France – Avignon

If you want to understand the origin of this city of Avignon you must begin by visiting the Rocher des Doms. The very name is suggestive, is it not? The Rock of the Dwellings. How it carries our thoughts back to the time when this rock was the one dwelling-place of the district. On it, or rather in it, the tribe of fishermen who first inhabited this portion of the Rhone valley had their habitation. In those far away days Le Rocher des Doms was an island, surrounded by the river; its southern face sheltered from the dreaded mistral, and honeycombed with caves, was a desirable abode. And because their rock village was the strongest place in all the valley, these early men called it, with a superb extravagance of vowels, Aouenion, or as we now say Avignon, the Sovereign of the Waters.

Since then Father Rhone has abandoned some of the erratic habits of his youth, and adopted the more or less settled courses of middle age. The river, retiring westwards, has left, at foot of the rock, a space over which the village has gradually spread, till to-day it is a village no longer, but a great town, the mighty city of Avignon.

On the Rocher des Doms was the citadel, the castle of the Governor, and two or three Roman temples, and it was probably on the site of one of these latter buildings that, in the first century, was founded the Christian Church of Notre Dame des Doms. You know the story, how Martha of Bethany, the hostess, stayed at the village during one of her apostolic journeyings, and converted the inhabitants. At that time the Virgin Mary was still living, and it was to her that Martha dedicated this first Christian worshipping place of Avignon. Since those days it has been rebuilt more than once. The Emperor Constantine was the first to take it in hand. This curious Byzantine porch is his work. It is all that is now left of the church, which, according to legend, Our Lord Himself came down from heaven to consecrate. Before this porch is a little terrace on which the Popes stood to bless the crowds gathered below.

Mass was being said as we entered the Metro-pole, so we took our chairs and sat down in the north aisle, trying to fancy that the officiating priest was the son of Simon the Cyrenian, Saint Ruf, first Bishop of Avignon. Inside the altar rail is a marble seat, with a lion carved on the side.

It is the ancient throne of the Popes. There are their portraits hanging round the apse.

Beside me, in this chapel to the left, lies Benedict XII., the son of the miller of Toulouse. As I looked at his monument, exquisite even in its ruin, and at the robed and mitred statue of the great Pope, a story flitted through my memory of this same Benedict.

It is somewhere about the year 1340. Avignon is in all its glory, shining in the afternoon sun, purple and splendid as befits the dwelling of the Pope. Along the white road from Nimes trudges an old man, a miller, judging by his clothes. At the entrance to the bridge, which Benezet has lately built across the Rhone, he stops, gazing with wonder and delight at the fairy palace gleaming above him.

” Ah! ” says he, his face lightening up, ” so that is where he lives. How glad he will be to see me, my son Jacques! ” and mounting the steep street, he is soon before the great entrance.

” I wish to see the Pope! ” cries he eagerly; adding, ” he will know who I am if you say that my name is Fournier. Yes, I am his father.”

Then what consternation in the courtyard of the Palace!

” He cannot appear before His Holiness in this guise,” cry the lords and cardinals. ” It would be a disgrace, an indecency.”

So, much against his will, the old miller is robed in silk and satin, and finally, stiff and ill at ease in his borrowed plumes, is conducted to the Hall of Audience.

” And who is this? ” inquires Benedict XII., with a look which makes the old miller more uncomfortable than ever.

” Does Your Holiness not perceive that it is your father? ” says a courtier, surprised.

” No, no! ” says the Pope, shaking his head and smiling. ” This fine gentleman is not my father. My venerable father is a poor miller of Toulouse, who never in his life wore silk or satin.”

I can see the old man, cannot you?

” Let me out,” he cries; ” give me my own clothes. I was a fool to let myself be dressed up like a popinjay.”

It was but a few minutes later that the miller of Toulouse, once more dusty and white with his trade and his journey, entered the Hall of Audience, and made his way toward the Pope.

” Ah, my lord father! ” cries Benedict, springing up, ” and is it you? What joy! What joy!” And, hastening forward, he clasped the old man in his arms, and father and son break out weeping on each other’s shoulders.

The story is probably true, for it well accords with the character of this Pope, who, for all his magnificence, was austere and ascetic, and could never be prevailed upon to enrich his family at the expense of the Church.

How wonderful it seems to be sitting here beside his tomb, picturing him once more in his great marble chair in the sanctuary. The voices of the red-cloaked canons, behind the altar, rise and fall. As I sit listening to the music, all kinds of scenes which have taken place in this church rise before my eyes. See, there is Benezet, the good shepherd boy, pushing his way through the great porch, interrupting the Bishop in the middle of his sermon.

” Hearken!” cries the boy, ” Monseigneur Jesus Christ has sent me to make a bridge over the Rhone.”

How angry the Bishop is: I can see his face turn purple with rage.

“Take him to the Viguier,” he cries, “and have him well beaten. Then send him back to his sheep.”

” Never trouble about the sheep,” says Benezet; ” the pilgrim with the shining face, who brought me all the way from Viviers, promised they should be well looked after in my absence. For me, the bridge is my work.”

Then we can see the brawler hustled away down the steps into the Place.

” A bridge across the Rhone? ” cries the Viguier; ” what? This miserable beggar, when not even the great Charlemagne himself dared to undertake it? ”

Then it is said the miracle happened; for in the presence of the Bishop and all the town, the boy took up a huge block of stone, which Nostradamus declares was 30 feet long by 7 broad, and putting it over his shoulder, as if it had been his shepherd’s crook, made his way to the river side.

” Here is the foundation stone!” he cries, laying down his burden.

Seated in the almost empty Cathedral, I fancy I hear the voices of the people shouting at the wondrous sight. And subscriptions came flowing in, for miracles succeeded one another ceaselessly, till the greatest of all was accomplished, and the bridge, with its nineteen arches and little chapel for the Guardian Spirit, stood complete; ” enjambant le Rhone enfle, tel qu’un chemin d’art de triomphe, un majestueux pout de pierre, d’une longueur peut-etre unique.”

I am still dreaming about it all, when an old scarlet-gowned man approaches with a silver dish.

” Dieu vous le rende! ” says he, as I drop in my offering. ” Dieu vous le rende! ” He makes one ashamed of the smallness of one’s gift. What would Clement VI. have said to my half franc? Ah! well, he is dead. We saw his tomb at La Chaise Dieu, if you remember. In fact, they are all dead, though it is difficult to believe it, sitting here listening to the Sanctus sung, just as of old, by the great sonorous voices behind the altar. For nothing seems to have changed. There is the tomb of Crillon, ” Le Brave des Braves.” When we go outside, we shall find his statue in the Place du Palais, looking as haughty as he did when his dancing master told him to bow and retire.

“Moi? ” cried Crillon, ” Moi plier? Moi reculer? Jamais! ” And never did Crillon learn to dance. But he knew how to review troops, which was of more consequence; and even to-day, in the person of his bronze effigy, has the satisfaction of assisting at the exercises of the recruits of the Republican Army. As you may imagine,

Avignon is haunted by stories of Crillon. I saw, later, l’Hotel de Crillon, the house where Les Quatres Henris played their ill-fated game of dice. They happened all to be sitting together—Henri III., Henri Roi de Navarre, Henri Prince de Conde, and Henri Duc de Guise. It was but a few days since the Cardinal de Lorraine had been assassinated, and the talk was too gloomy to please the King of France. Some one had even the bad taste to wonder aloud which of them would be the next to die.

” Why do we not play dice instead of talking of such things? ” said Henri III.

A table was at hand, a white marble table, and Crillon produced the dice. But when the King, after shaking the box, threw the dice on the table, he gave a cry. A pool of blood lay there. The Princes gazed at one another; only the King of Navarre pretended not to care.

” Si is mort nous frappe en chemin

Qu’en gals instants is camarde nous trouve! “he sang. But when his three companions had all died a bloody death, he must surely sometimes have recalled the omen, and wondered when his own turn was to come.

Truly, this Avignon is full of wonders. For one thing, it is a city of sevens. There are seven letters in its name, seven collegiate churches it had, seven brotherhoods, seven great gates to its ramparts, seven enormous towers to its Palace, and above all, seven bells to every church. ” L’Isle Sonnante,” Rabelais called it, and Mistral (who, by the bye, also has seven letters to his name), remembering the bells, cries:

“C’est Avignon, et le Palais des Papes! Avignon! Avignon, sur sa roque geante! Avignon, la sonneuse de la joie,

Qui, lune apes l’autre, eleve les pointes De ses clochers, thus semes de neurons.”

For the Palace itself, it had but one bell of solid silver. Yet when it sounded, it made more stir than all the other peals ringing together; for it meant that a Pope was dead, or that his successor was about to be enthroned.

La cloche d’argent Ne tintait jamais dans l’espacc, Que quand le pape etait intronise Ou quand la mort venait pour lui.”

I shall never forget my first view of the Palace of the Popes. There is something superhuman about it—cyclopean, stupendous. So must the Potala of Lhassa appear; such must have been Valhalla, the abode of the gods. It crushes one to the earth with a sense of one’s helpless insignificance. Whoever designed it—and there were many architects, as there were many builders—must have had some wonderful mystical ambition to carry out in stone—the soft white stone of Fouvielle, which ” hardens and goldens with the wind and sunshine “—a parable of the eternity of the Church. Do you know a feeling which comes over you at the sight of something very vast—the Great Pyramid, the Parthenon, the Coliseum, the broad Atlantic, the night sky?

Well, you have it as you come face to face with the Palace of the Popes. I have read their stories again and again. 1. have seen where they lived, walked, dined, and slept. They were but men as we are—but they built the Palace! At last they fell sick and died—we have just left their tombs in the Metropole—but they built the Palace! They did things they ought not to have done, and left undone things they ought to have done. But they built the Palace! And there it stands, as Froissart says, ” the strongest and the most magnificent house in the world.”