(left-above) Map of the Environs of Arles; all others: exhibits from Musée de la Camargue on the road between Arles and Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer
The Camargue is an island eighteen miles in length formed by two branches of the Rhone. It is extremely fertile and feeds an incredible number of horses and cattle which are almost wild. The horses are active and hardy, but unruly and ugly.
William Coxe - Galignani's Traveller's Guide Through France -1819
The wide uninterrupted plain stretching from Arles to the sea S and E nearly as far as Marseilles including the delta of the Rhone or the island of Camargue presents some singular phenomena not unworthy of attention. Indeed both its climate and its soil of mud banks, arid sand or vast bare gravel beds, alternating with salt marshes and lagoons raised from 2 to 7 feet above the sea, assimilate it rather to Africa and the borders of the Nile than to France. Even some of the animals which resort to it, the ibis, the pelican and the flamingo properly belong to the African continent. Here as in the deserts of Asia and Africa the mirage constantly occurs during the heats transforming the arid plain in appearance into a wide lake.
John Murray III - Hand-book for Travellers in France - 1843
Lagoon and salt-works seen from Tour Constance at Aigues-Mortes
Saint Lewis embarked at Aiguesmortes, for his expedition against the Musselmen: the communication was then open
from hence to the sea for large vessels; but
the kings of France, having soon after got
possession of Provence, where they were
provided with more convenient ports than this, neglected Aiguesmortes so entirely, that
its canals filled with sand, and its haven
became a sedgy pool: the number of its
citizens decreased annually from sickness, or
desertion; the few inhabitants, that still remain within its walls, are bribed to stay by
the advantageous privileges which the town
enjoys, and by the profits arising from the
great salt-works of Peuais.
Henry Swinburne - Travels through Spain in the Years 1775 and 1776 to which is added a Journey from Bayonne to Marseille - 1787 Edition
The ground is so impregnated with salt that the water is brackish; the surface of the soil is in summer covered with a white saline efflorescence, like a coating of snow, and when the pools are dried up, the salt forms in a cake 2 inches thick. Murray
The Petit Rhône, the western arm of the river, marks the border between the historical regions of Languedoc and Provence and of today's departments of Gard and Bouches-du-Rhône; Saint-Gilles and Aigues-Mortes were ports on the Languedoc side of the Petit Rhône; Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and the major portion of Camargue are situated in Provence.
Camargue rice fields (above) and pastures (below)
Although this desert appears to be nothing but a barren and stony plain, yet it affords excellent pasturage for sheep as a number of the finest aromatic plants grow between the stones, hence the mutton acquires a very fine flavour. Some part however of the plain has within these few years been gained for the purposes of agriculture in consequence of the soil deposited by the river Rhone and the irrigating canals with which it has been overflowed and great hopes are entertained that the whole may some day be restored and rendered fit for the produce of grain, an article in which this part of France is very deficient. Coxe
Cultivation can only be pursued by excluding the sea by dykes which entirely surround the Camargue and the saline influence is counteracted by covering the surface with the muddy deposits brought down by the Rhone. In this manner the district produces extensive pastures on which large flocks of sheep are fed together with herds of small cattle and wild horses or rather ponies said to be of a stock originally brought from Africa by the Arabs in their frequent invasions of this part of France. Murray
The two fork-like branches of the Rhone encompass and fertilize the celebrated Delta or triangular isle of the Camargue containing thousands of wild horses, sheep and oxen, every animal being stamped with a particular mark to designate its respective owner. This gives birth to a sort of Arcadian festival known by the name of "ferrades" which is thus conducted. The ferrades are usually set on foot by several proprietors at the same time and are attended by many thousands, both of invited and uninvited guests from a distance of ten miles round. To this end a sort of circus is formed with carts upon a large and newly mown meadow where the operation can be performed with safety to the operator. Each cart is adorned with flags, streamers and ribands and provided with a scaffold for the accommodation of the spectators. On one side of the circus a large fire is lighted for heating the marking iron. On the opposite side is an opening through which the cattle may be driven which are in the mean time confined near at hand. Coxe
Wild bulls were frequently driven from the Camargue, and combats exhibited in the ancient amphitheatre of Arles before a vast concourse of spectators (..) The frequent loss of human lives induced government to abolish these savage sports at Arles. Swinburne
Bullfights were reintroduced at the end of the XIXth century, but because the bull of Camargue is a small animal, a race from Andalusia was brought in and it is now bred in Camargue separately from the local one.
The Abbey Church in a plate from "Alexandre de Laborde - The Monuments of France Chronologically Classified - 1816-1836"
St Gilles is a town of antiquity originally Rhoda Rhodiorum, a colony founded by the Rhodians according to Pliny, situated on the Petit Rhone, chiefly remarkable at present for its magnificent abbey church which will interest the antiquary. The upper church was begun 1116 on a scale of great magnificence by Alphonso, son of Raymond IV, Count of St Gilles, called Jourdain because baptised in the Jordan, but was destroyed during the wars of religion having been turned into a fortress by the Huguenots in 1562 and demolished when no longer tenable as such by the Duc de Rohan in 1622. It has been replaced by a temporary structure of late date and inferior architecture. The West Front is a masterpiece of the Romanesque style upon which every species of ornamental decoration and rich sculpture seems to have been lavished. It has been described as one immense bas relief crowded with pillars, statues, panelling, foliage combined with a strange infusion of the elements of classical architecture, columns, capitals, entablatures and friezes. Sculptured lions are frequently introduced as supports to the pillars and in other parts and as the abbots of St Gilles, powerful seigneurs in ancient days, used to sit at the gate of the church to dispense justice, many of the old charters begin with the words "Domino NN sedente inter leones". Murray
The Abbey Church today
At S. Gilles there are
three doorways in the same style as that of S. Trophime, but perhaps a trifle older, connected by a series of
columns carrying a similar frieze. The arches are round and there is no pediment above. (..) We find in these buildings a singular mixture of motives, the ornament bestiary being based on Gallo-Roman example with little or no trace of oriental feeling, while the statuary bears the impress of Byzantium and the East. (..) The central tympanum has like that at Arles a figure
of our Lord in a vesica, or rather an aureole, between the
four apocalyptic beasts.
Thomas Graham Jackson - Byzantine and Romanesque Architecture - 1913
The monastery with its cloister and capitular hall were entirely destroyed in 1562; the vaults of the church collapsed and a much smaller building replaced it. Only the façade and the crypt were spared.
Abbey Church: lintel with classical and medieval features; the image used as background for this page shows a capital decorated with an eagle
The general design shows the same delicate sense of proportion in the disposition of the ornament. The ornaments of the Roman mouldings at both churches are based on the Roman antique; in both (..) the pilasters are fluted, a feature belonging to the west and not to the east, and the scrolls are purely Latin and have nothing Byzantine about them. The capitals in particular are based on Roman Corinthian, with deeply channelled folds and pipings, and rounded raffling, quite unlike the sharp crisp acanthus, and the flat surface treatment of the Byzantine school. Many of them contain figures of birds and animals admirably posed, and at S. Gilles, along the edge of the architrave that runs under the frieze, is a series of little animals - lions, dogs, and whelps of various kinds - carved with life and spirit that it would be hard to surpass. Jackson
Abbey Church: reliefs in the lower part of the portals: (left) Centaur or Sagittarius hunting a deer, perhaps a reference to a miracle by St. Giles who stopped the arrow a hunter shot to kill the hind, the only companion of the saint when he was a hermit; (right) she-lion feeding her cubs, a symbol of Resurrection
the central stage is the richest; and though the base or
podium is ornamented with carved reliefs at the sides of
the great door, the relief is with consummate art kept so
flat and slight that it observes the necessary subordination to the Statuary above it. Jackson
Art historians after Jackson explain the stylistic and technical differences in the complex decoration of the façade by suggesting that five different sculptors worked on it.
Abbey Church: Washing of the Feet and Denial of Peter (see The Kiss of Judas in the introductory page)
On the lintel-frieze, is a representation of the last supper, and scenes from our Lord's
life and passion occupy the continuations over the
colonnade, ending with the washing of the disciples' feet
on the proper right, and beginning again with the
betrayal in the garden and the kiss of Judas on the
proper left, in right sequence of event. The sculpture at S. Gilles is very like that at S. Trophime, but it struck me, if anything, as rather superior,
especially in the figures, which are admirable. Jackson
The subjects and design of the reliefs on the lintel were most likely influenced by those which were visible in the early Christian sarcophagi of Arles.
Abbey Church: (left) Archangel Michael; (right) Saints Bartholomew, Thomas and James Minor
In the figures, with their draperies in straight
Byzantine deep-cut folds, there appears a character foreign to
the classic art of the west. They have nothing about
them of the Gallo-Roman style, but breathe instead the
spirit of the religious art of the East. (..) Figure sculpture on a large scale played no part in
the west Byzantine architecture. It is only on a miniature scale
that the Greeks employed it; in ivories and triptychs and such-like portable articles, of which a vast quantity Byzantine
found their way along the line of commerce westward.
It was therefore from these that the infant schools of
France probably derived inspiration. A still more fertile
source was found in Byzantine paintings, where figures
were introduced without reserve; and in illustrations of
manuscripts, and actual pictures, in which the Greeks
excelled the westerns, as much as they fell behind them
in the plastic art. (..) Lastly the Crusades of the 11nth and 12th centuries opened
a wider communication between west and east; European
principalities were established at Antioch and Edessa and
finally at Jerusalem itself, with which constant intercourse
would be maintained, and regular commercial relations
established; and the normal
trade between Venice and the south and west of France
which furnished another link with the Eastern world.
It may be asked why (..) inspiration should be sought
in Byzantine art which repudiated sculpture on a large
scale and offered no direct models for imitation, rather than
in the classic art near at hand. But imitation of the conventional figures of Byzantine ivories and tissues was
much easier than that of the Venus of Arles; and
Roman art was regarded as Pagan, and that of Byzantium
was religious - hieratic, - and its very stiffness and convention would recommend it to the clergy, regular or
secular, in whose hands the arts at that time were exclusively centred. Jackson
You may wish to read Jackson's description of the portal of the Cathedral of Traù in Dalmatia, another masterpiece of Romanesque sculpture.
The lower church however which is not subterranean, but on a level with the cloister, is perhaps of the 11th century having been dedicated 1096 by Pope Urban II. (..) It is supposed to be a little older than the porch. Murray
The decline of Saint-Gilles as a site of pilgrimages begins in the early XIIIth century because of the conflicts associated with the Cathar heresy. Raymond VI, Count of Saint-Gilles, was reluctant to expel the heretics from his territories, but after having been excommunicated by Pope Innocent III in 1209 he had to beg for pardon standing naked outside the church; a stole was tied to his neck and eventually he was brought to the crypt to pray on the tomb of the saint. The excommunication was lifted, but he did not regain the trust of Innocent III and of his successors.
(left) Vis (Screw) de Saint-Gilles; (centre-left) the two remaining capitals
A detached pile of ruin behind the actual church is the only relic of the old priory which escaped being destroyed in the 16th century; it contains a corkscrew staircase called "Le Vis de St Gilles" and is celebrated for its masterly construction as a piece of masonry. Murray
Vis de Saint-Gilles is one of the two bell towers which stood at the back of the church, which was much shortened when rebuilt in 1622.
The spiral staircase at St. Gilles is not the first of its kind, but the way the stones of its ceiling are arranged is a fine example of the skill of the local stonecutters, who some centuries later managed to build a very large "suspended" vault in the Hotel de Ville of Arles.
|Other abbeys/monasteries in this web site:|
Monastero di S. Paolo fuori le Mura
Abbazia di S. Paolo alle Tre Fontane
Sacro Speco di S. Benedetto a Subiaco
S. Scolastica a Subiaco
Abbazia di Fossanova
Abbazia di S. Nilo a Grottaferrata
Abbazia di Casamari
Abbazia di Farfa
Abbazia di Pomposa
Abbaye aux Dames at Saintes in France
Meteora monasteries in Greece
St. John's monastery at Patmos in Greece
The monastery of Sumela in Turkey
The monastery of Deyr az Zafaran at Mardin in Turkey
The abbey of Bellapais on Cyprus
The town of Saint-Gilles: (left) gate; (centre) houses; (right) St. Giles with the hind, his sole companion similar to what occurred to St. Onuphrius
Saint-Gilles lost importance as a port when the Kings of France developed those of Beaucaire (upstream) and of Aigues-Mortes (downstream). It housed the Priory of the Order of the Knights of Rhodes (later on of Malta) for Provence until 1621 when this body was moved to Arles. Its premises were demolished during the French Revolution.
Porte de la Reine
Aigues Mortes is singularly situated in the midst of salt marshes and lagoons whose exhalations render it very unhealthy. It is approached by a causeway raised above the marsh. (..) Aigues Mortes itself a miserable and deserted town is of interest only as a perfect example of a feudal fortress; its walls and gates more entire and less altered than even those of Avignon give a perfect idea of the art of fortification in the 13th century. Its fosse has been filled up on account of the malaria produced by its stagnant water. (..) The walls of the town were built after the death of St Louis in Africa by his son Philippe le Hardi on the plan it is said of those of Damietta. Murray
The wars against the Cathars greatly weakened Raymond VI and his son Raymond VII and the Kings of France managed to incorporate most of their possessions west of the Petit Rhône. In ca 1240 King Louis IX began the construction of a new harbour downstream of Saint-Gilles in a site which belonged to a Benedictine abbey and which was renowned for its salt-works.
(left) Tour de Villeneuve; (right) Porte des Cordeliers and a detail of its decoration
Aiguesmortes appears in the marshy plain
to the right: the alterations occasioned by
the lapse of ages in its harbour and neighbourhood, have furnished subject of meditation for many modern philosophers, who
have striven to explain the natural history
of our planet, and account systematically
for all its wonderful changes and convulsions. Swinburne
As Aigues Mortes lies nearly 3 m inland, some have supposed from this that the sea must have retired since the 13th century; modern investigations have proved however the existence of a small port close to the town, in whose walls the ancient mooring rings still remain, and of a canal now filled with sand extending thence to the harbour of Crau du Roi on the sea, doubtless the place of rendezvous for the royal fleet. Murray
The protection of Aigues-Mortes, which had the typical rectangular shape of an ancient Roman town, was ensured by imposing walls which were built by Guglielmo Boccanegra, a member of a powerful family of Genoa, whom King Louis appointed governor of the town also in order to develop its trade.
Walls between Porte de la Reine and Tour de Villeneuve and bestiary at Porte de la Reine
Salt is the chief article of commerce produced in the vicinity and, after the massacre by the royal forces. aided by the townsfolk, of the Burgundian troops who had obtained possession of the town in 1421, the bodies of the slain were thrown into a tower between layers of salt, it is said in order to prevent their putrefying and breeding miasma in the town. In 1533 an interview took place here between the Emperor Charles V and Francis I and in 1542 the Turkish corsair Barbarossa. the ally of the French king against the emperor, moored his fleet in the harbour. Murray
In 1482 Provence was bequeathed to the King of France and Aigues-Mortes lost importance because the addition to the kingdom included Marseille which enjoyed a very favourable and healthy position and a long mercantile tradition. In the XVIIth century King Louis XIV built imposing fortifications to protect the harbour of Toulon, which became the port of the French Navy in the Mediterranean Sea, to the detriment of Aigues-Mortes.
Tour Constance: (left-centre) exterior; (right) staircase
In advance of the place to the N is a single round tower which served as a citadel, 90 ft high, 65 in diameter, surmounted by an old light house turret of 34 ft. In the centre of each floor is a hole communicating with a reservoir for water below. Some of its chambers served as a prison in which Protestants, chiefly females, who refused to abjure their faith were confined after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Some of them had been shut up here for 35 years when they were released in 1769. (..) This tower is called Tour de Constance for what reason is unknown. It is proved to have been built by St Louis who embarked here on his unsuccessful Crusade to Tunis in 1270 having assembled at this spot a fleet of 800 galleys and an army of 40,000 men. Murray
Tour Constance: views of the upper hall, another example of the skill of the local mastermasons
In 1685 King Louis XIV revoked the 1598 Edict of Nantes which granted the Huguenots the right to practice their religion in some towns. The large majority of the Huguenots left the country, but some of those who stayed were sentenced to the royal galleys while their women were imprisoned in Tour Constance. Today the tower is a memorial to the tragedy of the Protestant women who were held there. Marie Durand was a prisoner for 38 years and she is said to have engraved the word 'Resist' on the edge of the well. Religious persecution in France was formally ended by King Louis XVI in 1787.
Notre-Dame-des-Sablons (large sand dunes): (left) façade; (centre) interior; (right) XIXth century statue
The parish church of Aigues-Mortes was built in the XIIIth century, but it was damaged during the Wars of Religion. In 1634 its bell tower collapsed and the church was closed for more than a century. During the French Revolution it was used as a salt storehouse. After 1804 it returned to be a church, but all the new furnishings and decorations were removed in 1967, so that today the interior shows its bare medieval walls.
(left) Chapelle de Pénitents Blancs; (right) Chapelle de Pénitents Gris
These two brotherhoods, similar to what can be noticed at Avignon, were commonly named after the garb their members wore when carrying out their charitable activities. The chapels were built in the XVIIth century. Initially there was only one brotherhood, but in 1625 there was a split and the brotherhood of the Pénitents Blancs was founded.
Chapelle de Pénitents Gris: 1687 altar by Jean Sabatier
Both chapels were deconsecrated and spoiled of their decorations during the French Revolution. Chapelle de Pénitents Gris was turned into a fodder house; its lavishly decorated stucco altar was out of sight and it was not destroyed. Damages were repaired in 1818. It shows the influence of Roman Baroque sculpture in this part of France.
Streets and houses
Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer, a fortified church
There is only one village in the Camargue, that of Saintes Maries, but many isolated farms are scattered over it. Murray. According to tradition in 40 AD a boat without sail and oars carried a group of personages of the Gospel to this shore. A church on this site is recorded in the Vth century as Our Lady of the Boat. It was briefly seized by the Saracens in 869. The church was built in the XIth and XIIth century and it served as a small fortress for the inhabitants of the village.
Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer: (left) façade; (right) apse
The church was deconsecrated during the French Revolution and, having lost its value as a fortification, it was deprived of its battlements which were sold as construction material. The battlements were added back in 1873, which explains why they look so complete.
Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer: (left) interior; (right) window of the apse
The bare interior and some details of the apse are indicative of the Romanesque style of the church. In 1448 King René of Naples and Count of Provence ordered some excavations under the church and evidence was found of a small oratory inside a cave containing two corpses, which were immediately assumed to be those of Mary Salome and of Mary of Clopas, two of the three women who found Jesus's tomb empty. Tarascon, where King René had a castle/palace, housed the tomb of St. Martha of Bethany who according to tradition spent her last years in Provence with her brother Lazarus.
The two saints inside Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer and on its wearthervane
A special procession on a boat carrying a reliquary chest and statues of the saints was instituted on their feast days on May 25 and October 22. In 1935 at the initiative of Folco de Baroncelli-Javon from a noble family of Avignon, a third procession was added on May 24 for Saint Sarah, a dark-skinned maid who accompanied the two Marys and was regarded as a patron by the French Gipsy community. This celebration, which included a sort of collective baptism in the sea, soon became the main touristic attraction of the town. The worship of three women is deeply embedded in the history of religion (see a relief at Lyon).
(left) Musée de la Camargue: XIXth century engraving showing the two Marys and Sarah: (right) ex votos at Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer
Plan of this section:
Environs of Arles: Saint-Gilles, Aigues-Mortes and Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer
Carpentras (Carpentaracte), Cavaillon (Cabellio) and Pernes-les-Fontaines
Fontaine-de-Vaucluse and Le Thor
Narbonne (Narbo Martius)
Pont-du-Gard and Uzès
Saint-Bertrand-des-Comminges (Lugdunum Convenarum)