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Secret History of Buildings: Clermont Ferrand's Basilica Notre Dame du Port

A short history of an unusually named historic French basilica

It would be hard to find a more landlocked location for the Basilica Notre Dame du Port, which is tucked away in a densely packed maze of streets in Clermont Ferrand, a city noted for being in the middle of France. The maritime reference in its name does tend to baffle visitors. In this case, however “port” comes from the Latin portus, meaning market, a reference to the historically bustling trading district it inhabits.

The Basilica is built in the medieval Romanesque style seen throughout Europe, but also incorporates a number of elements native to the Auvergne, not least the arkose sandstone from which it is built. Unlike the cathedral in the centre of Clermont Ferrand, whose black volcanic stones lend it a forbidding air, the regional influences on the Basilica give it a much more inviting quality.

The Auvergne style is visible on the building’s exterior, in the geometric mosaics in black and white which run around the outside of four chevets, an architectural term referring to the hemispherical structures found at the eastern, or head, end of churches. The volcanic stone and stark patterning of the mosaics make a striking contrast with the undulating curves of the terracotta rooflines at this end of the Basilica, providing a breathtaking view for the inhabitants of the surrounding houses as they open their shutters each morning.

The Basilica’s other facades are, at first glance, rather more plain, though a keen observer will spot that they are lifted by a series of figurative capitals, the carved heads of columns. A capital over the south transept door depicts the Sacrifice of Abraham, while above the south portal is an elaborate depiction of Biblical scenes, known a tympanum, with some of the original paintwork still visible. The tympanum in particular was badly damaged during the French Revolution, and is lucky to have survived at all. At that time, it was suggested the Basilica should be knocked down to make way for more generous streets, and was spared only by the grim determination of local supporters.

The interior of the Basilica is laid out in the form of the Latin cross and is sombre in comparison with the riot of styles on the outside. Its slender, vaulting columns also have figurative capitals at their summits, which are brought into sharp relief by the plain paintwork applied everywhere else as part of a restoration project completed in 2008. A crypt beneath the Basilica contains a 17th-century replica of the Byzantine Black Madonna.

It is not known precisely when the original Basilica was built, but local legend says it was originally founded by the Bishop of Clermont Ferrand, Saint Avitus, in the 6th century. It was originally named Sainte-Marie-Principale, in reference to its status as the largest church dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the city. It was renamed in the 10th century, when the then-Bishop Stephen II of Clermont changed the dedication of the Cathedral from St Stephen to the Virgin Mary. The Basilica was subsequently sacked by the Normans, before being rebuilt during the 11th and 12th centuries, when, as a collegiate church, it was served by a community of canons.

The Basilica was awarded UNESCO status in 1998, as part of one of the minor routes of the Santiage de Compostela pilgrimage trail running through France.

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