Pierre Manent, a great French political scholar and Christian, recently had a short interview in First Things. It was about the future of Christian culture in his country. He starkly remarked that “the French as a human whole do not know what to do with the Church, what to think or what to say of it.”
My wife Annette and I recently took a short holiday in southern France. Given who we are — not to mention France’s past — it was no surprise that we visited a raft of religious sites. What to make of all we saw? Manent’s comment comes to mind. What follows is less a travelogue of faith than an archaeology of its public burial.
We began our visit in Toulouse, a great and ancient city, now bustling with university students, in the southwest of the country. At the center of its historical energy sits the Basilica of St. Sernin (or Saturnin), dedicated to an early Christian whose spectacular martyrdom — dragged and trampled by the very bull whose sacrifice the saint had opposed — colors the imagery of the area. It’s a beautiful Romanesque building, constructed in the pale red brick that characterizes the architecture of the region. Its interior is spacious, clean, and simple, breathing a light and freedom that are rare in these old churches.
The basilica became a place of regular pilgrimage because of its rich collection of relics, now laid out in intricately carved reliquaries and chapels in a special ambulatory around the apse, faced by stunning Romanesque carvings in the walls. You need to pay a few dollars to see them, along with St. Sernin’s remains. Hanging down from the ceiling is an almost floating wooden replica of the city — an ex voto offering of thanks to God for sparing the town during a great plague epidemic in 1529. People walk under its wafting shadow, taking pictures of bits of the True Cross. On the pillars of the nave hang large banners celebrating the Pope’s Jubilee year of Mercy. Visitors wander in and out, chatting. The small walls surrounding the church announce that this is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
But the bulls that killed St. Sernin seem to have won out, at least in publicity. I gather that only in recent years did a desire to recapture a local past — bound to pagan and Roman images — lead to the invention of bull runs all around the place.
In the village of Vers Pont du Gard, which we hiked through some days later, the church was closed. But the villagers were gathered in crowds, eating and drinking to loud music as bulls were paraded through the streets. We talked to several old men sitting on a bench with a good view.
“You came on a good day,” they croaked.
You could buy a ticket that let you play bocce and have a beer at the same time, while the beasts marched through the narrow streets. Residents have bull decals on their cars, a symbol of their roots.
Back in Toulouse, the old church erected on the site of St. Sernin’s death — Our Lady of the Bull — was dark and empty when I snuck in. We recognize the main actor: Bernard Bénézet’s gigantic 19th-century painting in glittery gold, depicting St. Sernin’s martyrdom, looms calmly above the main altar, the dark bull frozen in his murderous act. Another massive canvas of the same event hangs on a wall; the bull in this case turns in a writhing Baroque pose.
Toulouse was home to St. Dominic and the founding of the Dominicans. It boasts the spectacular original Dominican house now known as the Couvent des Jacobins. Thomas Aquinas’s remains are found in the chapel, in a light-enhanced container on display, rising up out of the ground by the altar. They do a service here every year, but the Dominicans have moved to a modern concrete building in an outlying area, graced by a gigantic cartoon mural of St. Dominic by the street artist “100Taur” (the bull again), that looks a little as if it came out of an Asterix comic book. The original house is now for visitors, and the information is mostly about the philosophy of building restoration.
Keeping the national patrimony intact is important. The remarkable ceiling of medieval frescos in the St. Antonin Chapel, depicting the worship of the Lamb in the Book of Revelation, has some good information on how to preserve paintings. One can relax in the beautiful cloister, however, and lounge chairs are provided. A couple of women resting next to me discussed their apartment rentals.
August is the month for French tourists, and that’s about all we see. They prowl over the famous churches, avoid the unknown ones, shuffle by the historical plaques, snap photos, and mostly eat in outdoor restaurants which now line every street in France’s unending historical districts.
Near Toulouse is the city of Albi, which lent it name to the great Cathar gnostic religious movement in the area and elicited the 13th-century “Albigensian Crusade” that resulted in the Cathars’ extermination by French Catholic forces. It’s a complicated story, with lots of politics and much horror. Simon de Montfort, overrunning the city of Béziers with its mixed Catholic-Cathar population of 20,000, reputedly instructed his soldiers: “Kill them all; God will recognize his own.”
Albi, along with Toulouse and Montaubon, is one of the three great “rose cities” of the area, named after the terra-cotta brickwork that characterizes all the older buildings. In Albi, that includes the stunning cathedral, which is built like a gigantic fortress towering over the town, with few visible windows. The story is that the Catholic bishop had it built like a military bulwark in order to intimidate any remaining Cathar resistance: the Church Militant in all its force.
The interior of the cathedral, however, is an explosion of ornate color on walls and ceiling. It is crowded with tourists. A carved screen walls off most of the nave, and you have to pay $5 to enter. Along the aisles, nuns from Belarus sell Christmas ornaments to fund their ministry back home. They seem to be doing good business; one can barely walk because of the throngs.
A truly frightening, gigantic fresco of the Last Judgment leads into a small chapel in the apse. Gruesome scenes of torture, awaiting those who have committed one of the Seven Deadly Sins, surround the entrance to this small chapel like a voracious mouth. People are wildly snapping pictures and moving on. I listen in as one father tries to explain to his child the images of screaming people, each holding their personal book of accounts as they march into the jaws of the devil. The father either isn’t sure what to say, or doesn’t quite understand the picture.
Next to Albi’s Cathedral is a matching bishop’s palace, equally well fortified. Inside, though, it houses the glorious Toulouse-Lautrec museum. Beautiful horses, dancing ladies, flowering dresses — his paintings still attract. At the bottom of the hill, below the towering cathedral and episcopal residence, the river Tarn flows steadily by, its barges filled with visitors sporting an array of sun hats. It’s a hot day.