Touching Place

La Cathedrale de St Bertrand, France


Great art benefits from a great setting. St Bertrand-de-Comminges has it in spades, set on a low hill in Haute-Garonne, with a backdrop of the Pyrenees. Lourdes is not far.

Caligula exiled Herod and Herodias to Lugdunum Convenarum, situated below the hill. The Visigoths destroyed the settlement and it was left to the 11th c. Bishop Bertrand de l’Isle to found the cathedral; venerated as a saint, healer and miracle-worker in his life, and canonized c.1218. Today’s cathedral is mainly the work of successors; Bertrand de Got (bishop 1295–99; later Pope Clement V), who initiated the Gothic reconstruction, and Jean de Mauléon (bishop 1523–51) patron of the woodwork of the choir. Over a century ago, M.R. James set Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook here.

Through the west door with a Romanesque tympanum of the Adoration of the Magi, enter the short parochial nave, with the awesome organ of 1550 overhead. Facing you is the stunning 16th c. marquetry work of the exterior of the liturgical choir. Spot the mummified crocodile, the dragon slain in legend by St Bertrand, and the statue of St Benedict Joseph Labré (1748–83), who tested his vocation with the Trappists, Carthusians and Cistercians, and was rejected by them all. Tramping Europe on pilgrimage, he was briefly imprisoned here on a (false) charge of robbery. Famous for his sanctity and devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, he lived and died in Rome as a tramp. Passing alongside the choir, you reach the painted 15th c. shrine of St Bertrand, actively venerated here today.

Alternatively, go through the Romanesque south cloisters, enter the south doorway and gain access to the interior of the choir, with 66 richly carved Renaissance choirstalls in two tiers, complete with misericordes. The rear 38 stalls also have large carved figures – pagan worthies, Old Testament figures, New Testament saints. Above the high altar hangs a silver dove pyx for the reservation of the holy Sacrament. A visit to St Bertrand is unforgettable.

Benedict Joseph Labré found his vocation in life as a tramp; may we find ours and, like him, succeed in our pilgrimage on earth towards the celestial Jerusalem.

Simon Cotton

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