Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges Cathedral

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St Bertrand de Comminges is a hill top village dominated by its cathedral. It was built on the site of a Celtic Oppidium and later Roman settlement. The remains of this can be seen at the bottom of the village opposite the large car park. There is also the remains of a Roman funerary pyre on the way to Valcabrère.

Being put off by the long walk from the car park to the cathedral, and with no tourist train in May, we decided to drive up the narrow winding one way road to the top of the settlement. We found a small car park a few minutes walk from the cathedral. In May, there was plenty of space in it.

St Bertrand de Comminges is a pleasant town of grey stone houses with quite a few tourist shops and restaurants. The cathedral is a massive pale grey stone building with a square tower with a later wooden top and roof. Flying buttresses support the west end of the nave.

The cathedral is unusual as it is one of only three ‘choir enclosures’ in the Midi-Pyrenees. The choir and sanctuary are wood and enclosed and completely separate from the rest of the church. This allowed the clergy to celebrate mass undisturbed by pilgrims in the ambulatory. The Romanesque nave is 12thC. The Gothic east end with round apse with chapels off is 13thC. The choir and sanctuary are 15thC.

Entry to the church is free, but there is a small charge for the cloister, choir, sanctuary and museum. This is the only way to see inside the choir and is well worth the money.

We paid the entrance fee and began in the cloisters. The Romanesque cloister was built above the ramparts of the town. The south side over looks the valley as the ground falls away from it. In the 19thC it was opened up to give superb views across to the wooded hillside.

It is a small cloister with double pillars with elaborately carved capitals and round arches above a pebbled walkway. One of the pillars has carvings of the four evangelists on it. Tombs on the north wall include a knight in armour with shields and trefoils carved on the tomb front. Another knight has a pattern of vines with grapes on the front.

There are good views of the outside of the cathedral from the cloisters and the small garden beyond. There are stepped buttresses on the nave wall with a balustrade and walkway between them

A door from the cloisters leads into the nave. Immediately facing you is the massive carved wooden outside of the choir. Inside there are two rows of choir stalls. The back row has very high backs with carved figures. Above is a canopy with hanging bosses. Above is a carved frieze with triangular open fretwork. In the centre of the west wall is an eagle reading desk. To say it is impressive is an understatement.

The arms of each stall is carved with human heads, animals, scrolls. The misericords each have a different carving with angel heads, male and female heads, animals, birds…

The bishop’s throne set under an elaborate three tiered canopy with a pinnacle, has a beautiful marquetry back with St Bertrand and St John set under archways of a building with a wheel with ostrich feathers and a latin motto round the rim.

The balustraded altar rail has a carving of the Virgin and Child and also St Bertrand. There is a simple altar with painted to resemble marble with a host box. Behind is a splendid carved reredos with columns, niches, statues, cherubs and pinnacles. This was covered in rather garish gilt paint in the 18thC which is beginning to tone down now and looks rather dull. In the centre is a painted statue of the crowned Virgin and Child. On either side are St John and St Sebastian pierced by arrow heads. Outside them are two smaller figures of bishops. Below is a frieze of small paintings telling the life of the Virgin Mary and Christ. Above is the seated figure of God the Father with Moses and Elijah on one side and John the baptist and St John Evangelist on the other.

Round the walls of the sanctuary are tall panels with a marquetry design on their backs and benches along their base. On the south wall are three seats for the celebrant and servers.

Back in the ambulatory, steps lead up to the chapel of St Margaret which has open arches supported on pillars with carved bases and capitals. There are good views of the outside wall of the choir from here. No longer used, it has two tapestries on the walls. It leads to the treasury in the old chapter house. This has a collection of 14thC vestments, copes, gloves, slipper, reliquary boxes, small statues, communion vessels and ostensoires.

Entry into the church is up a short flight of steps and in through the double west door. The lintel above the door is carved with the twelve apostles. The tympanum has the figure of Mary holding the Christ Child with the three magi. Above are angels. The large figure on the right is St Bertrand.

Steps lead down into the Romanesque nave with massive wall pillars leading to the ribs of the vaulted ceiling with shield bosses. At the back is a large triangular organ standing on wooden pillars with hanging bosses below. This was designed by the same person as the choir. There are pinnacles and angels playing a pipe. Attached to the base is a wooden pulpit on a stand.

Immediately facing you is the wooden screen cutting off the choir. This has a canopy supported by 4 pillars and hanging bosses. Above is a carved frieze with God the Father, Christ, the apostles, Virgin Mary. On either side of the doorway are panels with three carved figures. These were once reredos of altars placed in front of them. On the south side (right) is the Virgin and Child with John the Baptist and St Genevieve who is carrying a candle. This is lit by and angel, but extinguished by the devil. On the north side, St Bertrand is flanked by St Sebastian and St Roch. These are the only painted statues in the cathedral.

On the south wall of the nave is the Parish Altar of the Blessed Sacrament which juts out into the nave. This wasn’t part of the original plan and was added in 1621 so parishioners could participate in church services rather than being passive recipients behind the choir screen. The altar has an embroidered front. In the centre of the reredos is a large painting of the crucifixion set in a frame of pillars. At the base is a gilded host box. On the left is a Jewish menorah with seven candles and an Old Testament prophet. On the right is a bishop with a small carving of Christ on the cross and communion vessels.

On the north wall is the Chapel of Notre Dame which is used for private prayer. The reredos has a painting of Mary and Jesus in an elaborate red and grey frame. On the wall above are the remains of wall paintings. On the wall between chapel and nave is a superb marble tomb of Bishop Hughes de Chantillon with carvings of monks along the side. He has a lion at his feet and angels at his shoulders.

The round east end has a vaulted ceiling with bosses. There are a series of smaller apses off it with altars, crucifix or paintings. At the south east corner is the larger St Barthelemy chapel which is now the sacristy.

At the east end of the sanctuary is St Betrand’s mausoleum. The side facing the choir has steps up to it. There are three recesses set behind iron grilles. In the centre is the silver and ebony reliquary containing the body of St Bertrand. The recesses on either side have gilt and glass boxes containing small medallions with small gilt ostensoir with a medallion. Along the wall beneath is a long embroidered panel.

On the outside facing the ambulatory is an altar with 17thC painted panels showing miracles performed by St Bertrand. In the centre behind a metal grille, the head of t bertrand is preserved inside a silver plated bust of the bishop’s head and arm raised to give the two finger blessing.

The way out is through the small north door which takes you past a small crypt where it is thought was the original tomb of St Bertrand. It is now a small chapel used for private prayer.

This is a superb church and quite unusual. The quality of the carving in the choir is amazing. It was a very well worth while stop.

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