The smallest cathedral in France – Cathedral Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité
Here in the middle of the old medieval town of Vence you will find France’s smallest cathedral.
It may be the smallest cathedral in France, but the sound is definitely not. Just listen to the devine sound when the local choir rehearses.
Usually one expects cathedrals to be large and impressive, but what determines whether it is a church or a cathedral is really just whether the church houses a bishop or not.
The Cathedral Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité became the seat of the bishop from around the year 449, when Saint Véran became the first bishop of Vence and the cathedral has since held this episcopal seat for almost 1500 years.
Dates back to the romans
The church which originally dates from the year 300 AD is built on the remains of a former Roman temple.
The Cathedral Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité as we see it today took its form from around the 12th century and many religious artifacts are still preserved. Due to the cathedral’s long life and continuous extension, it today represents several styles, among others Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque.
The cathedral became a national monument in 1944 along with a long list of furniture and other objects in the cathedral, including the tomb, the stalls, the bust of Saint Véran and Saint Lambert, the baptismal font, the pulpit, the tombstone, paintings, several statues and much more.
The Cathedral Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité from the outside
There are two places from where you can see the extent of the cathedral; Place Clemenceau where the entrance to the cathedral is located, and at the back at Place Godeau.
The area by Place Godeau was formerly the parish churchyard and here you can see the old church tower from the 14th century, which is the tallest building in Vence.
At the entrance itself, special attention should be paid to the two stones with Roman inscriptions, which are bricked into the wall near the ground on each side of the entrance. These are Roman stone tablets that represent the dedication of the city of Vintium (Vence).
The left stone in honor of Emperor Gordien the Third. It dates back to the year 239. The stone on the right shows the inauguration in honor of Emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Pius Felix. It was engraved in the year 220.
The tower, Saint Lambert, to the left at the entrance to the cathedral is from the 12th century.
Inside Cathedral Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité
- Within the doors on the wall to the right, a fragment of a Carolingian sculpture is a bird drinking from an amphora.
- Well inside you will find an overview of the choir from the 16th and 18th centuries as well as the Romanesque nave.
- In the columns on each side of the choir aisle are walled several Carolingian fragments (year 600 to 800) as well as on the walls at the entrance to the choir, which testify to the existence of a very beautiful Carolingian church from the 9th century.
- The altar at the end of the chancel in polychrome marble (red and white) is flanked by two silver-plated bust statues of Saint Véran and Saint Lambert, from 1825 and 1826, respectively, standing on glazed boxes containing bones from the two saints.
In the north wall of the nave to the left of the altar is an organ from 1871.
- On the right side of the choir aisle is the chapel dedicated to Saint Véran, bishop of Vence from 449. When Saint Véran died in 492, his body was placed in a marble sarcophagus, which today is the altar in the chapel dedicated to him.
- To the left of the sarcophagus in a glass case are two busts of Saint Véran and Saint Lambert, respectively.
Here is also an altarpiece from the Renaissance, representing Saint Véran who blesses the people.
- Saint Lambert Chapel, dedicated to the Bishop of Vence from 1154. The altar is built on top of his sacred tomb.
- The chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
- Large cross with Christ from the 16th century by unknown artist.
- The corner with the baptismal font is decorated with a mosaic by Marc Chagall, representing Moses saved from the water. Chagall wanted to express the joy of baptism by taking the theme “Moses saved from the water”.
And it is truly the joy that radiates from this mosaic with its bright and varied colors, the flowers or fruits of the trees on the coast, the colorful dresses of the women, the radiance of the sun and its reflections on the water.
- Magnificent altarpiece of the guardian angel Gabriel, who accompanies the young Tobias, from the 16th century. This chapel was formerly at the foot of the bell tower.
- The Chapel for the Blessed Sacrament. Here you can admire one of the most beautiful Carolingian carved plaques in France. The highest plaque represents either a Phoenix (symbol of resurrection) or an eagle (symbol of St. John).
Two paintings that undoubtedly represent Saint Véran and Saint Lambert, and to the right of the bell tower wall you find the preserved old door to the provost’s residence, which dates from the 15th century.
- Access to the grandstands on the 1st floor (only occasionally open). Here you will find the cathedral stalls from 1460. These are an excellent example of woodcuts from the 15th century in Provence and were made by cabinetmaker Jacques Bellot from Grasse.
The galleries provide access to the treasury, where you can see some absolutely amazing paperolles, among other things. Paperolles are a very special sculptural technique made of paper. The level of detail you can achieve in such small individual parts is quite unique. One thinks that it cannot be done, but it can, and it is a great experience to see.
By Tommy Sverre – 2022