Friday, March 1, 2013

French Popes in Avignon

It is the first time in 600 years that a pope retires from office.  This is a significant historical event  since  popes have held their pastoral duties till their death. For a period between 1309 to 1376, seven popes resided in Avignon, the picturesque  town in southern France which was at the time an independent city-state.  It started with a strife between Pope  Boniface VIII,  his successor Benedict XI and the King of France Philip IV.  After a deadlocked conclave , a French cleric was elected taking the name of Clement V in 1305. The new pope refused to move to Rome and instead set up court in Avignon.  A total of seven popes reigned in Avignon where they built a huge palace. In summer, they would retreat to their country residence , just a few miles north of Avignon in the village of Chateauneuf-du-Pape where they planted vineyards.

In 1376, Gregory XI left Avignon and moved the papal court back to Rome ending the Avignon Papacy.  Upon his death, a Roman mob demanded an Italian  pope (preferably Roman).. Under pressure the conclave elected Urban VI (not a Roman but a subject of Queen Joan of Naples).  A reformist, he immediately made clear that never again would the papal court move to Avignon. French cardinals immediately clashed with the new pope and they started to conspire against him.  They issued a manifesto of grievances and declared his election invalid since they felt they had been pressured by the Roman mob to elect an Italian.    The cardinals then proceeded in electing a new pope – Clement VII, the "Antipope", giving rise to a split within the Catholic Church known as the Western Schism when two men claimed to be the true pope.  Clement VII re-established the papal court in Avignon in 1378 that lasted until the Council of Constance in 1417 reunited the factions and  re-established one pope to be residing in Rome.
The popes’ legacy in Avignon still stands today.  The palace is the largest medieval gothic building in Europe. It is in fact made of two building- the Old Palace of Benedict XII and the new palace of Clement VI.  In all six papal conclaves were held there in the 14th century- the last one in 1394 at the election of antipope Benedict XIII. 

Since 1995 the Pope's Palace has been on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites and is a popular tourist attraction as well as a center for culture as many performances, notably during the renowned Avignon Festival, take place within its austere walls.

 It is interesting to note that Avignon and the nearby Comtat Venaissin were under Papal control till 1791 when it was annexed by France.  

Tag: Avignon, Pope's Palace, Popes in Avignon

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