See the world’s biggest medieval brick cathedral – in Albi, France

Albi, France

The impressive skyline of medieval Albi

Ever see National Lampoon’s Vacation,  where Chevy Chase’s character enthusiastically drives his family hundreds of miles out of their way on their cross-country vacation to see the world’s second largest ball of twine?

I felt a kindred spirit when I was bumping along on a bus with my family – the milk-delivery bus, apparently, since we stopped off in every  little French town – on the way from Toulouse to Albi.

Albi, FranceMy husband and kids are resigned  accustomed to me when I plan our trips, so my kids just smiled good-naturedly when I told them “But you’re going to see the biggest medieval brick cathedral in the world!”

Once we arrived, even my kids -used to being dragged to thousands of churches- were impressed by this pink fortress-church.

Building the Sainte-Cécile Cathedral began in the 13th century, and took nearly two hundred years to fully complete. As the largest brick cathedral in the world – 113 meters long, 35 meters wide, and with a 78 meter bell tower – the impressive monument dominates the skyline.

Albi, FranceSainte-Cécile was built as both a defensive fortress and as a monument to and symbol of the victory of the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229), in which the Catholic church succeeded in suppressing the Cathar heretics of southern France.

The Cathars were probably the majority religion in the region by the early 13th century, supported by the nobility as well as the local people. The religion also had many adherents among Catholic priests, and was openly critical of the Catholic church, which led to Pope Innocent III calling for a Crusade against the Cathars of the Languedoc.

The intensity of the fighting also explains the desire to build such an impressive monument to the power of Catholicism in a region that was, until recently, the bastion of the Cathars.

Albi, FranceDespite the cathedral’s fortress-like exterior, the cathedral’s interior is surprisingly rich in artwork.

Most impressive is the Last Judgement scene painted in the nave – in particular the Late Middle Ages paintings of the seven deadly sins.

They were painted by unknown artists between 1474 and 1484, and the details of the punishments doled out in the underworld for those guilty of pride, gluttony, lust, envy, wrath and greed are truly terrifying.

Albi, France

Details from the Seven Deadly sins

My older son is studying Dante’s Inferno in his Italian literature class, so he truly appreciated these impressive illustrations of the punishments he’s currently reading about and discussing in class.

16th century vault frescoes – dominated by a deep azure color – are the work of Italian Renaissance painters from Modena and Bologna. The cathedral’s organ is said to be one of the most beautiful in France. Free concerts are held on Wednesdays, although we weren’t lucky enough to be in Albi on that day. Next time…

So when you’re in beautiful Albi, don’t miss out on this impressive cathedral. Far, far more impressive than Chevy Chase’s ball of twine. : )

While you’re exploring this medieval gem of a city, also make sure you view the works of a native son, in the fabulous Toulouse-Lautrec Museum I wrote about in an earlier post.

Albi, FranceAlbi, France


  1. chillcat on April 24, 2014 at 8:47 am

    I remember this wonderful cathedral from my drive across France (sleeping in the car!) when I was young (and sillier) and adventurous. Beautiful place, steeped in history. I’d love to go back.

    • kimberlysullivan on April 26, 2014 at 10:18 am

      Hi Catherine! Sleeping in the car, huh? That’s why there are some things far, far better to do when we are young (and silly). It is gorgeous, isn’t it?

  2. evelyneholingue on April 26, 2014 at 12:04 am

    Ah France! Lovely pics and gorgeous city.

    • kimberlysullivan on April 26, 2014 at 10:20 am

      D’accord, Evelyne. I have been to your beautiful country so many times, .and yet I still have so much left to explore. : ) A pleasant burden…

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