Cathedrale Saint Lazare d’Autun

Posted in categories: Churches and monasteries, Europe, Medieval Stone, old, Travel

My medieval education at University means me and my family sometimes visit places that are not famous for much other than a church. Driving with my family from Paris Disneyland to my in-laws in french Catalunya was a perfect occasion to find some small medieval town and visit a church. At this particular occasion we, which in historical mattes means me, decided to spend one night in Autun, in Maison Sainte Barbe.

There is probably only one reason why you should visit Autun, and that would be for the pilgrimage church in the center of town.

In the beginning of the christian era Autun was an important christian city in the western Christianity, the importance of the town diminished as we approach the 12th century. Luckily there was a solution; during the early high middle ages a story surfaces about Mary, Mary Magdalene, Mary Magdalenes brother, a couple of disciples and some fellow Christians. They were persecuted by the Jews in the holy land.  The short version is that they were thrown out of the holy land and landed, lived and died in France. Since there is several local varieties of the legend, they landed several places in France. Mary Magdalene becomes an important figure in the Cathar legends and eventually ends up in several books from Dan Brown to Kate Moss. Her brother, the serial dead person Lazarus, is a bit less important but his second grave is found in Marseilles (and some other places), and his remains were bought and transferred to Autun in the beginning of the 12th century.

In regard to christian relics it is important to understand their immense value in medieval times. By touching certain relics you could be relieved of several hundreds, in some cases thousands of years in purgatory. You could be cured of disease and evil mother-in-laws. The more important the relic, the greater its power. You could also take with you part of its power, for example by letting a piece of cloth touch a relic, thus the piece of cloth gained some of the relics power. For these reasons it was of paramount importance to find a valuable relic from a well known saint for every self-respecting town.

Back to the church; after the relics were found Autun started to attract scores of pilgrims. Therefore the bishop, Etienne de Bage, decided in 1120 to build a new pilgrimage church in the most modern fashion. This gave the best possible veneration of the relics that in turn gave the most satisfied pilgrims that enthusiastically spread the word and attracted more visitants. The church was consecrated in 1132 and the relics translated to the new church in 1146.

Stylistically the church could be mistaken for Gothic from the outside,  this has to do with some of the features that have been added at a later stage. The belfry was struck with lightning and fell down in 1469 and the new one was built in late Gothic style, Gothic side chapels was also added at the same time. But if you take a closer look it is rather easy to see that the main parts of the church have Romanesque features.

The interior though is unmistakably Romanesque, the vaulting is Roman, also the historiated (figuratively carved) capitals are a distinct Romanesque feature not often used in Abbot Sugers new architectural vision (Gothic).

The main feature art-historically is the work of the artist Gislebertus. Gislebertus was from the Cluny school and worked alongside the master of Cluny for several years before the construction of Saint Lazare. In Saint Lazare he is the main artist for most of the original artwork, the most famous being The Last Judgment Tympanum on the west facade.

The Iconography of the tympanum is interesting. Christ is in the center in a mandorla (the thing he sits in). The inscription on the mandorla reads “OMNIA DISPONO SOLUS MERITOS QUE CORONO QUOS SCELUS EXERCET ME JUDICE POENA COERCE”  and means “I alone dispose of all things and crown the just; those who follow crime I judge and punish”. Below Christ, divided by a horizontal band, with yet an inscription, are the dead rising. Waiting to have their souls weighed. On Christs right side is the the inscription “QUISQUE RESUREGET ITA QUEM NON TRAHIT IMPIA VITA ET LUCEBIT EI SINE FINE LUCERN A DIEI” – “Thus shall rise again everyone who does not lead an impious life, and endless light of day shall shine for him”. On this side St.Peter and some disciples help those destined for heaven. On  Christs left side is the area of fear, the weighing of the souls and below is the inscription “TERREAT HIC TERROR QUOS TERRUS ALLIGAT ERROR NUM FORE SIC VERUM NOTAT HIC HORROR SPECIERUM” – “Here let fear strike those whom earthly error binds, for their fate is shown by the horror of these figures”. A giant hands plucks a soul from the lower part, directly below the scales. The souls are then put on the scales where the devils and angels fight to manipulate the scales to their own advantage. On the far right a devil is hanging from the tower gate/mouth of hell,  hooking the souls and dragging them into hell.

This is as good as medieval iconography gets, it marks the high point of Romanesque art and on the tympanum is also maybe the earliest signature of a medieval western stone-artist “GISLEBERTUS HOC FECIT” – “Gislebertus made this”. Almost as he knew the fame it would have even 900 years later.

Inside the cathedral the capitals are made by the same artist, along the nave, the capitals recall biblical histories. Among the most memorable are the “The First temptation of Christ”, “The fall of Simon Magus”, “The suicide of Judas” and “The tone of music”. Many of the originals are now in the upstairs chapter house in the south transept.


The North Portal once had some impressive carvings also made by Gislebertus. The lintel above the door was Adam and Eve before she ate the poisoned apple, which means that they were naked. Eve is now in the nearby museum and is the first large scale nude after the Roman times. She was found in a nearby cellar. Adam is probably irretrievably lost, and the capitals were more or less destroyed. What we see today is not a very good restoration.

So how did all this happen? By the 18th century the church (organisation) was in bad shape: several hundred years of people slowly loosing faith meant abbeys and cathedrals were falling into disrepair and many just disbanded. In 1766 the church did a restoration, an “upgrade” of Autun cathedral, in this process they sold the lintel, and the whole north portal structure to a local builder. The tomb and remains of Lazarus were torn down and thrown away. The rest of the artwork was covered in plaster. The head of Jesus on the tympanum could not be plastered over due to the size so it was chopped off and sold or given away. Later it was rediscovered and put back in its place, sometime after World War II. On a positive note these sculptures were not visible during the french revolution, which probably saved them another mauling.

Saint Lazare d’Autun is a church worth exploring if you are in the area, it is an important monument from the late Romanesque period. The Church also has a fascinating story which goes through most of the challenges old buildings endure when they live for this long. Lightning, remodeling, war, revolutions and changing world. All of it is visible in the structure itself if you know where to look.

And if you are there and look for a place to stay  the “Maison Sainte Barbe”  is a B&B that resides in the old cathedral chapter house. The building originates in the 9th century and adjoins the 9th century cathedral, the St. Nazaire, the old cloister. The garden where you eat breakfast even includes an old intact chapel. For a modern pilgrimage it is a perfect place to stay.

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