Christianity arrived in Arles early and the first Christian Basilica on this site was built in the C5th. It was rebuilt in the C9th following years of unrest and parts of this stonework can still be seen in the walls of the first bay of the nave. There was a further period of unrest in the C10th when Arabs pillaged and burnt much of the surrounding area.
The present building is dedicated to St Trtophimne, the first bishop of Arles and dates from the C11th and was built using money from the offerings of pilgrim on their way to Santiago de Compostela. The west front was completed in 1180 and is one of the best examples of Romanesque architecture in France. The Romanesque apse was replaced in the C15th by a much longer choir, presbytery and ambulatory with chapels off. The Chapel of the Kings was completed in the C17th for the visit of Louis XIII. The other side chapels in the north aisle were rebuilt in the C19th. This difference in architecture can best be seen from the cloisters with the Romanesque nave and bell tower above the transept crossing and later side aisle chapels.
The cathedral was very important and the site of coronation for early Kings of France. It was the cathedral until the French Revolution when it became a place of Assembly and a Temple of Religion. Although the treasures, reliquaries and statues were destroyed the building survived. It then became a parish church. It was in poor condition by the C19th and underwent a massive restoration. It was stripped back to its Romanesque framework with all the Baroque additions and ‘useless things’ added in the C17th were removed.
The portal overlooking the Plas de Republique is possibly the most impressive part of the church, as the carvings cover the history of the Bible from the Creation through to the last Judgement.
The tympanun above the door has Christ in Majesty surrounded by the symbols of the four evangelists. In the arch are carved figures of angels singing praise to the Lord. At the top they are blowing the trumpets for the Last Jugdement. Below are the seated figures of the twelve apostles, each holding a book.
The frieze on the left side of the door shows the elect being presented to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Beyond are the righteous marching towards Heaven. The long frieze below shows the thee Magi being received by Herod.
On the right, two angels with swords guard the door into Heaven, complete with God’s hand reaching down. Those refused entry join the row of the dammed who are being led in chains to Hell.
The narrower frieze beneath this has scenes of the Nativity, with a lovely carving of the baby Jesus being washed after birth. The Magi are shown bringing gifts to the baby.
The large figures are the principal saints of the Church and especially those connected with the history of Arles. The panel on the left shows the martyrdom of St Etienne with St James the younger in the right
On the far left of the front is a carving of St Michael weighing souls. Below it is what is described as Hercules and the Froghoppers. At the bottom is Hercules overcoming the Nemean Lion.
There is free entry to the church.
I visited Arles on Day 6 of Burgundy, the River Rhone and Provence, a river cruise with Riviera Travel.
My full account with all the pictures can be found “here.”:http://wasleys.org.uk/eleanor/otherholidays/rhone/index.html