An arlesian archbishop within Saint Trophime's by Janice Lert

arlesian archbishop within Saint Trophime s 2Visitors from all over the world are attracted to Saint Trophime’s church in Arles because of its magnificent 12th century Romanesque portal, one of the numerous UNESCO World Heritage Monuments in Arles. It tells us about Judgment Day and how the saints will allow us to overcome the lions of evil and become part of the procession going through the pearly gate.


B ut most visitors admire the portal without venturing inside the church. It is true that this Romanesque church lacks the majestic vertical thrust and lighting effects of Gothic constructions, but it is full of interesting things carefully protected and venerated over the centuries. Among the oldest are several early Christian sarcophagi dating back to the 4th century and coming from the nearby Alyscamps cemetery. Here they have been transformed into altars or, in one case, into an old baptismal font.


The walls are decorated with a series of 17thcentury Aubusson tapestries depicting the life of Mary. A special chapel is devoted to reliquaries of which Arles has a large collection due to the fact that many of the first bishops of Arles were canonized. The church in Arles was one of the first organized in Gaul, and the Arlesian convent founded for women by Cesarius in the 6th century resulted in the first example of convent rules written for women, so there are plenty of relics of women in the collection as well.


The pillars and walls of Saint Trophime’s have been used for tombs for centuries, mostly anonymous today. An interesting one for North Americans is that of an ancestor of General Montcalm who fought Wolf in Quebec for France and lost. The Montcalm homestead is in the Camargue not far from Aigues-Mortes. This year, one tomb is being specially honored: it is that of Archbishop Gaspard du Laurens in the Kings’ Chapel on the south side of the main nave. Gaspard du Laurens officiated over the diocese of Arles from 1603 to 1630.


He was an Arlesian himself, and at that time it was rare that an archbishop be chosen among natives of the city where he was to preside. Since the Popes had arrived in Avignon in the 14th century they had taken the habit of naming a commanditaire archbishop, a member of the clergy who received the revenues associated with the title of archbishop but rarely exercised the duties that went along with the title... After the Popes left Avignon the Kings of France continued this practice, sometimes naming archbishops who were not even French, or who cumulated revenues from a number of dioceses.


However, Gaspard du Laurens was chosen by Henri IV, the king who had managed to put an end to the religious wars and did a lot to bring the French back together again by encouraging economic growth. Gaspard was the type of man he favored: a member of an important family of doctors who were not nobles but part of the more dynamic bourgeois class, well educated and well connected.


Gaspard immediately set about reorganizing his diocese and undertook numerous pastoral visits with detailed inventories of liturgical objects, including relics. Where he found wooden reliquaries he donated his own money to provide the equivalent in gold or silver (which were later melted down during the French Revolution.) He reported how mass was held and on the education of the priests in 140 reports written in the space of 20 years. He undertook to reform the monastic orders and brought new ones to Arles: the Ursulines for women, the Jesuits, the Oratorians, orders who were considered more serious than others who had been in Arles for centuries. In particular he established the Franciscan friars Minor (Minimes) in the Alyscamps cemetery, where they were instrumental in organizing the cemetery (which had been desecrated and pillaged over the centuries) as we know it today.


arlesian archbishop within Saint Trophime s 1He had several churches rebuilt in Arles, and at St. Trophime’s he created the chapel known as the Kings’ Chapel which he decorated to receive his tomb. He took advantage of the arrival in Provence of a painter of Flemish origin named Finsonius, to order two monumental paintings for St. Trophime’s: one representing the martyr Stephen, hanging today on the triumphal arch in the center of the nave (the older church on the spot where St. Trophime’s is located today was dedicated to Stephen), and the other depicting the three Wise Men bringing their presents to the newborn baby Jesus, incorporated into an altarpiece in the Kings’ chapel, to which it gave its name. The altarpiece bears the Du Laurens coat of arms (a laurel tree under three stars) and is located across from Gaspard’s tomb on the opposite wall, the tomb was sculpted by Jean Dedieu, an Arlesian who also worked on the decoration of the Arles city hall. The composition represents an open sarcophagus with the archbishop rising from the dead (unfortunately he lost his head during the French Revolution), surrounded by cherubs.


It is in this chapel, and the one next door, that the Arles church is organizing an exhibition until 5 October 2015, dedicated to Gaspard du Laurens and the city he knew at the beginning of the 17th century: municipal life, architecture, economy, important events. So if you are in Arles, take a peek inside the church for a trip back in time: it will put today’s anxieties into perspective!


Cathédrale Saint-Trophime
12, rue du Cloître, 13200 Arles
To visit the cloister: Full rate: 4.50€ - Reduced rate: 3.50€