The Palace of Popes

“the fairest and strongest house in the world”
Jean Froissart (1333-1405)



It’s a fortress as much as a palace. Its high stone walls and towers reach the sky; iron-tipped portcullises, crenellations and notches signal readiness for war. Soldiers guard the gates, guard rooms and the Tour de Gâche scanning the countryside like hawks hovering for mice.

It’s a huge complex, with twelve towers, but the most important one is the Papal Tower, distinguished by pointy twin turrets. Underneath these, right in the middle, is the main entrance, the Champeaux Gate.

The cardinal enters the mouth of the beast with a familiar feeling of awe and wonder that he should be so privileged to have a place here. Arrived in the Grand Courtyard, he pauses to look around. To his right, high in the corner, is the ornate Window of the Indulgence. This frames the ceremonial landing where the Pope is first crowned and where he stands to give his triple blessing to the people.




On the first floor, behind the landing, is the Pontifical Chapel dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul. Strange to think it was built during the first wave of Black Death, and in just four years! The portals to the chapel, their edges carved with multiple frames and carved with Biblical figures, the heavy doors of dark wood reinforced with steel, inspire a feeling of solemn transportation. From inside, the chapel looks like the upside-down hull of an enormous stone ship, with a long nave, a very high ceiling and ribbed vaulting emphasizing the leaping arch of its form. Sunlight pours through mullioned windows fitted with waxed canvasses painted by the Sienese artist Matteo Giovanetti. In this hall Clement VI sat as in a trance, eyelids fluttering, listening to the choir to the Mass of Our Lady by the great poet and composer Guillaume de Machaut.


chapel gate
Portal (some statuary was removed or decapitated during the French Revolution).

On the ground floor, below the chapel, is the Grand Audience chamber. Its eastern bay is the preserve of the Tribunal of Apostolic Causes, the Court of the Rota so called because they gather around a wheel-shaped table. A picture of Calvary looms over them and Giovannetti has imprinted a nearby arch with portraits of 18 Old Testament Prophets. Pillars in the hall rest on bases sculpted to look like animals. On the north wall an immense painting of the Last Judgement is a reminder that this is the seat of divine justice on earth.




Back in the spacious Grand Courtyard, to the cardinal’s immediate left is a staircase leading up to the ‘Notre Dame Gate’, the nearest exit to the nearby cathedral. It’s a Romanesque church with a rectangular bell tower, stained-glass windows, macabre frescos, and tympanum by Simone Martini.




Across the courtyard, opposite the cardinal, is the Treasury and, behind it, the Study Tower, where a library of about 2,000 books, scrolls and manuscripts are kept – one of the richest collections in the world. Petrarch and other renowned scholars and clerics have pored over the colorful illuminated manuscripts, copies of The City of God, the travels of Marco Polo, Huon of Bordeaux, The Romance of the Rose, The Golden Legend and the treatises of Anselm, Aquinas and Abélard.

Next to the study is the Pope’s bedchamber, a magnificent room. It is supposed to be light and airy, with beautiful decorations on the walls– a dark wooden panel runs round the top, and underneath it is a blue background adorned with yellow vine-like spirals, red and green leaves and small animals. The floor is just as beautiful, a mosaic of diamond-shaped tiles of various colors. The furniture is sparse but carved in dark wood—a chair, a table, a stool, linen chests containing exquisite vestments. The bedding and curtains are of silk, as are the cushions for the eunuchs who sleep on the floor around the bed. A jeweled birdcage keeps two rose-ringed parakeets.




Next to the chamber is the Pope’s private study, nicknamed ‘the Deer Chamber’ after the exquisite hunting scenes painted on its walls by Giovanetti. Pope Clement VI had tastes that were rather too rich to be saintly—scenes of bird hunting and forest pleasure are hardly appropriate for a papal apartment. But he was originally a member of the aristocracy, so perhaps it is not surprising. The Cardinal wonders what Pope Innocent VI, who has much simpler tastes, thinks about it.




The cardinal walks straight ahead towards the treasury. On his left is the conclave wing, where the cardinals meet when it is time to elect a new pope. The Conclave Hall is on the first floor, below it is a bakery and below it a cellar.

The enters an archway at the end of the wall on his left, and slips through a long dark passageway into the Cloister of Benedict XII, the centre of the ‘Old Palace’, which has a more private and contemplative feel than the grand Court of Honour. Its pointed arches frame the walkway and the eye is drawn up to the smaller mullioned arches along the upper gallery.




Up there, to his right, is the Great Tinel, the huge banquet hall with thick stone pillars and whose ceiling is covered with blue fabric embroidered with stars in imitation of the heavens. It has been the site of feasts that beggar the imagination—meat roasted to tender perfection and flavored with cinnamon and cloves, boiled quail eggs, fresh fish, vegetables cooked with honey and herbs, songbirds, heady wine, delicious spiced sweets to close the stomach. But the food is incidental compared to the spectacle of cardinals, archbishops dressed in all their finery and waited on by graceful waiters in livery. The light of a thousand candles kisses the silver cutlery, gold plates, bronze aquifers in the shape of dragons and camels, jeweled goblets and Venetian liqueur glasses. A choir of boys sings in a way that made you think you’d landed in a cloud of angels.

At the south end of the Grand Tinel the arches are bricked up until it is time to elect a new pope. On that occasion the arches are unwalled and the cardinals are ushered into the Conclave Hall and adjacent chambers. The arches are then bricked up, imprisoning the cardinals until the decision is made. During that time there is only a small aperture in the wall through which servants pass food. The Cardinal was not present at the last conclave in 1352, but he fears, as old as he is, he will be at the next one soon. Plague has revisited Avignon and they have lost nine cardinals and about a hundred bishops in the last year alone. It seems almost incredible that Pope Innocent VI has survived so far.

Behind the Grand Tinel, overlooking gardens, are the chapels of Saint Martial and Saint John. The chapel of Saint Martial is a small and extraordinarily beautiful space where Giovanetti painted a series of frescos showing the story of ‘the apostle of the Gauls’, who was sent by Saint Peter to spread the word of the Gospel in the Limousin area of France (Clement VI’s native region). The frescos have a background as blue as the Provencal sky and the figures are outlined with startling clarity. The chapel of Saint John, underneath, is just as beautiful and covered with colorful scenes from that saint’s life.


Chapel of Saint Martial


On the ground floor, to the right of the cardinal, is the Consistory, where the Pope met with the College of Cardinals. Beyond that is the cellar and bakery, which serves as the food supply for the pontifical court, serving more than 300 meals per day and distributing bread and wine to more than 800 poor people. The cardinal can smell the delicious flavors of baking bread and roasting meat infusing the air.

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