June 16, 2017
It did feel like ignorance was bliss. I had been giddy at my discovery of magnificently preserved Roman ruins all over the South of France. Yet another historical revelation was to come. My sister chose Avignon as our base for its central location in the Provence and Occitanie regions, and we found ourselves at the heart of Catholic Europe in the 13th century. During one of our walks about town, I clapped eyes on Avignon’s big reveal: Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes), the erstwhile largest Gothic building in the world. I never expected to see a papal palace outside Italy, but there was a time when Rome and the Vatican had no exclusive claim to the residence of the popes.
A long-drawn power struggle between the French monarchy and the Church eventually moved the papacy from Anagni in Italy to Avignon. Seven popes were permanently based in the city from 1309 to 1377, known as the Avignon Papacy. This necessitated an edifice, both magnificent and formidable, to house the Holy See. The fortress looked forbidding as it stood strategically on the massive Doms rock overlooking the Rhône and Place de l’Horloge, the esplanade from where my siblings and I squinted to scan its Gothic grandness partially eclipsing the midday sun.
We emerged from the entrance lobby to an open-air theater at Cour d’Honneur, a courtyard where plays and exhibitions for the prestigious Festival d’Avignon were held every summer. My sister’s close friend, playwright Nick Pichay, presented one of his theater works 16 years before on the same stage we were standing. What an honor for him to have taken part in this 70-year theater tradition along with the stage’s top names. And we were just passing through the platform.
We reached a large, hollow hall. This was it – an empty, colorless shell? A bare minimum of frescoes adorned some walls; in fact, the entire palais was stripped of remaining trappings when it was repurposed into military barracks and a prison in Napoleonic France. Even the interior woodwork was dismantled for use in the construction of stables. For this reason the HistoPads provided at the entrance came in handy. We scanned the hall with the handheld device that automatically detected our exact location and reconstructed the furniture, fixtures, tapestries, murals, even food on the banquet table through 3D augmented reality. The audio commentary was in sync with the visuals and our movement. The experience was very meta.
The HistoPad made the Grand Tinel come alive, a time machine that whisked us from the sparse present to the opulent past. We came not as tourists but as visiting dignitaries in the banquet hall with a feast awaiting for us on the long refectory table. An empty fireplace at the opposite end was once a hidden pantry where dishes were kept warm until serving. The visual trick left out one aspect though – people. We could only see with our mind’s eye our host, the Pope himself, dining on an elevated platform and the cardinals and fellow guests below him. The elaborate vestment of the pontiff was likewise left to the imagination.
His dressing room was now open to the public though. For hosting duties at the palace, the pontiff donned his ceremonial robes and headdress in the North Sacristy. This smaller hall was not empty but occupied by eerie plaster facsimiles of papal figures. Though no corpses lay within, the room suspiciously looked like a graveyard, more so with the lying figures and the reproduction of the tomb of Pope Gregory XI. In an adjacent hall, a 15th-century marble retable created by Dalmatian artist Francesco Laurana drew me to its elaborate details depicting the Calvary of Jesus and His mother, Mary, fainting in agony. The executioners and Mary Magdalene stood at opposite ends with John the Beloved in the middle. Called Notre Dame du Spasme, the bas-relief conveyed one of the most compelling sorrow and suffering I had seen of this oft-depicted biblical scene in Catholic art.
The palace was an unending work of restoration. Some of the chapels were off limits at the time of our visit. Only a photo op with the massive doorway to the Grande Chapelle was possible. Human figures carved in the marble arches were eerily beheaded, the French Revolution to blame.
Long after the end of the Avignon Papacy, the Palais des Papes became a prison for the enemies opponents of the revolution. The palace itself survived the Revolution, although practically just the shell of it remained. It would take digital technology in the 21st century to restore the lost glory of the palace in the pad on our palm.
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