On the banks of the river Tarn, some 75 kilometers (47 miles) northeast of Toulouse, the ancient city of Albi still bears witness to the troubled history of religious conflicts of its medieval past.
The “Albigensian Crusade” (1209-1229) is the only medieval crusade to have been conducted against Christians, more specifically against a Gnostic religious sect that flourished in Southern France in the 12th century. The Cathars (from the ancient greek Katharoi or “pure ones”) were challenging the iron-fisted authority and extravagant worldliness of the medieval papacy and its Catholic clerics.
The Wrath of Popes and Kings
At the time, the Languedoc was under the hereditary rule of the Counts of Toulouse, and most of the region was Cathar country, with Albi standing at the geographical centre of it, When, in 1208, Pope Innocent III announced a crusade to eradicate the troublesome heretics, King Philippe II (a.k.a. Philippe Auguste) was only too glad to join forces. Combating Cathar heresy was an excellent pretext for Philippe, whose true objective was arguably more about bringing the southwest of France under the control of the French kings than it was about fighting heretics.
The repression was long and gruesome. But even after the victory of the King’s forces, the southwest of France remained volatile, and the Catholic powers wary of insurrection. The construction of the mighty Albi cathedral which started half a century after the end of the conflict, was thus built as a massive fortress, to stand as a symbol of episcopal power and in a pinch, serve as a defensive position in the event of attacks.
The Fortress Cathedral
When the then Bishop of Albi, Bernard de Castanet, began the construction of the Saint Cecilia Cathedral in 1282, he intended it to stand as a symbol of Catholic domination and victory over the Cathars. And he succeeded in delivering an eloquent metaphor for the roots of the conflict: an ominous fortress on the outside, with a sumptuous interior decor.
Built over two centuries (1282 to 1480) in the pink bricks of the region, the cathedral is a masterpiece of Southern Gothic style and one of the largest brick monuments in the world. The formidable structure (113 meters – 372 feet – long and 35 meters -115 feet wide) topped by a 78 meter (256 ft) dungeon-like bell tower dominates the entire city. The southern facade is marked by a somewhat incongruous but nonetheless spectacular Flamboyant Gothic canopied porch entrance. Added in 1510 by Bishop Charles de Robertet, it is the only hint of the extravagant art and craftsmanship within.
The Glory Within
The interior is all delicate gothic tracery in stone and wood. One of the most remarkable particularities of the gigantic space is that all the upper walls, including the soaring vaulted ceiling, are covered with intricate geometric paintings, mainly in silver and indigo blue. Another striking feature is the root screen, a delicately carved ornamental fence that surrounds the entire choir area reserved for the clergy, separating it from the nave and the aisles. The lacy stonework is richly decorated with polychrome sculptures depicting the life of Saint Cecilia on the parishioners’ side, and Christ and his apostles on choir side.
A particularly significant element of the decor is the massive fresco of the Last Judgement that occupies the entire western wall of the cathedral. In the traditional tiered doomsday layout of such cautionary themes, layered rows of angels, apostles, saints, clerics and other blessed beings, clad in white to symbolize purity, look down to the lower levels. Here, crowds of naked sinners are writhing in the agony of hell in the company of monsters and demons. And to further drive the point across, a band of text reminds viewers that the judgement is irreversible.
The Berbie Palace
In 1228, half a century before Bishop Castanet was to break ground for his cathedral project, his predecessor, Bishop Durant de Baucaire (Bishop from 1228 to 1254), with the blood of the tens of thousand of massacred Cathars barely dry across the Languedoc, considered it prudent to built himself a small fortress. And thus the Berbie Castle began, taking its name from from “bisbia,” a local Occitan variation of the word Bishop. The next resident, Bishop Bernard de Combret, added a wall fortified with bastions, so that by the time Castanet took office, he already had the makings of his own mighty château, which he carried on while inaugurating the work on the cathedral.
Over time, successive Bishops softened the appearance of the palace by adding residential buildings, a chapel, a French-style garden, and decorating the interior with with mosaics and elaborate coffered ceilings.
The Toulouse-Lautrec Museum
The Cathedral and its properties were officially nationalized in 1905, and the Palace given to the city of Albi for use as a museum. In 1922, it received an important collection of works by native son Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, donated by his parents. Now known as the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum, it includes over 1000 of his works making it a unique single artist collection.
Toulouse-Lautrec was born in Albi in 1864 to a wealthy aristocratic family descended from the Counts of Toulouse. A childhood accident and possible genetic disability crippled him for life, stunted his growth, and likely propelled his immersion into art, alcoholism, and the gritty underbelly of fin de siècle Paris. Here, this Post-Impressionist’s works are organized chronologically, beautifully documenting the evolution of his art and life: works from his youth, works from his seedy stint in Montmartre, and works from his time as a poster designer. His 31 world famous posters are all gathered here.
The Iconographer of Montmartre
Toulouse-Lautrec came to fame while living in Montmartre, documenting the brothels and bohemian salons of his neighborhood, which were a magnet for struggling artists in late 19th century Paris. His work stood out for his expressive lines, intense use of color, and for the acuity and sensitivity with which he documented the bawdy personalities of the local nightlife. This is especially notable in the world-weary pathos of his female subjects.
It becomes clear, walking through this chronological exhibition how his innovative style led him to become the first artist to elevate advertising posters to the status of fine art. Some of its most famous masterpieces are posters for nightclubs – to the point where Toulouse Lautrec can be identified with little else. One of the great pleasures of this retrospective of his life’s works is to discover the whole artist beyond the “poster man.”
After a couple of hours spent with Toulouse-Lautrec, it’s time to escape to the formal Renaissance Jardins à la Francaise of the Berbie Palace, and take a walk under the ancien grapevine along the ramparts. From there you get a great view of Le Pont Vieux, the medieval bridge. Built between 1035 and 1040, it is one of the oldest bridges in France, still open to pedestrian traffic. Then wander into the traffic-free maze of half-timbered houses and quaint crooked streets of the medieval center.
Good to Know
- Getting there—By train: there are multiple train connections between Toulouse’s main train station (Toulouse Matabiau) and Albi. The trip takes one hour. From Albi’s central station (Albi Ville) it’s an easy 15 minutes walk to the cathedral and the Berbie Palace. By car: It’s about one hour’s drive from the northeast outskirts of Toulouse (Via route A68) to Albi. There are a number of available parking options on the outskirts of the city
- Getting around – Visiting Albi is a pedestrian experience. Plan comfortable shoes to explore for the cobblestone lanes of the old town.
- Visiting—Cathédrale Sainte Cécile is open year-round, Monday through Friday from 2:00 pm to 5:15 pm, Saturday from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm and Sunday from 9:30 am to 5:45 pm, with the exception of the choir and the cathedral’s treasure, which are open daily from 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm. Note: while the entrance of the cathedral is free, there is a 6€ entrance fee to visit the choir and the treasure. Musée Toulouse-Lautrec is open daily from June 1st to September 30th from 10:30 am to 6:30 pm. From October 1st to May 31st, opening hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 12:30 pm and 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm, and closed on Tuesday. The museum is also closed on the following national holidays: January 1, May 1, November 1 and December 25.