At first glance there is nothing special about the Lilliputian village of Fréjus in the south of France. Like many of its neighbors located along the Aurelian way, it was founded by Julius Caesar as a Roman outpost in the first century B.C. Today, it still has a surviving Roman arena, the ruins of an aqueduct, and the remains of an outdoor amphitheater. I did not arrive at Fréjus on purpose, but discovered it accidentally when I got lost in the maze of streets that links many of the French Riviera resorts with each other. One moment I was happily ambling along the seashore and the next I was ensconced in the middle of a ghost town on a hot late afternoon. Not a soul was in sight and the only sound was that of crickets chirping happily. I wanted to get back to the Mediterranean, so I walked up and down the streets looking for someplace open for business. I ventured into the ancient arena, but although open it was eerily empty. So was the main fountained plaza and the amphitheater. It was as if the long dead Romans had merely stepped out en masse and would return soon. That is when I stumbled across the Saint Léonce Cathedral. I noticed its unusual round octagonal side roof and the exquisitely carved wooden doors, but what pleased me was that they were standing wide open. Inside I vaguely detected the shadowy form of a woman bustling paperwork behind a desk.
I entered to ask for directions, blinking at the sudden change from afternoon sunlight to interior darkness.
“Pardon me,“ I asked the moving shape in my halting French, “could you help me return to the Mediterranean?“ The apparition jumped up and scuttled towards me. Her silver-grey hair was wrapped up in a faded handkerchief while a giant flowered apron was tied around her ankle length skirt. She looked like a peasant woman from the past.
“But of course,“ she replied in her native tongue, grinning widely. Then followed a flowing stream of directions said so quickly that I had to concentrate to understand them. She finished and I was still silent, trying to determine if I should turn left on Rue de la Vernède and right on Avenue de Provence or vice versa.
My hesitation was obviously mistaken as a sign that I was not ready to leave Fréjus because the next thing she said was, “Would you like to find out what medieval life was like here?“
My eyes popped in surprise as I wondered to myself how she would make this possible. “Excuse me?“ I countered, unsure what else to say.
“These walls conceal stories of what it was like for the people here many centuries ago. Come, come to the cloister and I will show you,“ she commanded, taking me by the arm and urging me deeper into the dim interior.
I did not want to be rude so I reluctantly let her lead me. “Is this a working monastery?“ I asked, envisioning a gaggle of monks ready to reenact their secluded life for my benefit.
“No,“ she replied with a faint tinge of regret in her voice, “but,“ she brightened, “it is a working church. The villagers still come here for Sunday services, baptisms, and weddings!“ I nodded and forced a smile as I trailed after her, hoping this would be a short tour. Medieval life to me was mostly doom and gloom, while I wanted to be lounging blissfully along the bright seashore.
Light burst with a vengeance as we moved from the inner courtyard to the grass-covered atrium, carving deep slices of black shade in between the elegant double columned arcade. A stone well stood in the middle of the garden.
The woman pointed up and demanded, “Have you ever seen anything like this before?“ I looked to see a wooden beamed ceiling covered with hundreds of paintings. Faded and coated with grime, some barely perceptible in the darkness, they were intriguing to behold. Weird and fantastic creatures seemed to be the focus on each decorated panel. Was the light playing tricks with my eyes or was that a man’s head on a furry beast’s body? Next to this was something that looked like a mermaid. I blinked my eyes rapidly to see if the scenery would change.
“These were painted by the monks?“ I chortled in a shocked tone. The scenes were not at all what I thought fourteenth century monks would be painting.
“No, they were painted by visiting artisans, but of course approved by the clerics. Surprising, isn’t it?“ my guide inquired with a sly smile. I gazed with my mouth wide open, tiptoeing for a closer view.
“Is that a ‘dragon’?“ I squeaked, befuddled at the assortment of grotesque figures draped over my head. Griffins, satyrs, and all sorts of unknown mythical creatures paraded in gleeful abandon. Farm animals and portraits of young women were drawn next to them as a matter of course.
Thankfully my chaperone understood the word, because she exclaimed, “Absolutely! Is it not beautiful?“
I did not know if beautiful was the word but strange did not describe it adequately. “It is…it is…incredible!“ I gasped at last. “I had no idea that people in the Middle Ages were so…creative.“
“But you see from these wonderful ceiling beams that they had a vibrant imagination, no? You may have thought that daily life in the Middle Ages was ‘doom and gloom’, now you see it is different?“ I nodded mutely and wondered if she were a mind reader when she said the words I had so recently been thinking.
“Yes,“ I agreed hesitantly, “but I still don’t understand why these paintings are here. What was their purpose?“
“To depict the life of the cloister,“ she explained. “Everything in those days revolved on the cloister. This is where newcomers brought news of the world. It is where townspeople exchanged gossip. It is where monks grew fruit to sell and cultivated medicinal herbs for the sick. It is where trading occurred, right here in this open courtyard. This was a hub bursting with activity. The bishops who lived here at the time wanted to portray the liveliness, the creativeness, and the everyday: all of it in bright color for all to see.“
“Dragons and half-men-half-animals don’t seem everyday things, even in the Middle Ages.“ I countered.
“True, but look over here,“ she responded gesturing me to another darkened spot in the ceiling, “here are jugglers. Here is a man and here a woman both of them going to the toilet! So, there is a little of the fantastic and a little of the everyday mixed in, a little humor and a little illusion.“
My gaze kept returning to the outlandish paintings as we continued walking through the arcade. The subject matter was indeed scintillating and in spots where time had managed to ravage the artwork less, I could see the brilliancy of the colors used. Here in the muted recesses of clerics I discovered a common bond with those who lived centuries ago. The pages of history books are full of dates of conquest and epidemic, yet they never capture the trivial details of daily life that resonate so effectively with me. The men and women who lived in Fréjus in medieval days did not look like me, did not dress like me, and did not speak like me. Yet, they too dreamed of distant lands and magical encounters, they relished their bawdy humor, and they expressed their creativity. Studying the ceilings at Saint Léonce Cathedral I caught a fleeting glimpse of the rich variety of their lives, however “simple” and “different” it may have been from mine. War and attrition are common themes in the annals of human history, but it was delightful to see that human needs such as comedy and ingenuity are also prevalent motifs in the book of mankind.
For the moment the shimmering Mediterranean shores were forgotten as I eagerly trotted after my guide. I was excited to discover what other aspects of ancient life would come alive for me inside this complex in this tiny town I accidentally chanced upon in the south of France.
Construction of the cathedral of Saint Léonce in Fréjus and the accompanying buildings spans from the 5th to the 13th century. The cathedral’s baptistery is one of the rare surviving examples of Merovingian architecture, a style which combined classical Roman and Syrian design. The baptismal font dates from early Christian Rome and is still used today by the locals.
Want to discover more about the Provençal landscape? Check out our e-book French Riviera: Artist’s Paradise.