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Discovering Albi Cathedral

I have been traveling to Arles in southern France for World Monuments Fund since the late 1980’s. At that time I served as one of the technical team members for the architectural conservation project on the early phases of work on the Portal of the Church of St Trophime. Since 2006 I have served as the head of the WMF Scientific Committee assisting the French technical team to develop and quality control the conservation program for the sculptural and architectural elements in the Cloister of the Church of St. Trophime. It has been such a professional honor to be a part of this project and a personal gift to get to know Arles and the surrounding area so well. Exploring the different towns in Provence one thinks of the rolling landscapes, the very fertile land, the lavender, the sunflowers, the light yellow to golden French limestones, and of course the light—the light that artists such as van Gogh, Renoir, Cézanne, and Matisse fell in love with. Both the Greeks and the Romans were also attracted to the area. In fact, today the historic center of Arles has a number of Roman sites still intact and open to the public. In addition, it is believed that some Roman sites were used as sources for stone that make up other buildings in the area including our special Cloister in the Church of St Trophime.

On my last trip to Arles in September 2015, WMF asked me to make a trip to Albi to visit their project at the Cathedral there. It was a bit of a drive to do in one day and just a little more difficult as I was still a bit jet lagged, but who could turn down such an offer? Not me.

Using Google maps I tried to figure out the best route, the result was a number of options, the fast way on the large highway or the slower more scenic route through the mountains. Of course I chose the latter and at one point had to pull over for a nap, but what a view, what a beautiful drive. As I drove I thought about how much has happened in this part of the world over time. Who had passed through here and when, what it might look like if I could turn the clock back a bit and see for myself, then a bit more and a bit more, how exciting!

I finally made it to Albi and as I drove into the historic center I noticed something strange, different, and beautiful. At first, I was not sure what it was but then it dawned on me… there was little to no stone used to construct the buildings I was seeing. Everything was brick. Sometimes brick mixed with wooden members crisscrossing across the facades for structural bracing. I could not believe how different this was from the other southern French towns I had seen over the years. It made me curious as to where this brick came from? Why here? Then I started noticing that some of the older buildings were a mix of a high percentage of brick yet there was some stone. Something interesting happened here, I was not sure what, but I wanted to find out.

At the same time I was seeing a jewel of a city steeped in history yet modern in a way too, and all those restaurants with tables out on the stone streets and smells of good food cooking—I was getting hungry now too. I immediately wanted to tell my family about what I was seeing and I wanted to come back with them. I parked the car and as I walked deeper into the historic center, it became more and more interesting with each turn and then the small quaint streets opened up and there stood this most imposing gigantic of structures, it looked like a fortress but as I got closer I found it was the cathedral—the cathedral that WMF wanted me to visit. I couldn’t believe it. Even though I was hungry I was more interested to see this special project which I knew was inside. It took me a while but I found the entrance and made my way in. Before I entered there was a sign in both French and English describing the WMF project and explaining what I was about to see.

The exterior of Albi Cathedral (which some say might be the largest brick building in the world) is impressive and powerful and simple in its design but as soon as you see the decorative stone entry, you realize whomever built this also knew very fine stone carving techniques too. And then you walk inside and see that every square inch is special, detailed, and a work of art. What a stark contrast to the exterior. Overwhelmed as I slowly walked around, I made my way to the active WMF project, the conservation of the choir, almost a church inside a church, a small jewel inside a very large one. Leave it to WMF to find such a project and be an active participant. As soon as I set foot inside the choir I realized that it was even more elaborately decorated and detailed than the rest of the church. There were walls built to separate the conservators from the public but windows were installed so that we could see everything they were doing. The sculpture and decorative finishes were being stabilized and conserved, the woodwork cleaned and repaired. You could make out some sections that looked like they were completed and based on that could see that when this project is complete the results will be spectacular.

I walked away feeling proud to play a small role in what WMF does and hoping to return to Albi one day with my family to see the completed work in the choir.

Oh, the brick… I did some research but could not find an answer to my question about why this town had so much brick. I did find out that the old bridge was built of stone in 1305 and then at a later date clad in brick. I friend of mine who collects pottery has what he calls an amazing red clay Roman kiln waster (terra sigillata) from southern Gaul (Millau, which is about 50 miles away from Albi). Did the Romans find a high quality clay source there? Is this the source of the clay for all that brick in Albi? I guess there is still more research to do on this!