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cathedrals 13:
Clermont Ferrand and Agde -
volcanoes to cathedrals

lermont-Ferrand cathedral, by Google Maps
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New translation, the Magna Carta

some cathedral history
the rose windows and other stained glass
plan of clermont-ferrand cathedral
 background facts - clermont-ferrand 
agde cathedral
 background facts - agde 
end notes

Clermont-Ferrand is at the heart of France's volcanic region. Thus, its cathedral, dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption - Notre Dame de l'Assomption, is built of volcanic rock. This makes it appear very dark.

Google map projection of Clermont-Ferrand black volcanic cathedral
Google map projection of Clermont-Ferrand black volcanic cathedral, viewed from the south.
The statue of Pope Urban II is in the middle of the square.

The road up to the cathedral, to the west door, is quite steep.

The road to the west door of cathedral of Clermont-Ferrand cathedral.
The road to the west door of cathedral of Clermont-Ferrand cathedral.
image from Cathedrals and cloisters in Midland France by Elise Whitlock Rose

On the north facade, I see they have modernised the former, silly town clock, as seen in this early photo:

North front at Clermont-Ferrand cathedral with the silly clock.
North front at Clermont-Ferrand cathedral with the silly square clock, now replaced by a silly round clock.
The Tour de la Bayette, the bell tower, is to the left.
On the right, above the houses, you can just see the two towers of the West facade.

Clermont-Ferrand is also a film centre, holding an annual short film festival. On a summer's evening, in the square to the south of the cathedral (shown clearly in the Google map rendition above) you may find a large screen erected and a cinematically landmark film being shown - say, Battleship Potemkin.

Statue to the film industry on a Clermont-Ferrand roundabout
'Statue' to the film industry on a Clermont-Ferrand roundabout, near the Michelin tyre factory

There's also an Irish pub less than 10 minutes walk to the south of the cathedral.

Clermont-Ferrand has strong links to Vichy, where the occupying Nazi Germans installed their puppet 'Vichy government' after they invaded France in 1940.

Close by to Clermont-Ferrand is the volcano theme park, Vulcania. (If you decide to visit, don't believe the road directions advised by the Clermont council!)

some cathedral history

There has been a religious site in this locality since at least Roman times. The current cathedral was started in 1248 and was consecrated in 1359. However, the west facade was never completed.

The Council of Clermont was held from the 18th to the 28th November, 1095. During the Council, Pope Urban II gave a speech on 27th November somewhere in the Clermont region (the work on the cathedral began 150 years later). Pope Urban II called for, and started, the First Crusade to the Holy Land. On the south side of the cathedral is a square, and in that square is a mediocre statue to Pope Urban II [sometimes Urbain]. There are five different versions of his alleged speech, all written after the event, complete with political spin. Consequently, nobody really knows what he said - just the sort of thing that occupies and amuses historians, and probably will for ever more.

The patron saint of the Crusades is Saint George de Cappodocia, who is also much celebrated by countries such as England and Spain that participated in these campaigns against Muslim incursions. There are 23 parishes in the Auvergne region with churches dedicated to Saint George.

In 1794, the Revolutionaries wanted to demolish the building willy-nilly, a destruction prevented by the town architect and a defrocked Benedictine monk Verdier Latour. The architect pointed out that the resulting rubble would cause major problems in the town, while the monk suggested using the cathedral as a meeting hall and a theatre. But three towers were demolished, causing much collateral damage as stones were thrown down, before the vandalism was halted. Altars and statues were also broken.

The cathedral's final phase of construction was in the 19th century, started after Napoleon III visited. He decided to provide not just the financing for repairing the Revolutionary vandalism, but also enough to complete the west facade of the cathedral, including the two towers atopped by spires. And Napoleon III instructed his favoured architectural restorer, Eugène Viollet Le-Duc, to manage the works.

Viollet-Le-Duc created two bays to the north and one to the south, the narthex, the west towers and the entire west facade. As so often with Viollet-Le-Duc, he was rather carried away by his imagination, adding to a purely 14th-century nave the very 13th-century narthex and west facade. The works were finally finished in 1902, complete with heavy, ugly, ungenerous steps to the west door, the result of the town council refusing to provide enough land for an entrance area to match Viollet-Le-Duc's rather grandiose facade.



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Stained glass of Saint George, in Saint George chapel
Stained glass of Saint George, in the Saint George chapel

There is a useful, but expensive, book for the seriously dedicated, Pope Urban II's council of Piacenza by Robert Somerville, 2011.

Being in the Puy de Dome, the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de l'Assomption de Clermont-Ferrand is built from very dark, volcanic stone, the old town surrounding the cathedral being known as the ville noire (black town). Another cathedral built with volcanic stone is the cathedral at Agde, close to the Mediterranean where France meets Spain. A cathedral that looms black and almost forbidding. This rather simple fortified church is even more impressive when the sky is dark and the rain pours down. Some refer to the colour as brown, but I am sticking with black. Clermont-Ferrand cathedral is sometimes referred to as the black cathedral, but to me it looks quite cheerful when compared to Agde.

the rose windows and other stained glass

Some of the best 13th-century glass in France is at Clermont-Ferrand. In among the early glass are also some highly imaginative windows, completed in 1981.

North rose window
North rose window
South rose window
South rose window
Note that, as usual, the north rose tends to blue and is darker, while the south rose is lighter and tends to red - north light is intense and blue, south light is less intense and tends to red. These artists knew a thing or two.
For more see this section on Bazas.
West rose window
West rose window
partially hidden by the organ
South rose window -exterior view
South rose window - exterior view

Like at Chartres, Le Mans and Bourges cathedrals, the stained glass at at Clermont-Ferrand was probably saved from damage or destruction by their distance from Paris during the French Revolution and from the World Wars.

As well as the three great rose windows, there are many story windows, made up of about 400 medallions. Here are a few samples:

angels feeding the princess /
L: angels feeding the princess (and her son) converted to Christianity by Saint Mary Magdalene
Mary Magdalene greets Jesus

prodigal son considers his position while tending a farmer's pigs!
The prodigal son considers his position while tending a farmer's pigs!

the prodigal son feeds pigs
L: an angel talks to the Magi in a dream
R: the flight of Jesus's family to Egypt
These two medallions in Saint Anne's chapel are very early - late 12th century.

With 400-odd medallions, it pays to concentrate a bit, or you're liable to become overwhelmed. This is an art gallery to which you can return, and return, and return. Remember your binoculars!

I particularly like the glass in the north apse chapels, those of Saint Austremoine and Saint George. And on the southern side of the apse there is a 'very special treat' in the middle lancets of Saint Anne's Chapel, where most of the panels are 12th century (the bottom eight medallions of the two lancets).

The quality of the glass restorations in this cathedral, done by Gauldin Clermont in 1930, are unusually fine.

Windows of dignatories and saints in the clerestory (higher) level
Windows of dignitaries and saints in the clerestory (higher) level

There are thirty-four 15th-century lancets, like those illustrated just above, in the clerestory. I usually call these prophet and king windows, though they often include bishops and saints as well.

Plan of Clermont-Ferrand cathedral

Plan of Clermont-Ferrand cathedral
Background facts


coat of arms, Clermont-Ferrand

approximate population : 139,000
average altitude/elevation : 358 m
cathedral dimensions
• length : 92 m
     • length, choir : 36 m
     • length, transept and nave : 28.7 m
• width, transept : 32.7 m
• height, transept crossing : 28.7 m
• height, aisle: 14.3 m.
• height, Tour de la Bayette : 50.7 m
• height, western spires : 96.2 m.

agde cathedral of saint étienne

Agde is distinguished by the dark grey, almost black volcanic rock used in many of its buildings. This rock comes from Mont Saint-Loup, a nearby extinct volcano. The Cathédrale Saint-Étienne d'Agde is a 12th-century fortified church, complete with machicolations, built on the site of a Phoenician temple.

The first cathedral, hardly completed, in the 8th century was rased to the ground by Charles Martel. He did this, as in other towns such as Beziers and Nimes, to prevent the Saracens, whom he had newly ousted, from using the building as "a den". His son, Pepin le Bref, finally conquered the region in the 750s.

The next, Romanesque, cathedral, finished in about 1220, was built by the bishop of Agde who was also its count, its temporal lord. This was common in towns of the Midi at that time. The cathedral's fortified nature was preparation against invasion from the nearby Mediterranean Sea.

The Wars of Religion in the 16th century were a source of damage as the Calvinists burnt sacred relics, and similar profanities occurred during the French Revolution. Then the cathedral became a 'stable' for pigs, while the last bishop of Agde died on the scaffold in Paris, refusing to take the Republican oath and "dishonour his old age".

 Agde cathedral west facade
Agde cathedral east facade.

Agde cathedral from the south, with joasting boat
Agde cathedral from the east, with water jousting boat

Interior of Agde cathedral. Photo by Rose
Interior of the very simple Agde cathedral.
Image from Cathedrals and cloisters of the South of France by Elise Whitlock Rose

Satellite view of Agde cathedral
Satellite view of Agde cathedral
The West door faces the River Hérault, the small roof to the right covers the side chapel.

Plan of Saint Etienne cathedral at Agde
Plan of Saint Etienne cathedral at Agde.
This plan shows the Roman cloisters prior to their destruction in 1857.

It is said that in 1857, a "stupid entrepreneur" brutally destroyed the Roman cloisters. A priest rescued arches, columns and capitals of the cloister from the rubble, and included them in the walls of a side chapel built where the cloister had stood.

Background facts


Agde coat of arms

approximate population : 24, 600
average altitude/elevation : 7 m
cathedral dimensions
• length : 30.5 m
• width : 15 m
• bell tower : 35 m
• wall thickness : 2-3 m


Pope Urban II's council of Piacenza by Robert Somerville

Pope Urban II's council of Piacenza by Robert Somerville
Oxford University Press , hbk, 2011

ISBN-10: 0199258597
ISBN-13: 978-0199258598


La cathedrale de Clermont-Ferrand, monographie

La cathedrale de Clermont-Ferrand by H. du Ranquet

Henri Laurens, Paris, pbk, approx. 1900s

(series: Petites monographies des grands édifices de la France)

Pope Urban II's council of Piacenza by Robert Somerville

Monographie de la cathedrale Saint-Etienne d'Agde
by Pierre de Gorsse

Société Archéologique du Midi de la France, pbk, 1922

end notes

  1. Clermont, Ferrand and Clermont-Ferrand
    After Pope Urbain II's call to crusade, there were repeated quarrels between the counts of Auvergne and the bishops of Clermont, the counts endeavouring to counteract the clergy's enhanced power.

    In 1120, the counts founded a rival city - Montferrand - on a mound next to the fortifications of Clermont. Thus, there was Clermont, the episcopal city and Montferrand, the comital one.

    The two towns, Clermont and Montferrand, remained separate until joined by a decree of Louis XIII, later confirmed by Louis XV.
  2. The inhabitants of Agde are called Agathois, Agde having previously been called Agatha.

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marker cathedrals, an illustrated glossary
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marker history of ugly stained glass: Auch, Bazas, Dreux
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marker at France pages Dax and church iconography marker photographs, Dax
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marker Le Mans and Bourges cathedrals - medieval space technology
marker Lausanne rose window - photo-analysis
marker cathedrals in Lorraine - the Three Bishoprics
marker cathedral giants - Amiens and Beauvais
marker Clermont-Ferrand and Agde - from volcanoes to cathedrals

marker Germans in France - Arras cathedral
marker Germans in France - Reims cathedral
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marker cathedral plans, and facts
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marker cathedrals and cloisters of Franceby Elise Whitlock Rose
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