Exploring the Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes) in Avignon
|Welcome to the Palais des Papes or Palace of the Popes in Avignon, France. All photography unless noted is the property of the EuroTravelogue™. Unauthorized use is prohibited.
On the morning of the day when Viking River Cruises would make history in Avignon by christening 16 new Viking Longships, we set out on a walking tour through this historic city on the Rhône River and set our paces to the colossal Papal Palace that dominates the Avignon's skyline from atop the hill. Once the largest Gothic building in the world measuring in at more than 165,000 square feet (15,000 square meters), the Palais des Papes or Palace of the Popes in Avignon is a formidable edifice that served as the temporary home for the Papacy from 1309 -1377, not to mention offices for the legates, a prison and an army barracks thereafter. Ever since I can remember, I have long wanted to visit the imposing fortress and to learn more about the transient popes of the 15th century. Won't you join me on this journey through time in Avignon?
|The layout of the Papal Palace shows the "Old Palace" in green and "New Palace" in rose. Click on any image to enlarge. This photo only: Courtesy of Marvellous-Provence.com.
The Roving Popes
It all started back in the 13th century when Italy was plagued by political instability eventually driving the popes out of Rome and forcing them to go on the road to seek out secure locations throughout the country. After stops in Viterbo, Orvieto and Perugia, the transient popes left Italy altogether in 1309 and settled down in Avignon, France, where they would remain for much of the 14th century. Leading the way was Clement V in 1309 followed by six successors who would carry on the tradition of reigning from Avignon: Pope Clement V (1305–14), Pope John XXII (1316–34), Pope Benedict XII (1334–42), Pope Clement VI (1342–52), Pope Innocent VI (1352–62), Pope Urban V (1362–70) and finally Pope Gregory XI (1370–78) who finally moved the papal residence back to Rome and then died shortly thereafter.
After the Popes
|Scale model of the Palais des Papes, Palace of the Popes, in Avignon.
After the popes returned to Rome, Italian legates and vice-legates took up residence inside the palace until the French Revolution. Later, it was known as the fortress and used as a prison for the opponents of the revolutionary party. Surviving the Revolution, the palace became an army barracks and the rooms and chapels were divided and subdivided again to accommodate the infantry. Following an evacuation of the palace finally, it opened as a museum in 1906 showcasing its history and canvas of 14th-century masterpieces created by some of the greatest artists from Siena, Italy. Thankfully in 1995, the Palace of the Popes was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and remains one of France's top 10 places to visit—attracting 600,000 visitors annually.
Building the Palais des Papes
|The main entrance to the Papal Palace in Avignon.
As I mentioned above, the Papal Palace is one of the largest Gothic buildings in the world but it owes its existence primarily to two of the popes who reigned there: Benedict XII, who built the Palais Vieux (Old Palace) on the former site of the Episcopal palace and with the help of one of France's leading architects, Pierre Peysson. Clement VI in 1347 ordered the construction of the Palais Neuf (New Palace) to the south and west; he too was assisted by another leading architect of the day, Jean du Louvres. It's unfathomable to think that in less than 20 years, these two popes completed most of the palace we see today.
Touring the Papal Palace
|Place de Palais or Palace Square in front of the Palace of the Popes in Avignon.
Standing outside the entrance of the Papal Palace, I was awe-struck and humbled as I gazed up at the imposing façade in front of me stretching 165 feet (50 meters) high. Shifting my focus around to what is now the Place de Palais, a cobbled city square; I imagine this square as it was in the 14th century—teeming with gardens and orchards not to mention residences as well. Our tour began just beyond the portal of the new palace and inside the Small Audience Chamber and from there, we ventured through the rest of the complex, more than 25 rooms in total. Remarkable! Here are the highlights with some interesting facts as well.
The Pope's Tower
Designed by Pierre Peysson under the direction of Benedict XII, the Pope's Tower, one of 12 towers in the Papal Palace, stands at 155 feet (47 meters) tall, houses the Pope's Chamber—the first window from the bottom; and the Upper Treasury (pair of arched windows near the top) which at one time contained the largest library in Europe with more than 2,000 works.
Saint-Martial and Saint John Chapels
|Saint-Martial frescoes inside the Papal Palace in Avignon. This photo only: WikiMedia via JM Rosier.
Frescoes decorating the walls and vaults of the Saint-Martial and Saint John chapels are the work of some of the most talented artists from the School of Siena. From 1344 – 1346, Matteo Giovannetti completed the exquisite frescoes inside Saint Martial chapel. If you recall your Bible studies, Martial was sent by Saint Peter to spread the word of the gospel to the Limousin region.
|Frescoes inside Saint John's Chapel. Painted by Matteo Giovannetti in 1347-1348. This photo only: WikiMedia.org via JM Rosier.
From 1347-1348, Matteo Giovannetti once again applied his artistry to the fresco work inside the Saint John Chapel. Clement VI dedicated the chapel to the two saints: Saint John the Evangelist as depicted on the south and west walls; and Saint John the Baptist whose story unfolds on the north and east walls. Look carefully at the lower section of the "The Crucifixion" on the western wall and you'll see missing fragments—the result of destruction caused by soldiers in the 19th century who peeled off and sold pieces of the fresco. Our only consolation of the desecration is that we are now afforded the opportunity to glimpse back to the 14th-century sinopia or red ochre preliminary sketches dating back 650 years!
|The Papal Seat inside the Consistory Hall.
Once the pope's receiving hall for ambassadors, public audiences, anointing cardinals and the like, the Consistory Hall houses a museum and is filled with a collection of artifacts including sculptures, frescoes, models of the entire complex, and most interestingly, frescoes designed by Simone Martini in the 14th century which at one time decorated the portal of the adjacent Notre-Dame-des-Doms cathedral. In the early 15th century, a fire swept through the entire hall and destroyed much of the artwork on the walls. You can still see fragments of the paintings scattered throughout.
|One of many artifacts inside the Consistory Hall.
|"Passion of the Christ" sculpture now housed inside the Consistory.
|Central Courtyard. The fountain at the left was formerly the site of Pope John XXII's Audience Chamber.
|The Great Clementine Chapel. Look carefully at the back wall between the windows and you can see marks from the supports used to divide this space into three levels to accommodate the infantry.
From 1344-1347, Clement VI bought up neighboring buildings to the south to build the Great Clementine Chapel—a cavernous hall stretching 170 feet (52 meters) by 50 feet (15 meters) wide and dedicated to the apostles Peter and Paul. During the 19th century, military engineers disfigured the chapel by divided the space into three floors of dormitories! Thankfully, it has been restored to its former glory.
|Plaster effigies of prominent figures during the papal rule of the palace.
When hosting ceremonies at the palace, the pontiff dressed here in the North Sacristy. Pope Innocent VI actually built a bridge in 1360 between the Clementine Chapel and the apartments. It ends near the window in the sacristy. Today, plaster facsimiles representing various figures from the papacy are found throughout.
|Reproduction of the Tomb of Pope Gregory XI in the Northern Sacristy.
|The cavernous Grand Tinel or Feast room.
Grand Tinel Banquet Hall was the feast room! Measuring 160 feet (48 meters) long, five sittings, each four courses long, were served here. Normally, the pope sat alone at the south end inside his papal cathedra and if a visiting dignitary were dining with him, his guest would be alongside; however, on a lower platform. Also at the southern end, you can see two stone arches in the southern and western walls which at one time served as portals into conclaves. At the opposite end of the Grand Tinel stands a reproduction of a fireplace that was once inside the Dressoir, a small room concealed by partitions where dishes were prepared and kept warm until serving—a butler's pantry so to speak.
|Fresco shows putti presenting the New Testament to the pope seated in the center and surrounded by cardinal virtues Temperance and Prudence.
|The papal private library is unfortunately off limits to visitors.
We also toured the Papal Chamber where the pope lived and admired the flora and fauna frescoes decorating the walls; the Stag Room with its hunting décor, and finally the pope's private library, off limits to visitors unfortunately. At the conclusion of the tour, we exited into the gift shop, of course, formerly the Theology Room where public classes were facilitated about the truths of faith.
While the tour through the Palais des Papes was truly an eye-opening and unforgettable journey back in time, what I found most disheartening was the destruction to so many of the cultural treasures; chief among them the fresco damage I mentioned above but equally devastating was the beheaded religious statuary decorating the archivolts (arches over doorways), niches and facades—vestiges of the French Revolution. I've captured a few in the photos below.
|Look carefully above and below and you'll see that all the religious statuary have been beheaded during the French Revolution. Click on any photo to enlarge.
Did you know that tours like this are offered at every port that Viking River Cruises calls on? Plus there are optional excursions as well for an additional cost. Be sure to check out all of your options to make the most of your river cruise.
- For virtual tours, historical perspectives, photographs and ticket information, visit Palais-Des-Papes.com.
- Comprehensive overview of history and palace expansion can be found at Avignon.fr/En.
- Of wine trails and chateaux in Bordeaux
- A big day in Avignon for Viking River Cruises
- In Pursuit of Provence
- Viking River Cruises' "Portraits of Southern France"
Special thanks to Viking River Cruises for inviting me on this press trip to Avignon. It was an unforgettable journey to new realms. Of course all opinions and thoughts reflected are mine and mine alone. Thank you Viking Cruises!