September 2016 Print

Notre-Dame du Puy-en-Velay

by Dr. Marie-France Hilgar

The Cathedral has a very long history. At the time of Roman Gaul, a woman suffering from a fever was inspired to visit one of the rocks around the village. She laid down, exhausted, and when she woke up, saw the Virgin Mary seated on a dolmen stone. The Virgin told the woman she wished to have a church there. Saint-George, the bishop of Velay, came to see for himself. Although it was July, the ground was covered with snow. A stag traced the ground plan of a huge church with his hooves. The message was clear but not easy to put into place. Money was short, all the bishop could do was make out the plan with a hedge. The next day the hedge was covered with flowers. Centuries passed and another miraculous healing took place. The Virgin repeated her request. The bishop of Velay went to see the Pope for permission to build a church and transfer his see to le Puy. The Holy Father not only agreed but sent two of his best architects to take care of the project. The first church was built between 415 and 430. The dolmen on which the Virgin appeared was made part of the church, which was built on the ruins of a Roman Temple. The architect used some of its masonry for the nave of the church, and Gallo-Roman tombstones were used to build the aisles. The original church measured 40 by 80 feet. It had a single nave. Aisles were added in the sixth century. The cathedral soon needed to be expanded as it became more important in the Catholic world. It was a departure point for pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostella. Here too was preached the First Crusade. The cathedral needed to be able to accommodate the many faithful. Before the year 1,000, a third bay was added to the existing two, and in the eleventh century the building was lengthened by a fourth. Finally, and the end of the 12th century, the church gained its last two bays, boldly supported on huge pillars. In the 19th century, a program of restoration was started, in parts quite faithfully, in other places with more imagination than accuracy. Of the six bays, only the third and fourth are in their original state. The rest of the church was almost entirely rebuilt. The extensions made are a sign of the popularity of the pilgrimage to Notre-Dame-du-Puy. The greatest Kings visited the cathedral, starting with Charlemagne and ending with Francis the first. St. Louis gave a thorn from Christ’s crown. Six popes have gone to le-Puy as well as many saints; St. Anthony, St. Dominic, St. Benilde, St. Colette, the two brothers and mother of St. Joan of Arc. Le Puy has been called the Lourdes of the Middle Ages. A jubilee takes place every time the Annunciation coincides with Good Friday. The first one took place in 1065 (maybe). The 31st one took place this year, in 2016. Bishop Fellay and many of our priests were present.

The west facade of the cathedral rises proudly over the Place des Tables. In the 19th century, when the earliest sections of the church were being restored before they fell down, the west facade was cleared of all the unnecessary buildings around it. More debatable is the building of the steps we can now see. I failed to count how many of them there are, but they do not make for easy access. Is there another accessible entrance on the east side? I did not notice one which does not mean anything. My brother declared he could go up but would not be able to walk down, so he waited for me at the bottom of the steps admiring the work of the lace makers. Back to the main facade. It is divided into three parts vertically, the nave and two aisles, and also into three horizontal sections. The geometry of the building is enlivened by the colors of the bricks and the variety of the arch work. At the foot of the bell tower is the porch built in the end of the 12th century, and a chapel leading to the south gallery. One wonders if it were the work of an architect or a jeweler. One may be struck by the richness and variety of the decoration, and more particularly the delicate detail. The eye feasts on the fluted and checkered columns, the lavish arches, some of which have no visible means of support, the alternating light and dark bricks. In the northwest corner, a carved hand grasps the end of a fan of vaults. Most remarkable are the capitals of the columns representing the seven deadly sins. Gluttony is symbolized by mouths gobbling, without arms. Wrath is shown as a face grimacing between two angry wolves. Opposite, on the third pillar, Pride is two eagles glaring at each other while Envy is a dog gnashing its teeth. The two mermaids with double tails represent Lechery and a purse with string firmly tied is the symbol of Avarice. On the central pillar Sloth is shown as a seated man. Since he is facing south, you can imagine that he is lazily sunbathing. The great door that leads to the transept is decorated with demons’ heads. On the left hand capital, Adam emerges from the foliage while Eve hides in a corner. Above the square part of the column, a woman, and a man whose head is missing, beat their breasts. They seem to be begging to be let into the church. The small door is known as the Papal Door. It was used by popes, cardinals and prelates. Near the sacristy a doorway leads to a small courtyard looking on the outside wall of the East End. There are four Gallo-Roman bas-reliefs of various animals and fragments of the frieze of the Roman Temple the architect used in the outside wall. Inside the bell tower, in the wall of the six century north aisle are more Gallo-Roman reliefs simply used as building material. To the east is the chapel dedicated to the Holy Savior. The bell tower was entirely and faithfully rebuilt in the 19th century. Its seven stories with their triple arches, double windows and large figures at each corner, rises to 184 feet. It still contains a great bell and two small ones. Opposite the bell tower is the entrance to the baptistery of St. John flanked by two stone lions. It is a fine 11th century building. The portal of St. John has a very low arc and a severe aspect unlike the porch on the other side. The door, in the Auvergne style, is covered with leather and has fine 12th century hinges. Above can still be seen, despite the ravages of the Revolution, a Christ in Glory between two angels. The door was used by kings, princes and governors. On the first floor a barrel vaulted chamber leads to the cathedral gallery.

When you have climbed the steps and entered the portal, you are welcomed above the doorway by a sculpture of the Lamb of God. Inside you find the basement vaults corresponding to the most recent bays. The first keystone in the ceiling is showing a sculpted Virgin and Child surrounded by the symbols of the four Evangelists. In the second bay, two side doors correspond to the west facade as it was in the 12th century. The aisles were then converted into chapels. The doors with their bas-reliefs carvings are commonly called Cedar Doors but in fact are of local pinewood. On the left, the door to the chapel of St. Gilles shows Nativity scenes. On the right, the door to the Chapel of St. Martin is decorated with scenes from the Passion of Christ. As you mount the steps you come to the Gilded Door with two ancient red porphyry columns. As you enter the cathedral you find it has the simple shape of a Latin cross. The nave has six bays with rib vaulted aisles on either side. The transept has paired apsidioles at each end. The most original feature of the building is the succession of six cupolas on octagonal bases replacing the usual vaults. Most of the capitals on the columns are carved with foliage, with an occasional human figure. Some of them represent scenes from the Bible and lives of the saints. At the end of the nave, a carved and gilded wooden panel shows the Crucifixion of St. Andrew to whom this part of the church was once dedicated. The quality of the carving is unfortunately concealed by the garishness of the gilding. At the top of the pulpit is God the Father in a flowing robe. The garlanded columns, the decoration with its little birds and bunches of flowers make the pulpit a worthy example of 17th century art. Across the nave is a 14th century painted wooden Christ. The wall on the north aisle bears a large painting, (10 by 23 ft.), “the Plague Vow” of 1630. It shows the procession of the Black Virgin which took place to celebrate the sudden ending of a particularly lethal epidemic. Opposite, in the south aisle, is “the Consuls’ Vow,” referring to the ending of another plague. The 18th century high altar is decorated with bronzes. High in the choir is a fine carved Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. The revolutionaries saw in it the goddess of reason and spared it. The left arm of the transept has two chapels decorated with 12th and 13th century frescoes. In the first chapel is found the 12th century fresco of “The women at the Tomb.” Next door is the 13th century fresco of the Martyrdom of St. Catherine of Alexandria. The young woman at prayer is tortured on a wheel stuck with knives. Above are two angels, sword in hand. To the left of the high altar, the chapel of the Holy Crucifix has a 15th century painted wooden Christ. In the gallery can be seen one of the most remarkable frescoes of the cathedral, an enormous St. Michael, (18 ft. 3 in.), the largest painted figure in France. On either side are other late 11th century frescoes in various states of preservation. The highlight of the Sacristy treasure is Theodulph’s Bible, an 8th century manuscript, also a 15th century Pieta, and an altar piece painted on wood. Christ’s thorn given by St. Louis was hidden for safety in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Saint-Etienne. After the storm, the other cathedral decided to keep it.


Notre-Dame-du-Puy may be better known for her Black Virgin than it is for her Jubilees. It was a cedar wood statue of the Virgin Mary seated on a throne with the Infant Jesus on her lap. The faces of Mother and Child were deep black but their hands were painted white. Mary’s face had glass eyes and a long nose. Her crown was gilded copper with ancient gemstones. The statue was entirely wrapped in strips of fine material stuck to the wood and painted. It probably was carved before the year 1,000. In January 1794, the Black Virgin was torn from the altar and stripped of her finery and stored. In June of the same year, officials of the Revolutionary government came to burn her. A secret door in the back of the statue opened and a parchment roll fell out. Despite protests, no attempt was made to see what it contained. The one that is in the cathedral now is an 18th century copy.

Around le Puy are many small towns worthy of being visited. The village of Espaly-Saint-Marcel is dominated by a huge statue of St. Joseph holding the Child Jesus. It is made of prestressed concrete. It overlooks a strange church looking rather like a feudal castle. Espaly has been a site of pilgrimage for a long time, especially on March 19. The church of Polignac, four kilometers from le Puy, shows a Gothic portal. The shape inside is a simple Latin cross. There is perfect harmony between the 10th and 11th century choir, the 12th century nave and even the 19th century west bay. The choir contains a vault of flat surfaces that go from a square to an octagon and finally the round 12th century Romanesque-Byzantine cupola, topped by a bell tower. The chapel at the east end has exceptional frescoes. The largest, 12th century, shows the Last Judgement, Heaven and Hell. At the top there was probably a Christ calling souls to judgement but only the feet are left. Below, on the right, St. Michael weighs two souls on a pair of scales; one drops down toward Hell, the other soul rises. A small angel holds the lucky one out for St. Peter to take into Heaven. Heaven only partly survives and has eight ranks of chosen ones, each with a guardian angel. On the left, the scene is very different. Devils with pitchforks, jumping and dancing, seize the damned by the hair or the feet and throw them in the huge jaws of a dragon. The tortures are varied: hanging, dungeons, hot irons, a boiling pot with a human face. Fourteen kilometers to the northwest of le Puy, you will find the little town of Saint-Paulien. The village is noteworthy for its church which is a real jewel of the Auvergne Romanesque. It was started in the 11th century, continued in the 12th century, and finally completed in the 13th century by the addition of five chapels around its huge choir. The outside of the church is remarkable for its extensive use of multicolored volcanic stones. These are especially clear at the shapely east end with its several apsidioles strangely off-center. As you go in the church you are immediately struck by its surprising excessive width. The reason is that in the 17th century, the original three naves were turned into one. It may well be that at the same time the choir and an older ambulatory were gathered under a single vault.

If you have the time to travel a little further, do go to La Chaise-Dieu, 41 km away, and be sure to admire “La Danse Macabre,” a stunning 15th century fresco, and the beautifully carved stalls above which hang splendid 16th century tapestries. A little bit further north, at 116 km from le Puy is the church of Saint-Nectaire with its beautiful and colorful capitals. Further north, at 211 km from le Puy is the Sacred Heart Basilica of Paray-le-Monial where Margaret-Mary Alacoque received a message from Our Lord about observing the first Fridays of the month. To the east, after you cross the Rhone river you will find the church of Brou which still has one of the few very fine remaining rood-screens in France, this one at 211 km, and Tournus at 236 km (see my article in The Angelus, April 2003, pp. 31-36). Last but not least, at 200 km southwest of le Puy in Conques is the Abbey Church of Sainte-Foy (see my article in The Angelus, August 2003, pp. 28-37).