Saint Sernin Cathedral
UNESCO Heritage List
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Saint Sernin Basilica - the biggest Romanesque style church in the world - was dedicated to the first bishop of Toulouse - Saturnin or in the Occitan language Sernin - who died a martyr death in 250AD. The construction of the present cathedral started in the 11th century on the site of a modest church erected in the 5th century above the Saint Saturnin’s tomb.
The events surrounding the death of the saint are described in the "Booklet of passion and the betrayer of St. Saturninus, bishop of the city of Toulouse and martyr" a religious work written in the second decade of the 5th century.
In the 3rd century AD Toulouse - or Tolosa - is one of the biggest and richest cities in the western part of the Roman Empire. Its inhabitants worship the old pagan gods, but Christianity, even if persecuted, is rapidly spreading.
Saturnin, a Christian bishop, is accused that, with his new Christian faith, he made the old idolatrous oracles silent. As a punishment he is attached with a rope to a bull that on being whipped starts to run along the street in the amazement and maybe even encouragement of the people gathered to watch the happening. The street that the bull, dragging the body of Saturnin, ran is to this day called "Rue du Taur" or Bull’s Street. Together with its Church "Notre Dame du Taur" it commemorates the ordeal of Saint Sernin.
The body of the bishop is later buried by two Christian women who have the courage to come under the cloak of the night and to take care of the remains.
The present cathedral was built starting from the 11th century as a response to the need to accommodate the influx of pilgrims brought in not only by the notoriety of Saint Sernin but also because Toulouse became at that time an important stopping place for the pilgrims in the route to Santiago de Compostela. Its purpose is reflected in the layout: the nave flanked by two aisles, the ambulatory with radiating chapels and niches to hold relics (ambulatory that surrounds the tomb of Saint Saturnin raised on a baroque decor added in the 18th century) elements that make the church a "pilgrimage and relics" type church.
A less known legend goes to say that the cathedral was built on a underground lake that hides in its depths the treasure of the Delphi's oracle brought here by the Gauls after an expedition in Greece. In the 16th century a priest along with a Toulouse inhabitant went under crypt of Saint Sernin and saw the lake - but did not find any treasures!*
The church was consecrated in 1096 by Pope Urban II but the building work continued until the 16th century.
In 1998 together with the other monuments on the route to Santiago de Compostela Saint Sernin Basilica of Toulouse was listed in the UNESCO’s World Heritage.
Related article: The Hidden Gold Treasure of Toulouse
*Source: "Croyances and mysteres de France" by Patrice Milleron
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