saint trophime statuteArles' most beautiful church is a masterpiece of Romanesque architecture whose magnificence reveals the wealth and power of the mediaeval city.

booking.com logoClick here to book a hotel in Arles

 

 

A THUMBNAIL HISTORY

Saint Trophime was built between the 12th century and the 15th century right in the very heart of Arles on the main square, the place de la République, near the ancient Roman forum. The site was originally occupied by a fifth century basilica dedicated to St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr.

The "new" church was dedicated in 1152 to a missionary named Trophismus, who became the Bishop of Arles in the third century AD. It marks the beginning of the Via Tolosana, part of the Camino de Santiago.

This is a great European network of long-distance pilgrimage trails which all converge on Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where the remains of Saint James are interred.

The Via Tolosana leads there via Toulouse, and pilgrims making the 970 km / 600 mile journey earned a valuable indulgence (partial forgiveness) for their sins.

Today thousands of people still make this great spiritual journey, and you can get the first stamp in the essential Pilgrim's Passport that records all the stages of your journey at Les Alyscamps, the Arles Tourist Office or Saint Trophime itself.

arles saint trophime facadeYou can buy a guide to the Via Tolosana on Amazon here (in French only).

At first Arles enjoyed great prestige as the episcopal seat, or home to the bishop's chair, meaning that Saint Trophime had cathedral status.

But in 1801 the bishopric moved to Aix en Provence, and Saint Trophime was demoted to a simple parish church.

Eventually things looked up again, though. Saint Trophime was re-promoted to a basilica in 1882. A century later, in 1981, it was classed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with Arles' other major Roman and Romanesque monuments. The church's façade and the adjoining cloister have both been sparklingly restored in recent years.

THE VISIT

As with many Romanesque churches, the main glory of Saint Trophime is its richly sculptured façade, pictured above. Presided over by Christ in majesty surrounded by the four apostles and their symbols, it depicts the Last Judgement, with the blessed on the left processing into heaven and the sinners to the right shuffling in chains off to hell.

It made a mighty impression on Vincent van Gogh when the artist arrived in Arles in 1888. "There's a Gothic porch here that I'm beginning to think is admirable, the porch of Saint Trophime," he wrote to his brother Théo on 21 March.

"But it's so cruel, so monstrous, like a Chinese nightmare that even this beautiful monument in so grand a style seems to me to belong to another world, to which I'm as glad not to belong as to the glorious world of Nero the Roman."

Other Biblical scenes, including the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Magi and the massacre of the innocents also adorn the portal, as well as statues of various saints with a connection to Arles.

arles03Inside, Saint Trophime is much more austere, but its soaring nave is the highest in Provence, equivalent to a six storey building, and there are baroque paintings by Louis Finson and a local artist named Trophime Bigot.

The church also houses Gobelin tapestries and three early Roman sarcophagi dating back to the fourth and fifth centuries.

Note that Saint Trophime closes at lunchtime. Entrance is free, but there is a small admission charge to visit the equally ornate cloister, pictured. It's accessed through a portal to the right of the church.

The first two galleries you enter, the northern and eastern ones, are Romanesque and date back to the early 13th century. The southern and western galleries were completed two centuries later in the Gothic style.

Among the intricate stone carvings, Saint Trophime, pictured top left, occupies pride of place on the north-west pillar.

His prominent position is a sign of the importance attached to the local church (as opposed to Rome or Avignon), and the capitals (the tops of the pillars) in the southern gallery depict scenes from the saint's life in Arles.

In the Chapter House, you can see two more tapestries and a small lapidarium.

Photo credits (from top): © SJ for Marvellous Provence, PMRMaeyaert for Wikimedia Commons, SJ for Marvellous Provence.

RELATED ARTICLES

Main Menu