The Two Cathedrals of Vaison-la-Romaine
Updated: Feb 25
We've said before that the Provençal ville of Vaison-la-Romaine is essentially three towns in one. There's the ancient, classical city, founded by the Romans, and seen today in extensive excavations. Surrounding, and of top of, the Roman city is the modern city, if five or six hundred years old can be considered modern. And then, up on the rocky hill, surmounted by a ruined chateau (or castle), is the stone-built medieval city.
Each of these cities have – or once had – houses, markets, and temples of one sort or another. The Roman temples have been reduced to excavated foundations, and we can only guess at their actual use. But the city's two Christian cathedrals can still be seen and visited today.
At the edge of the medieval city of Vaison – a district called the haute vile – overlooking the river and with a view of Mont Ventoux in the distance, is where you find the smaller of the cathedrals, built in the 15th century, although it seems that parts of it are even earlier.
It was in the medieval era that residents largely abandoned the river flats and moved to the hilltop for protection, abandoning the early Christian churches they had built on the flats. (The medieval city was fortified with walls and gates, while the earlier Roman city below had no walls. Pax Romana and all that.)
During the two decades we’ve been part-time Vaisonites the upper cathedral has been closed to visits. But, during later visits we'd seen a bit of a restoration taking place. On a recent sojourn, for the first time, we found the building was being used for occasional art displays and classical music concerts. So, we were finally able to view the interior. It looked ancient beyond its years, but perhaps that’s because of deterioration and disuse.
The reopening of the medieval cathedral seemed to us an opportune time to revisit the other one down the hill, next to the river, known as Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth Cathedral. There had been (apparently) a Roman temple on this site, and the first Christian church was built on its foundation. While parts of the current church predate the upper cathedral, the original building was destroyed by Frankish invaders in the 8th century.
It appears that most of the extant work dates from the 11th or 12th century, but don't quote us on these dates. During the medieval upheavals the duke, the populace, and the bishop moved to the haute ville and the church below was pretty much abandoned, with the cathedral services moving up top, until... when? the 17th century?
At the Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth Cathedral you can see evidence of the various stages of construction using different techniques and different cuts of stone, including the use of discarded Roman column segments as part of the foundation. A nice addition to the cathedral is a cloister on the north side, with a courtyard garden.
à la prochaine,
– Diane & Mark
photographs copyright Mark Craft