In the 12th century, a new Christian religious view took hold in the town of Albi, called Catharism. It soon spread throughout the surrounding Languedoc region in response to the scandalous and lavish lifestyle of the local Catholic clergy. As dualists, the Cathars believed in two principles: a good god and his evil adversary. The good principle created everything immaterial, while the bad principle created everything material. To be truly pure, they renounced the material world, lived an ascetic life, and strictly followed biblical injunctions. Today, Cathars are remembered primarily for the religious persecution perpetrated against them by the Catholic Church.
In 1208, Pope Innocent III felt that the dominion of the Catholic faith was in jeopardy and launched the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars, branding them heretics. The pope offered the lands of the Cathars to any French nobleman who was willing to take up arms. He also assured them of forgiveness before they committed their sins. The northern French nobility, who joined the crusade, saw an opportunity to gain wealth by subjugating the independent southern territories. This marked the beginning of brutal killings and torture. The crusade led to the annihilation of the Cathars and the acquisition of Languedoc under French rule. This was the first time that a Holy War had been fought against Christians and on European soil. The persecution of the Cathars played a major role in the founding of the Holy Inquisition established under the auspices of the Dominicans.
Although the area around the town of Albi has been inhabited since the Bronze Age, significant urban growth only began around 1040, when the Pont Vieux [Old Bridge] was built. The town became rich at this time thanks to trade and tolls for the use of the bridge.
In the aftermath of the Albigensian Crusade, Bishop Bernard de Castanet (1240-1317) ordered the construction of the Cathédrale Ste-Cécile [Cathedral of St Cecilia] and the Palais Épiscopal de la Berbie [Episcopal Palace of Berbie]. With the huge castle-like edifice, the bishop intended to remind the surviving remnants of Catharism (and all those who would later be tempted by heresy) to the power of the Christian church. The complex is a fine example of the Languedoc-style red brick architecture.
From 1282, the construction of the Cathédrale Ste-Cécile took two centuries. Eight centuries later, it is still one of the largest brick buildings in the world. The austere, formidable exterior of the building hides sumptuous interior decorations, such as the rood screen. This 15th-century ornamental screen is a filigree masonry made in the Flamboyant Gothic style and decorated with polychrome sculptures.
The most important work of art in the cathedral is the huge apocalyptic fresco of the Jugement Dernier [Last Judgement] painted at the end of the 15th century. As a result of the construction of a new chapel behind the fresco in 1693, its central part, including the figure of Christ rendering judgement, was destroyed. The upper part of the painting depicts a series of angels, below them apostles dressed in white, and finally various saints, clerics and monks. In the middle of the fresco, sinners are being judged, and the book hanging around their necks contains their good and bad deeds. The bottom part represents hell, which is organized into seven segments that correspond to the seven deadly sins.
The namesake of the cathedral, St Cecilia of Rome, is one of the most famous virgin martyrs of the early Christian church. According to a 5th-century legend, despite her vow of virginity to God, her parents forced her to marry a pagan nobleman. During her wedding, she sang to God in her heart, so she was later declared the saint of music and musicians. The pious Cecilia first converted her husband and then his brother to the Christian faith. Throughout her life, she distributed her possessions to the poor, which enraged the local prefect, who ordered her to be burned. When the flames did not harm her, he ordered her beheading. After being struck three times on the neck with an axe, she lived for three days. Later, in the 9th century, her remains were found undecayed. The St Cecilia chapel of the cathedral contains her reliquary and a statue with three scars on the back of its neck.
Musée Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
The Musée Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec [Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec Museum] is located in the former bishop’s palace, Palais de la Berbie. Comte Henri de Toulouse–Lautrec was born in Albi in 1864. At the age of 13, he broke his right femur, while at the age of 14, he broke his left femur. The fractures did not heal properly, probably due to an unknown genetic disorder, and his legs did not grow afterwards. Hence, his torso developed to adult size while his legs remain child-sized. Nevertheless, thanks to his immeasurable willpower and toughness, he was able to unfold his exceptional artistic abilities. He moved to Paris in 1882 and, through his work, captured many snapshots of the city’s late-19th-century bohemian way of life. Alcoholism and syphilis led to his early death at the age of 36.
The museum houses the most complete permanent collection of Albi’s most celebrated son, donated by his mother – it holds more than 1,000 original works, covering his artistic development from early post-impressionist paintings to depictions of the Parisian nightlife. In addition to the early paintings of his mother, the most popular exhibits are the famous scenes from Parisian brothels and posters for the Moulin-Rouge. His bold, eye-catching posters did a lot to elevate lithography into a significant art form.
Mure, Pierre la (1947) Moulin Rouge: A novel based on the life of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec