The Notre-Dame Cathedral in Puy-en-Velay was the starting point of one of the four main pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela, the Via Podiensis (or route of the Puy). Set high up on the hillock of Corneille, the cathedral is a fascinating monument built on an exceptional site where the pilgrims gathered in great numbers to venerate the reliquary of the Virgin. Puy-en-Velay was known in the West between the tenth and twelfth centuries for its audacious architecture, the construction of its cathedral being part of a renewal in architecture that was taking hold of the West and of France in particular.
The originality of the Puy cathedral has sparked much debate among art historians during the first half of the twelfth century, and most notably about a possible Islamic influence. Emile Mâle, in 1911, then in 1923, said he was convinced that the monuments of Velay showed a clear influence from the Moorish art of Spain: “It is in the heart of the Velay Mountains, in the Puy, where you find the monuments that testify most strongly to the Muslim influence in France. The strange polychrome façade of the cathedral immediately evokes a vague impression of the Orient. In the marvellous cloister […] the arches with their key bricks alternating in black and white make one think of the white and red arches in the Great Mosque of Córdoba”. He went on to deduce that since the city was the point of departure for one of the four main pilgrimage routes to Compostela, it was very likely that the Arabs came to the Puy just as the Christians went to Córdoba. A few years later, Ahmad Fikry, a student of Henri Focillon, chose to explore the issue in his doctoral thesis of the influence of Islamic forms in regards to French Romanesque art and at Puy-en-Velay in particular. He sees a parallel between the cupolas of the Puy and those in the mosque of Kairouan. Louis Bréhier has noted similarities between the cupolas built on an octagonal plan with the squinches at the angles of its nave and the Arab architecture of Spain. According to him, if the architect was not a Muslim, he was undoubtedly a Mozarabic Christian.
Thus, according to these authors, the cathedral of the Puy is an edifice with a strong Arab influence, largely due to the characteristic presence of its cupolas and of the polychromatic treatment of the brickwork and polygonal arches. It was in 1975 that Marcel Durliat denounced this supposed Islamic origin by demonstrating that the cupolas in the Puy were closely related to other such examples as can be seen in Tournus or at Saint-Martin-d’Ainay in Lyon. Hence, the polychrome design composed of key bricks to form the arches, alternately in black and white and underscored by a band of red lozenges on a white background, was much more likely to be a vestige of surviving Carolingian practices belonging to a regional Romanesque art than of a purely Muslim heritage.
Today, this vision of where the influences lie tends to be less unidirectional and gives as much importance to the contribution of the South, that of Auvergne itself and of northern Italy. As Xavier Barral i Altet puts it, “Here, as in many other places in the West during the Romanesque period, the Italian dream was what drove all projects and ambitions far more than any vague desire to live up to the accomplishments of Islam. The ultimate mirror and every model came from Rome, not Córdoba.”
BARRAL I ALTET X., La cathédrale du Puy-en-Velay, Milan-Paris, 2000.
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BREHIER L., Les origines de l’architecture romane en Auvergne, s.l. 1923.
BREHIER L., « Les influences musulmanes dans l’art roman du Puy », in Journal des Savants, janv. févr. 1936, 14p.
CAZES Q., « A propos des ‘motifs islamiques’ dans la sculpture romane du Sud-Ouest », in Cahiers de Saint-Michel de Cuxa, Chrétiens et Musulmans autour de 1100, XXXV, 2004, p. 167-176.
Congrès archéologique de France. 133e session, 1975, Velay, Paris, Société française d’archéologie, 1979.
CRESTI C., Orientalismi nelle architetture d’Occidente, Florence, 1992.
FIKRY A., L'Art roman du Puy et les influences islamiques, Thèse de doctorat, Paris, 1934.
MALE E., « La mosquée de Cordoue et les églises de l’Auvergne et du Velay », dans Revue de l’art ancien et moderne, 1911, repris dans Art et artistes au Moyen Age, Paris, Flammarion, 1ère éd. 1927, 5e éd. 1968.
MALE E., « Les influences arabes dans l'art roman », in Revue des Deux-Mondes, 1923, p. 311-343.
RIVOIRA C.T., Architettura musulmana, sue origine e suo sviluppo, Milan, 1914.