Sur le pont d’Avignon: Exiled Popes and a broken bridge

28 12 2009

The popular children’s song Sur le pont d’Avignon comes to mind each time one thinks of Avignon. The lyrics of the song describes people dancing on the bridge in a circle … conjuring up images of jovial folk dressed in their medieval finery dancing in celebration on what must have been a magnificent Pont Saint-Bénezet, stradled over the Rhône.

Sur le pont d'Avignon: On the Bridge of Avignon

The Chorus of Sur le pont d’Avignon,

Sur le pont d’Avignon
L’on y danse, l’on y danse
Sur le pont d’Avignon
L’on y danse tous en rond

translates into:

On the bridge of Avignon
We all dance there, we all dance there
On the bridge of Avignon
We all dance there in a ring

Le Pont d'Avignon: Pont Saint-Bénezet (The Saint-Bénezet Bridge)

What is left of the bridge these days, are four remaning arches, where there had been twenty-two arches supporting the length of the beautifully constructed bridge. A large part of what had been a 900 metre long bridge was swept away by a flood in the late 17th century. A first glimpse of the bridge on the approach from the cool shadows of the tree lined ramparts of the city walls, against the drone of the gentle chorus of cicadas, who one might suggest, were attempting to mimic the tune of the children’s song, provides a foretaste of the impressive divine inspired work. The solid looking bridge, inspired by the vision of a shepherd boy, Bénezet, after whom it is named, who, in a vision, was commanded by angels to build a bridge across the river, was constructed in the late 12th century. For sometime the bridge served strategically as the only built river crossing between Lyon and the Mediterranean. Standing on what is left of the bridge, one feels a sense of awe and can’t help but marvel at what is truly an impressive feat of medieval engineering.

Sur le pont d'Avignon: The Palace of the Popes as seen from the Saint-Bénezet Bridge

The bridge offers a wonderful perspective of the walled city of Avignon and the Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes) where the day had actually begun. The Palace of the Popes, built in the 14th century, served as the seat of the Papacy during a tumultuous period of time when the Papacy took leave of absence from its seat in Rome – the only period of time since the establishment of the Papacy when it had been based outside of Rome. The Palace with its 15000 square metres of floor area is an impressive piece of medieval architecture and is in fact the largest Gothic palace in Europe. It was built from 1335 to 1364, after a French dominated Papacy had moved from the strife and hostility it faced in Rome in 1309, serving as the seat of the Catholic Church until 1377, when the Papacy moved back to Rome. It continued serving as the seat of two rebel popes installed by factions opposed to Rome during the Papal Schism that followed the departure of the Papacy, until 1403.

Palais des Papes - The Palace of the Popes

View from the Ramparts of the Palace of the Popes

Roof at the Palace of the Popes

The Palace of the Popes

Cathédrale Notre Dame-des-Doms and the Palace of the Popes

Across from the Palace of the Popes, stands the delightful Petit Palais, which houses the Musée du Petit Palais and its collection of mainly Italian and French primitive and early renaissance art, including Bottlcelli’s The Virgin and Child. On display is what perhaps a glimpse of the art from a period of time during which the awakening of art and culture had started, from a time when art, architecture and much of life, was dedicated to the glory of God.

Botticelli's The Virgin and Child (1465)

Giovanni Baronzio's Madonna and Child (c. 1343)

Outside the palaces, the streets, that had on the walk into the walled city that morning, been filled with the dissonance of a student protest, one that maybe one expects to come across on the cobble stones of a city as French as the dissension of its citizens is, seemed quiet in the heat of the Provencal summer afternoon. Wandering around somehow seemed a lot less interesting after the morning’s journey into the city’s colourful past.

The quiet streets of Avignon

A Medieval Tower in the centre of Avignon