17 May 2018

St-Jean, a Gothic cathedral
in the heart of old Perpignan

The Cathédrale St-Jean in the old town of Perpignan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

One of the first places to visit during my strolls through Perpignan yesterday afternoon [16 May 2018] was the Cathédrale St-Jean, with its Gothic architecture, its wrought-iron bell tower and its cloistered cemetery.

The cathedral began life as a collegiate church, the Collégiale Saint-Jean, or Collegiate Church of Saint Jean. However, when the short-lived Kingdom of Majorca moved its capital to Perpignan in 1276, the Kings of Majorca wanted a more impressive church for their new capital.

The original collegiate church had proved too small and King Sancho II of Majorca set about building a new church. At the time, the Palace of the Kings of Majorca was being built as a new royal residence on a hill to the south of the city.

King Sancha of Majorca laid the cornerstone when building work began in 1324. The original vision was for a grand, three-nave building, but only the choir was completed when the ‘forgotten and ephemeral’ Kingdom of Majorca collapsed in 1349 and the building project was interrupted.

Benedict XIII, the anti-pope based in Avignon, fled to Perpignan and tried without success to rally his supporters at a council here in 1409.

Inside the Cathédrale St-Jean in Perpignan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Further efforts to resume building works were disrupted by the plague and various wars, and building at St-Jean did not resume in earnest until later in the 15th century. When the new building project was set on foot, Guillem Sagrera (1380-1456) of Majorca, one of the great architects of the times, took control of the project.

A native of Felanitx in Majorca, Segrara’s masterworks include La Seu Cathedral and the Llotja dels Mercaders (1426-1447) in Palma de Majorca. He also worked at the court of King Alfonso V of Aragon in Naples, where he restored the Castel Nuovo, redesigning its plan and adding several loggias and the Barons’ Hall.

In Perpignan, Sagrera decided on a church in the Catalan Gothic style, with one nave of vast dimensions, and redesigned St-Jean in Perpignan in the same style as La Seu Cathedral of Palma de Majorca.

Sagrera died in 1456 in Naples. The vaulting in Perpignan was not completed until 1490 and the church was not completed until the end of the 15th century. The pebbled façade with brick foundations remained unfinished, and the new church was only consecrated in 1509.

Philippe Barthélemy added the wrought-iron campanile in 1743 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Originally, the diocese was based in Elne, but the new church replaced the Cathedral of Elne when the bishop was moved to Perpignan, and from 1602 the bishops held the title of Bishop of Perpignan-Elne.

The cathedral’s western façade is a typically Catalan façade of pebble and brick, but it was never finished. The porch was added in 1631, the only remnant of a larger monumental ensemble. Philippe Barthélemy added the wrought-iron campanile in 1743.

When the cathedral was restored in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Gothic window of the façade was rebuilt, as it had previously been substituted with a simple rectangular opening.

The interior of the cathedral gives an impression of unity due to the harmonious proportions and the imposing character of the nave. This impressive nave is 80 meters long, 18 metres wide, and 26 metres tall. It is built with seven cross-vaults and has short transepts and a short apse.

There are magnificent Catalan, Gothic and Renaissance altar pieces in the side chapels and the treasures include le Dévot Crucifix, a 14th century wooden sculpture.

Some of the side chapels incorporate parts of an earlier Romanesque church. These chapels include the 15th century chapel dedicated to Notre-Dame-de-la-Mangrana, and the Chapel of Saint Eulalie and Saint Julie, patron saints of the diocese, which was painted by Jean-Jacques Melair in 1676. One of the side chapels includes the painted remains of the original organ case.

The organ is listed as an historical monument (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The elaborate furniture in the cathedral includes some real masterpieces, and the organ is listed as an historical monument.

On the south side of the cathedral, the cloister-cemetery of Saint John, or Campo Santo, dates from the early 14th century and is one of the oldest mediaeval cemeteries in France.

The cloister galleries were covered by a sloping roof supported by columns with sculpted capitals. Each funeral niche or recess, with a refined gothic design, is marked with heraldic shields bearing the coats-of-arms of the ruling and noble families of Perpignan.

The cloister-cemetery or ‘Campo Santo’ dates from the early 14th century and is one of the oldest mediaeval cemeteries in France (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018; click on image for full-screen view)

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