The skyline of Avignon is a mighty fortress that spreads its majestic walls across the sunbaked landscape of Provence. Everlasting witness to the power of the papacy over the Middle Ages, the Palace of the Popes remains the greatest gothic palace in the world. Although the historic town draws well over half a million visitors a year, many of them, other that papal history buffs and French school children, may not be aware how for most of the 14th century this small, heavily fortified southern French city on the bank of the Rhône river came to be the capital of Christendom.

It Began with Charlemagne

The Palais des Papes is the largest Gothic palace ever built.

Like most of the major events that shaped modern Europe, it began with Charlemagne, King of the Franks (771-814), a powerful Germanic tribe whose territories covered present-day western Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. A determined expansionist and skilled military strategist, he had by the end of his reign extended his reach across western and central Europe.

A staunch defender of Christianity, he supported the church with funds and land, and extended his protection to the Pope. To acknowledge the power of his benefactor and reinforce the relationship with the papacy, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne Emperor of the Romans on December 25, 800, at St. Peter Basilica in Rome. In the process, in addition to its spiritual leadership role, he asserted the papacy as a major authority in geopolitical matters. The consequences of this quid pro quo would reverberate throughout Europe for centuries.

The Passion of Christ sculpture- housed in the Consistory – is a remarkable exemple of Medieval art.

Charlemagne’s descendants proved incapable of keeping his vast empire together. By 888, France, Germany and Italy had become separate states. Who then was to be emperor? The nominee of the pope, himself a puppet of Italian aristocratic factions? Charlemagne’s rightful heir, whoever he might be? Or the strongest king in Europe? Centuries of political intrigue and ever-shifting alliances ensued, throughout which the imperial crown was habitually set on a succession of Germanic heads. And disputes between the Popes and the Emperors continued, over which of them was the secular leader of Christendom, with the Pope’s side most often bolstered by the French kings.

The Road to Avignon

The main entrance of the papal palace.

By the early 14th century, however,  Pope Boniface VIII and the French monarch, the autocratic Philippe IV, were feuding over Philippe’s decision to tax the considerable wealth of the Church in France to finance his war with the English. The feud turned violent, with Italian allies of the King of France breaking into the papal residence and assaulting Boniface VIII, who died shortly thereafter. A successor who would not be hostile toward Philippe was promptly elected. However, after a pontificate that lasted a mere eight months, Benedict XI died suddenly — poisoning was suspected although never proven. 

Cloister of the Old Palace

His successor Clement V, a Frenchman and personal friend of King Philippe, was in France when elected and thought it prudent to never travel to Rome. In 1309, he decided to establish his Papal Court in Avignon, where it was to remain for the next seven decades.

 

 

The Builder Popes

Scaled model of the completed palace.

Clement V (1305-1314) lived simply as a guest in the Dominican monastery of Avignon. Then his successor John XXII (1316-1334) started the process of rebuilding and enlarging the old episcopal palace, which sat on a natural rocky outcrop overlooking the river at the northern edge of Avignon, and convert it into a fortified palace. However, it was John’s two successors who became the main builders of the impregnable fortress that stands to this day.

Cour d’Honneur (Ceremonial Courtyard) of the New Palace.

Benedict XII (1334-1342) built the first pontifical palace, an austere stronghold set around a vast cloister (now referred to as the Palais Vieux, or Old Palace). Then Clement VI (1342-1352) expanded Benedict’s palace with more lavish constructions around a grand internal courtyard. Now known as the Palais Neuf, or New Palace, it became the biggest Gothic palace in all of Europe, with 15,000 square meters (160,000 square feet) of floor space.The immense size of the palace facilitated the integration of the Curia (church administration) into the truly central administration of the Church that suited the needs of the papacy.

Life at the Pontifical Court

The Great Clementine Chapel held liturgical events.

More than 20 rooms are open to visitors, including several ceremonial halls of majestic proportions, such as the Consistory, the  Grand Audience Hall with its remarkable ceiling frescoes of the prophets, the 52 meters (170 feet) long  Great Clementine Chapel, which held official events and liturgical services, and the soaring Grand Tinel. The latter was primarily a reception and banquet room, but during conclaves, it was the room where the cardinals assembled to elect the new pope. For the occasion, the room was temporarily walled, with only a small aperture  left open to provide the necessary food. 

Detail of the chambre du cerf (room of the deer) fresco

The visit also includes the private apartments of Clement VI: the papal chamber and private study, commonly called the chambre du cerf (room of the deer), for the remarkable hunting scene frescoes that decorate the walls. The subject matter, while common in secular art at the time, is as unexpected in a room supposedly dedicated to study as it is for a room in a papal apartment.

 

St John Chapel frescoes by Matteo Giovanetti.

Other highlights include the Saint Martial and Saint John chapels, decorated with sumptuous frescoes by the Italian master Matteo Giovanetti, who had been charged by Clement VI to lead the decoration of the Palace. While a large proportion of these creations were lost in the course of time, several have survived to bear witness to the innovative artistic work created by the French and Italian schools of paintings in the 14th century – and the lavish ceremonial lifestyle of the pontifical court that supported it.

More on Papal Politics

Portraits of the Popes of Avignon – imagined by 19th century artist Henri Serrur.

Three more popes would keep their seat of power in the French city until the last of them, Gregory XI (1370–1378) brought the Avignon papacy to an end in 1377 when he returned the papal court to Rome. However, this departure was not the end of  the Avignon popes. The following year, the Roman Catholic Church split apart when a faction of cardinals refused to recognizes Gregory’s successor, the newly appointed Pope Urban VI. Instead, they elected a rival Pope, and returned to Avignon. Thus from 1378 to 1403, during a period known as the Western Schism, Avignon was the seat of a rival papacy, its popes referred to by the official church in Rome as “Antipopes.”

Avignon – the Palace of the Popes.

Good to Know

  • Getting there —  By Train: Avignon is located in southeastern France, 700 kilometers south of Paris. It is easily accessible in less than three hours by non-stop TVG (high-speed train) throughout the day from Paris – Gare de Lyon to the Avignon TGV station.  The TGV station lies  slightly outside of town, and is connected via regular shuttle trains to the Avignon Central Station (Gare d’Avignon Centre just outside the fortification walls on the southern edge of the old town. The city is also well connected other main cities in France and surrounding countries via regional regional and intercity trains.  These arrive at the Avignon Centre station.
  • Visiting —  The Popes’ Palace, Place du Palais, 84000 Avignon, France, is open every day, all year round from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm.  Check the website for extended visiting hours during the summer season.  Contact: tel. +33 (0) 4 32 74 32 74. Accessibility: due to its multiple stone stairways, the palace is regrettably not accessible to persons with reduced mobility.

 

Location, location, location!

Palais des Papes