The Cistercian abbeys and Romano-Byzantine masterpieces in Provence, the treasures of the Via Alta in the Alps, and the colourful chapels on the Côte d’Azur. Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur is loaded with magnificent and eclectic examples of religious architecture.
Cistercian Tradition and Romano-Byzantine Style
There are too many jewels of religious architecture in Provence to list here here. But some buildings are essential, like the “Three Provençal Sisters”, symbols of the power of the Cistercian order in the Middle Ages. Among them, the Abbaye de Sénanque in Gordes, surrounded by flourishing lavender fields, and whose abbatial church and cloister have remained intact. Located in La Roque d’Anthéron, the Abbaye de Silvacane is distinguished by its spare style and a cloister made up of four barrel-vaulted galleries. Lastly, the Abbaye du Thoronet impressed Le Corbusier during his visit in 1953: “At the time of raw concrete, may it blessed, welcomed and celebrated throughout its journey, such an admirable encounter.” You’ll also find architecture gems in the big cities of Provence. In Marseille, the imposing basilica of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, “La Bonne Mère,” perched at 162 metres, embodies the Romano-Byzantine style that was in vogue in the 19th century. Just like the Cathédrale Sainte-Marie Majeure, built at the same time on the other side of the Old Port. Finally, we must mention the Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur in Aix-en-Provence, a composite ensemble that includes elements dating from the 5th to 12th centuries, and the unmissable Palais des Papes in Avignon, the 14th-century residence of the reigning pontiffs.
Treasures of the Via Alta
In the Alps, the masterpieces of religious architecture are concentrated mainly on the route of the Via Alta, a cultural itinerary that connects Rome to Santiago de Compostela. On the way, take a break at the Collégiale de Briançon, an imposing building which dominates the walls of the town. Then, head to the Notre-Dame-du-Laus sanctuary, a place nestled in the mountains known for its apparitions of the Virgin Mary, and the Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Embrun, (or Notre-Dame-du-Réal). It houses a remarkable organ, a Romanesque style altarpiece of 18th century polychrome marble and altars of carved wood and gilt. Another notable building on the Via Alta is the Abbaye de Boscodon. Perched at an altitude of 1,150 metres, near the Lac de Serre-Ponçon it has an extremely austere architecture. Founded in the 12th century, it was reborn in the 1970s, driven by the Dominican Order that started restoration.
The Côte d’Azur
Abbeys and Colourful Chapels
The Riviera is distinguished by its colourful churches and chapels, some of which are the work of great 20th-century artists. These include the Chapelle Notre-Dame de Jerusalem in Fréjus, outlined in chalk by Jean Cocteau and decorated with magnificent stained glass, or the Chapelle Matisse in Vence, with white and blue tiles. Explore also the 15th-century Chapelle Saint-Sauveur in Le Canet. Its front is decorated with a polychrome mosaic and the interior enamelled by brightly coloured stained glass designed by the artist Théo Tobiasse. Another example of this motley religious architecture: the village of Lucéram, in the hinterland of Nice, whose Chapelle Saint-Jean is distinguished by a bell tower in pastel shades. Pop over to the basilica of Notre-Dame-de-la-Victoire-de-Lépante in Saint-Raphaël, an original neo-Byzantine style building, designed in the pink sandstone of the Esterel. It is impossible to talk about the religious architecture of the Côte d’Azur without mentioning the Abbaye de Lérins, founded in the fifth century on the island of Saint-Honorat, off Cannes. Made up of an old fortified monastery, a modern monastery and two chapels, it is still occupied by monks. In Nice, visit the Chapelle de la Miséricorde, a masterpiece of Baroque architecture, and the Cathedral Orthodoxe Russe Saint-Nicolas, the largest Russian Orthodox church built outside Russia.