Friday, February 4, 2011

Avignon--the pope's home away from Rome.

When the papal court first settled in Avignon, JohnXXII at first took up residence in the Domincan friary. Avignon was not an unimportant city and the major mendicant orders had friaries and churches inside the city but the Dominicans—very strong in what is today southern France because of their preaching crusades against the Cathars—had the largest and most grand. John was not to stay there for long, however, as he was a man of great dreams and viewed the papacy as a world power both in the religious and political dimension. John and his successor Benedict XII undertook the building of a grand palace on a rocky promontory that dominated the city and overlooked the Rhone river below. In many ways the palace created the papacy as we know it. it was an enormously expensive undertaking and one that never seemed—like so many building projects—to come to an end. To fund the palace it became necessary to centralize much of the finances of the Church and centralized finances created a central bureaucracy. The popes began charging taxes and assessments on abbeys, dioceses, and a host of administrative positions. A man (or in the case of an abbess, a woman) who expected to be confirmed in a position to which they had been elected or appointed had to pay a fee—usually an “annate” (the first year’s income of the position) to the papal chancery. Thus a man elected bishop of London by the Cathedral Chapter of his diocese (in this case the Cathedral of Saint Paul’s London) and wanting the pope to confirm the election had to pay the entire first year revenues of the bishopric of London to the papal court. That could amount to the modern equivalent of millions of dollars in larger and more important sees. An abbot or abbess would have to pay the year’s revenues attached to their position. A canon in a cathedral—say Trier or Bologna—would have to pay his first year’s salary—much less than a bishop’s but it adds up fast as the cash comes rolling in. The Master General of the Dominicans wants to grant a Doctorate to a friar teaching in Palermo—he needs to pay a fee to the papal chancery. The Abbot of a monastery in Denmark wants permission to wear the miter—there is a fee for that too. Nothing was free. And it wasn’t only a matter of money, but of power. Those chancery-rat scribes receiving and answering petitions have a lot of discretion in what to pass on quickly and what to lose at the bottom of the pile (as they still do today). People far more important than they are importuning them to speed up their business, offering money and favors for help in getting things done quickly. And each, to show his relative importance, affects a style of dress more elaborate and more courtly than the next fellow. Meanwhile, the palace continues to rise, larger and larger. The original palace, called the palais vieux (old palace) kept being expanded and expanded again into what is now called the palais neuf (new palace). One can see it today. (It is a great tour—and if you can get the night torchlight tour, by all means take it—but only after you have seen the inside in good daylight.)
The central chamber of the palace is the la grande chapelle, the principal chapel where papal ceremonies were held. The guides tell you that it is the same dimensions of today’s Sistine Chapel in the Vatican (which had not been built when this chapel was constructed) but, to be honest, it appears much larger. That may be because of the lack of decoration in the Avignon chapel which could trick the eye into thinking it larger, but frankly I believe the guides are wrong. But there are wonderful series of chambers and courtyards and halls throughout the palace. The popes left Avignon in 1377 to return to Rome, but within two years the Avignon (anti-)popes of the great schism had returned and lived in the palace until 1403. We will eventually do more on the role of Avignon in the Western Schism.
The image today is the great chapel in the papal palace at Avignon

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