Overlooking an iconic bridge on the river Rhone, the Palais des Papes or the Popes’ Palace in Avignon is one of the largest and most important medieval Gothic buildings in Europe and beloved monuments in France. While Roman Catholic Church is synonymous with the Eternal City of Rome, the Palais des Papes is the greatest monument from its medieval heydays with a history that includes rebellion, enlightenment, pilgrimage, and massacre.
Apart from being the papal residence, it was the seat of Western Christianity during the 14th century. For its outstanding architecture and historical importance for the Papacy, the Palais des Papes has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995, along with the historic centre of Avignon.
In the early 14th century, Rome was plagued by a constant and ubiquitous sense of unrest, as various factions were fighting for power in a conflict bordering on outright civil war. Meantime, tensions were also mounting between Pope Boniface VIII and King Philip IV of France, resulting in the premature death of the former and the ex-communication of the latter.
Unwilling to face the violence and turmoil of Rome, Pope Clement V, after his election in 1305, moved the papal power to Avignon in France and started to live as a guest in the Dominican monastery. Although his successor, Pope John XXII set up a magnificent establishment there, it was Pope Benedict XII, who decided to reconstruct the old bishop’s palace in 1334 and the process of the construction was continued by his successors till 1363.
The architect, Pierre Poisson, commissioned by Pope Benedict XII, oversaw the construction of a roughly rectangular building based on the layout of the bishop’s residence, devoid of sculptural ornamentation. It is more reminiscent of a protected convent or a fortress than a palace, consisting of four wings, flanked with high towers and heavily fortified against attackers. Located on a natural rocky outcrop at the northern edge of Avignon, the Palais was built in two principal phases with two distinct segments. While the original old palace or the Palais Vieux was constructed under Benedict XII the new palace, known as the Palais Neuf, began under Pope Clement VI in 1342.
He completed Kitchen Towers at the northeast corner of the Old Palace, as well as the addition of the Wardrobe Tower to the papal apartments. However, the tallest tower, the Tour de la Campane, located in the old palace, stands at the northwest corner of the cloister, while the Tour du Pape or Tour des Anges, stands at the southeast corner. Two more towers and a bridge were built under Pope Innocent VI and the main courtyard, known as the Court of Honour, with further buildings enclosing it, was completed by Pope Urban V.
Covering a huge area of 15,000 square metres, the fortified palace with ten giant towers is the biggest medieval Gothic building in Europe and the largest Gothic palace in the world. Its interior was sumptuously decorated with frescos, tapestries, paintings, sculptures and wooden ceilings. It came to symbolize the mighty influence of the Catholic Church and housed Europe’s largest library and became a hotbed for thinkers, philosophers, composers and musicians. The Grand Audience Hall, a 170.6 feet long chamber on the ground floor of the new Grand Chapel, is crowned with pointed Gothic vaults and adorned with a fresco by the Italian painter Matteo Giovanetti, depicting a composition of 20 figures from the Old Testament. With the addition of the Great Dignitaries’ Wing to the west, the two wings of the New Palace and the papal quarters of the Old Palace defined a second, larger courtyard.
However, despite its grandeur, the popes departed Avignon for Rome in 1377, after which a new Italian Pope, Urban VI, was elected in Rome, while the opposing cardinals elected another pope, Clement VII, to rule from Avignon, symbolising the Palais des Papes as the rift in the Catholic Church. Although the palace withstood two sieges under the rule of Benedict XIII, eventually he was forced to concede in 1403, marking the end of the Avignon papal dynasty and the papacy transferred definitively back to Rome. The palace remained under papal control for more than 350 years and its condition continued to deteriorate gradually, despite a restoration in 1516. It was already in a bad state when the French revolution broke out in 1789. However, when the palace was seized and ransacked in 1791, many counter-revolutionaries of Avignon were killed atthe site,termed as the massacre of La Glacière in historyand their bodies were thrown into the Tour des Latrines in the old palace.
Subsequently, Napoleonic forces used the palace as their barracks and the remaining interior woodwork was cleared away for use of the structure as their stables. Although the frescos were covered over and largely destroyed, their use and staying in the building ensured its physical survival without further destruction. After they vacated it in 1906, it was opened to the public as a national museum, while its imposing towers and grandiose Gothic halls stand as a silent reminder of a period in European and Christian history. Since it was turned into a museum, the former home of the Avignon papacy, resembling a fort, has been under virtually constant restoration for the preservation of its dignified architecturalgrandeur, for the delight and pleasing surprise of the visitors, who flock to it each year from all over the world.