to thank the city with this mosaic. It really is quite beautiful and the craftsmanship is amazing. The bright colors and the intricate detail make for a mesmerizing piece of art.

To be honest, I was a bit disappointed when I learned that he made the model for the mosaic and oversaw the construction, but he didn’t actually “make” this himself. I guess this is not an uncommon practice for artists, but still, I would be more impressed if I knew that his hands had actually built the mosaic.

The mosaic now hangs where an abstract painting of the Exodus by Nelies Nelek was once displayed. The baptismal font that stands beside the mosaic is something that historians are unable to date. Before you move on be sure to take a look straight up for a remarkable 17th century ceiling sculpture.

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(2) Chapelle de la Sainte Famille, Altarpiece of the Guardian Angel & Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament

Continue to your right and you’ll pass a large niche, the background filled with stars, which houses a statue of Saint-Joseph, made in 1848. Just past it is the Chapelle de la Sainte Famille (Holy Family Chapel) with an altarpiece that dates from 1862 and a painting of Jesus as a child with Saint John the Baptist, Mary and Joseph.

Next we find the huge Altarpiece of the Guardian Angel. There is a central painting representing the angel Gabriel with the young Tobias and a small dog. Sixteen more paintings surround it, eight on each side, representing various saints. It’s large, imposing and very impressive and though the exact dates of the paintings are unknown, they date back to sometime in the 1700s or before.

On two of the pillars in front of this altarpiece are marble plaques commemorating the town’s losses in World War I. Although there is also a large memorial in the town cemetery, these kinds of plaques in the churches are also very common throughout France.

Just past this piece is a small niche containing a wooden shrine with relics which were donated by Pope Paul III who was the Bishop of Vence from 1507 until 1511 and went on to become Pope in 1534. During a visit to Nice in 1538 the Pope made this gift to the people of Vence. The wooden box holding the relics was made in 1842.

At the far end of the cathedral is the Chapelle du Saint-Sacrement (Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament), located at the base of the bell tower. On one wall is a wonderful example of the Carolingian carved plaques, considered by many to be one of the finest in France. Another, representing an eagle or maybe a phoenix hangs high above two paintings on wood of Saint Véran and Saint Lambert. Also found in this little corner is the old door of the provost, dating from the 15th century. It’s an incredibly beautiful carved door with nine panels of carved artwork.

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(3) Chapelle du Sacré-Cœur, Chapelle Saint Véran, Chapelle Saint Lambert & Chapelle de la Vierge

We’ll save the altar until the end of our little tour, so cross over the nave of the cathedral until you come to a small chapel on the left (just past the altar), the Chapelle du Sacré-Cœur. A large painting hangs in the little space, behind which exists a hidden niche that was used to hide the remains of Saint Véran and Saint Lambert during the French Revolution when churches across France were being stormed and besieged by the revolutionaries.

During the week Mass is celebrated in the Chapelle des Quatre Évangélistes (Chapel of the Four Evangelists) right next to the Chapelle du Sacré-Cœur. It is so named because of the four large paintings in the chapel that represent the four evangelists. It’s thought that the painter is the famous 17th century painter, Jean Jouvenet, but it has never been established for certain. Unfortunately, this chapel is closed to the public most of the time.

Turning to your right you will face the Chapelle Saint Véran which contains a Gallo-Roman sarcophagus from the 5th century, the “Tomb of Saint Véran,” where his remains were placed for over a thousand years. There is also an 18th century painting of Véran blessing the people by the famous provencal painter Dandré Bardon and beautiful woodwork from the Renaissance.

If you look directly to your left you’ll see a large glass cabinet built into the wall which houses busts of Saint Véran and Saint Lambert, most likely from the 16th century. They are carried to the Saint-Michel plateau for mass each year on Easter Monday.

Continuing to the right (toward the entrance) is the Chapelle Saint Lambert, the altar of which was built on the tomb of Saint Lambert with an epitaph from 1154 carved into the stone. The altarpiece, similar to that of the Chapelle Saint Véran, formerly framed a painting of Saint Lambert, though today it has been replaced with wooden boards (I’m not sure why). It’s not known for sure, but it’s possible the painting could also be by Bardon.

There is one more chapel along the south side of the cathedral, the Chapelle de la Vierge (Chapel of the Virgin). It features a statue of Mary surrounded by thirteen small paintings representing the glory, sorrow and joy of the virgin mother. Amazingly, the statue is made of cardboard and created by Monsieur Provençal in 1810 in Nice. Considering the materials and the age, it is in remarkably good condition. The chapel also features beautiful twisted wood columns which were placed there sometime in the 1600s.

To the right of the chapel you’ll find one of the very few pieces of modern art in the Cathedral. “Notre Dame de l’An 2000” (Our Lady of the Year 2000) by Jean Pierre Augier is the work of a local sculptor. Several nearby villages feature his work alongside the roads leading into town.

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(4) The Nave & the Altar

Turn back now, head to the center of the cathedral and up the center aisle towards the altar. Walking down the aisle you will see numerous examples of the Carolingian carvings featuring interlacing figures installed on the pillars along each side. Take a few minutes to examine each of these as they are really quite fascinating. This Cathedral in Vence just might contain one of the richest collections of Carolingian stone carvings in France.

As you approach the altar you can see the organs placed high on the wall to the left. Made by the famous Frederico Valoncini in 1871 they have been recently restored. The altar itself is made from red and white marble, topped with a statue of three cherubs created in 1768 by the Genoese sculpter Joseph Schiaffini. If you look up you’ll see the only stained glass window in the Cathedral.

Behind the altar, to the left and to the right, sit two silver plated copper busts, one of Saint Véran and the other of Saint Lambert. Carved in 1825 and 1826 by a Parisian goldsmith from the place Saint-Sulpice they each sit on a glass case which contains the bones of the respective saints. These treasured relics have not left the cathedral for fifteen and eight centuries respectively.

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(5) The Trésor

Housed upstairs in the cathedral are many priceless “treasures” and “relics,” which play no small part in recounting the history and heritage of not only the Cathedral but the city of Vence and her inhabitants. For a long time access to these treasures was only possible during special occasions. However, the church as recently made it much easier to see these items. Today you can visit the upper level every day during certain hours (see below).

A statue of the Madonna, carved in 1953 from eucalyptus wood by Jean Vincent de Crozals, a native of Vence, stands in the stairwell which leads from the ground floor to the first floor. At this level the Romanesque architecture of the cathedral becomes more evident. The upper aisles of the 11th century church remain intact, complete with barrel vault ceilings and engaged half columns.

The Stalls

The tribune above the nave now houses the sculpted wooden stalls which were once situated in the choir of the Cathedral. This magnificent example of detailed 15th century woodworking is considered to be one of the prized possessions of the Cathedral. Created by Jacques Bellot, a woodworker from Grasse, between 1455 and 1460 these stalls are in remarkable condition considering their age. Gothic in style, heavily influenced and inspired by the Renaissance, they showcase the fine woodworking that existed in Provence during this time. These stalls were originally designed to allow for the bishop to gather with his chapter, cantors, dignitaries, beneficiaries and others for important ceremonies or discuss churchly matters. In 1499 they were moved from the main sanctuary to the gallery.

The Treasure Room

Just past the stalls you’ll find a large “treasure room,” where some of the church’s most precious valuables are kept and protected. These include liturgical clothes of the bishops of Vence dating back to 1636 as well as a large collection of silver, paperolles and paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries. Of particular interest are a chasuble of Bishop Antoine Godeau, a gold cross from Bishop Francesco Pisani and a manuscript in Gothic script that recounts the life of Saint Lambert.

Wooden Polychrome Statues

A magnificent set of wooden polychrome statues, reconstructing the various Stations of the Cross, is now housed on the first floor of the Cathedral. This set of statues is one of the most cherished and beloved treasures of the Vence Catholic Church. Originally created for the Calvary Chapels in the Ara district, these pieces range in date from the 16th to the 19th century. Considered some of the rarest examples of their kind they are very unique in France. Each of the small chapels that were part of the Calvary complex housed several of the statues which are about 1.5 meters tall. Created by local artists who were not experienced in statuary art they were damaged during the French revolution and moved from the chapels to the safer protection and care of the Cathedral where they remain to this day. After a recent renovation of the Grand Chapelle du Calvaire there were plans to move the statues back, but that hasn’t happened yet.

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The Exterior

The front of the cathedral features a facade of yellow, ochre and gold, very common colors in Provence. Much different than the facade you will find on most cathedrals, it is made of reinforced cement in the rococo style. The facade was restored in 1985 to its present state. At the southwest corner stands the Saint-Lambert Tower which dates from the 12th century, so named because Saint Lambert resided there during his time as bishop. We can take a short little walk around the Cathedral to visit several landmarks and get a better view of the building.

On the west wall of the church, along the Passage Cahours, are five Roman stone tablets embedded in the stones. One of them, dedicated to the Idean Mother Cybele, dates back to the 2nd or 3rd century. It says that Valeria Marciana, Valeria Carmosine and Cassius Paternus the priest celebrated a “taurobolium,” an ancient Roman ritual whereby a priest would descend into a pit beneath a sacrificial bull. The bull was then stabbed allowing the blood to wash over and purify the priest. After rising from the pit the priest and his garments were considered sacred in the eyes of those who worshipped Cybele. Others tablets represent funeral dedications to people known to the inhabitants of the village.

If you pass through the arches of the Passage Cahours and turn right on the small street of Rue de l’Évêché you’ll shortly come to an iron gate on the right through which you can pass into a very small courtyard. This structure was the former residence of the Prevôte, an assistant to the Bishops. The yard was directly linked to the Cathedral in the 13th and 14th centuries. You can see the cradled arches and the door of the former provost’s house which can also be seen from inside the Cathedral. It offers a combination of flamboyant Gothic and 15th century Renaissance motifs. There is also a wonderful Lombardy frieze over the stairway to the bell tower.

Continue on down Rue de l’Échêvé to where the best view of the bell tower and the chevet can be found, from Place Godeau. The bell tower, with its crenellations at the top, is very similar to other examples in the region. It dates to the 12th century, although it was rebuilt in 1887 after an earthquake struck the area. Not just a bell tower, it also served as a vantage point for surveying the surrounding countryside and most likely a guardhouse existed on top that was manned day and night for many centuries.

One of the highlights of the old town of Vence, Place Godeau still maintains its original feel and charm from medieval times. The cemetery which once existed here was cleared out in 1780 and moved farther outside of town. It contains the second Roman column donated to the city by the people of Marseille (the first one is located in Place du Grand Jardin). As I mentioned above, it is thought that these two columns may have, at one time, been part of the old Merovingian church. It’s even possible that they may have been part of the ancient temple of Mars. On the north side of the square there is a house with an authentic 13th century “twinned arched” window.

From Place Godeau you can venture down Rue Saint-Lambert and turn right on Rue de l’Hôtel de Ville (where you’ll see the former 19th century town hall) into Place Surian and then back to the entrance of the Cathedral.

For some reason that I don’t understand, there is very little information about this cathedral online, either in French or English. I’ve done some research and hope to present here what I think just might be the most in-depth overall look at this cathedral available online (especially in English). I got some of my information from the web, but a lot of it from a small booklet entitled “L’Ancienne Cathédrale de Vence,” written by J.M. Bartholi and published by the Association Diocésaine de Nice, Paroisse de Vence in 1992. I bought it at the church one evening when they had a “Patrimonie Religieux Vençois.” Unfortunately, it is only available in French.

Access

The Cathédrale Notre Dame de la Nativité is located in the old town portion of Vence. From just about anywhere in France you’ll want to take the A8 until you get to Cagnes sur Mer. If you are coming from the east get off on Exit 48 and if you are coming from the west you’ll want Exit 47. Take the M336, then the M36 and finally the M236 north into Vence. The closest parking to the Cathedral would be the Parking du Grand Jardin, right next to the old town. Parking Toreille and Marie Antoinette Parking are both close by as well.

The Cathedral is usually open to the public though it may be closed from time to time. The Trésor (upstairs) is open every day from 11AM to 1PM and again from 2:30M to 6PM. From the Grand Jardin (located in the heart of the town) walk down Avenue Marcellin Maurel and turn into the old town at the arched passageway at Rue Alsace Lorraine. The Cathedral is straight ahead.

Juste les Faits:
What: Cathédrale Notre Dame de la Nativité
Where: Vence (Alpes-Maritimes) (Google Maps)
When: All year
Phone: Vence Office de Tourisme: 04 93 58 06 38
Website: vence-tourisme.com
Facebook: vencetourisme

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