The Palace of the Popes in Avignon, the largest gothic fortress

The Palace of the Popes of Avignon is a famous Gothic fortress, located in the department of Vaucluse, in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region. Both fortress and palace, the Palace of the Popes is the symbol of the influence of the church on the Christian West during the 14th century. Created at the request of Pope Benedict XII and his successor Clement VI, the Palace of the Popes remains to this day the largest Gothic fortress in the world in terms of surface area with its 15,000 m². Built on a rock, near the Notre-Dame des Doms cathedral and classified as a historical monument since 1840, the Palais des Papes in Avignon attracts nearly 700,000 visitors each year. The monument is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995. In this article, we will look at the history of the Palace of the Popes, the Gothic architectural elements that make it up, and the main popes who contributed to its multiple expansions.

The history of the Palace of the Popes in Avignon

The Palace of the Popes of Avignon includes the “old” palace of Benedict XII and the “new” palace of Clement VI. The Palace of the Popes is also the largest Gothic building in the world. In 1309, Pope Clement V arrived in Avignon and settled in the Dominican convent of the Friars Preachers. Under his pontificate, Avignon became the official residence of the Sacred College of Cardinals, under the leadership of King Philip the Fair of France. However, Pope Clement V preferred to reside in Carpentras or Monteux. At his death, and following a difficult election, Jacques Duez, freshly elected transitional pope, wished to install the papacy in Avignon, the city where he had been bishop. Crowned on September 5, 1316, he took the name of John XXII and settled in the episcopal palace he had once occupied, located on the site of the current Palais des Papes. The pope’s residence is in the west wing, and the north side houses the parish church of St. Stephen. On December 4, 1334, Pope John XXII died and Jacques Fournier, a white cardinal, succeeded him, choosing the name Benedict XII. Very quickly, Benedict XII decided to enlarge the episcopal palace transformed by his predecessor. The Rock of the Doms, which dominates the city of Avignon, was chosen to build the extension of the palace in order to give scale to this construction now visible from the top of the Alpilles. However, Pope Benedict XII wished to restore order in the church and also to bring the Holy See back to Rome. But the revolt of the city of Bologna in 1335 coupled with the protests of the cardinals buried any project of return to Rome, and confirmed the choice of Avignon. In 1335, the architect Pierre Peysson is in charge of the works of the new Palace of the Popes. Work on the pontifical apartments began in March 1337, and in November, work began on the large wing and the south wing. The Latrine Tower was completed in July 1338 as well as the small Benoit XII Tower. The decoration of the pontifical apartments was entrusted to the painters Hugo and Jean Dalban, while the construction of the cloister began in December 1338. The familiar wing and the tower of the campanile were begun in August 1339 and December 1339 marked the end of the great works of the pontifical palace. The frescoes of the porch of Notre-Dame-des-Doms were entrusted in 1341 to Simone Martini, an Italian painter.

The Palace of the Popes of Avignon and the Notre-Dame-des-Doms cathedral

The New Palace of Clement VI

Cardinal Peter Roger, under the name of Clement VI, succeeded Benedict XII on May 7, 1342. Considering the palace built by his predecessor to be “insufficient”, Clement VI appointed Jean du Louvres to build a new edifice, the construction of which began in the summer of 1342. The Pope then moved to the former audience room of John XXII, which later became the Court of Honor. Two new towers were built, the kitchen tower and the wardrobe tower, while the work on the new palace accelerated. The surface area of the Palais des Papes reached 6400 m² in 1351 and its Gothic architecture was acclaimed throughout the world. The decoration of the walls and the realization of the frescoes of the new Palace of the Popes are entrusted to Matteo Giovanetti, painter-decorator, student of Simone Martini. In 1344, he began the decoration of the Saint-Martial chapel and all of his work in the palace continued until 1347. In 1348, Pope Clement VI bought the city of Avignon for 80,000 florins from Queen Jeanne, which then became a pontifical property, independent of the Provence region.

The Palace of the Popes after Clement VI

Pope Clement VI died in 1352, but the financial reserves of the palace being at their lowest, his successors had to be satisfied with simple renovation or maintenance work. In the same year, new frescoes by Matteo Giovanetti appeared in the main courtroom. It was not until 1362 and the appointment of Pope Urban V that costly extensions to the papal gardens were undertaken. Urban V also had the Roma built, a long gallery decorated by Matteo Giovanetti, perpendicular to the tower of the angels which, completed in 1363, marked the end of the work of the “new” Palace. This gallery no longer exists today, as it was razed by the Military Engineers in 1837. With its 15 000 m² of floors, the Palace of the Popes of Avignon remains to this day the largest Gothic ensemble in the world. It is composed of several architectural elements, including courtyards, chapels, towers, and numerous rooms. Its western facade is composed of a series of arches located 15 meters above the ground. The two turrets of the façade rest on two piles and the Palace of the Popes of Avignon has 12 towers.

The main courtyard of the Palais des Papes during the Avignon festival

The 12 towers of the Palace of the Popes in Avignon

  • The tower of Trouillas: it is a dungeon located at the northern corner of the palace and has a roof terrace.
  • The Latrine Tower: located to the south, the Latrine Tower has two floors and was used as an ice house. At its top, this tower housed the accommodation of the palace captain.
  • The tower of the kitchens: adjoining the tower of the Latrines, this tower housed the ancient kitchens of the palace.
  • The Saint-Jean tower: located on the eastern facade, it houses the Saint-Martial chapel reserved for the popes.
  • The tower of the study: it was the closest tower to the Roma, the old gallery now destroyed.
  • The tower of the angels: it is one of the best preserved towers of the palace. It housed the room of Pope Benedict XII.
  • The garden tower: detached from the castle, this tower is located to the east of the palace.
  • The tower of the wardrobe: adjoining the south of the tower of the court of the angels, this tower was built under Clement VI.
  • The Saint-Laurent tower: this tower was added during the pontificate of Pope Innocent VI.
  • The tower of the Gâche: it was used to warn the population of curfews and fires.
  • The Campane tower: its role was to protect the north side of the palace.
  • The tower of the great dignitaries: this tower was located in the extension of the wing of the great dignitaries.

The main rooms of the Palace of the Popes in Avignon

  • The guard room: located in the wing of the great dignitaries, the guard room measures 17×10 meters.
  • The treasurer’s room: located above the guard room, its surface is 170 m².
  • The Cubicular: with its 230 m², the Cubicular appears as one of the most beautiful rooms of the Palace of the Popes of Avignon.
  • The Conclave Room: located in the Conclave wing, this 72 m² room was once the guests’ apartment.
  • The great Tinel: this room of impressive dimensions (480 m²) was mainly used for conclaves and great feasts.
  • Paneteria: located below the Conclave room, the paneteria was used to prepare up to 300 meals a day.
  • The large cellar: located under the bread factory, the large cellar is a cellar dug in the rock.
  • The hall of the great audience: this immense hall (52 meters long, 16.80 meters wide and 11 meters under the ceiling) was used as a tribunal for apostolic causes whose judgments were without appeal. The hall of the great audience was accessible via the gallery of the Conclave and the gallery of the cloister.
  • The Studium of Clement VI: also called the room of the stag, this room is the most famous room of the Palace of the Popes thanks to its exceptional decoration.
The frescoes of the Chapel of Saint Martial by Matteo Giovanetti

The chapels of the Palace of the Popes in Avignon

The Palace of the Popes has 3 chapels:

  • The Saint-Martial chapel: located on the second floor of the Saint-Jean tower, the Saint-Martial chapel is recognizable in particular thanks to its frescoes realized by Matteo Giovanetti.
  • Saint John’s Chapel: located below the Saint Martial chapel, Saint John’s Chapel is accessible from the cloister and its frescoes tell the story of Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist.
  • The great chapel: dedicated to the apostles Peter and Paul, the great chapel was built during the pontificate of Clement VI. 52 meters long and 15 meters wide, the ceiling of the large chapel reaches 20 meters above the ground. Accessible via a monumental staircase of honor, its portal and its square are located at the level of the courtyard of honor of the Palais des Papes.

The courtyards and gardens of the Palace of the Popes in Avignon

As early as 1342, Clement VI had the houses and buildings next to the “old” palace that delimited the Place des Cancels razed to the ground. It is on this site that the courtyard of honor of the Palais des Papes was established, courtyard that welcomes today the major performances of the Festival d’Avignon. With a surface area of 1800 m², the courtyard is surrounded to the south and west by the “new” palace, and to the north and east by the “old” palace. A 29 meter deep well is located in the center of the main courtyard and in the past, 3 doors allowed access to the palace. The cloister courtyard is bounded by four other buildings. It is surrounded by the Consistory wing to the east, the guest wing to the south, the familiar wing to the west and the Benedict XII chapel to the north. The papal gardens cover an area of almost two hectares and include the Urban V orchard (1000 m²), the Palace garden (1250 m²) and the Pope’s private garden (660 m²) accessible only through the apartments.

The popes having been crowned in the palace of Avignon

In total, 6 conclaves (places where cardinals are gathered to elect the pope) took place in the Palace of Avignon between 1335 and 1394.

  • Benedict XII (1335-1342): whose real name was Jacques Fournier, this former white cardinal succeeded John XXII in 1335 until his death in 1342.
  • Clement VI (1342-1352 ): succeeding Benedict XII, Clement VI, whose real name was Peter Roger, was pope for 10 years.
  • Innocent VI (1352-1362): born Etienne Aubert, this former bishop of Clermont was the 199th pope of the Catholic Church.
  • Urban V (1362-1370): born Guillaume Grimoard, Urban V is the 6th pope of Avignon.
  • Gregory XI (1370-1378): the pontificate of Gregory XI will be especially marked by the return to Rome.
  • Benedict XIII (1394-1423): Benedict XIII was the last pope to be crowned in Avignon.

The city of Avignon is also the heart city of the famous singer Mireille Mathieu. Schedules, accessibility, practical information, online ticketing… we invite you to visit the website www.palais-des-papes.com to organize your visit.

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