The basilica is an interesting blend of Romanesque and Gothic styles. After his victorious Albigensian crusades, the King of France began to destroy the southern Romanesque churches, rebuilding them in the Gothic style to symbolize the control of the north. In the case of Basilique St. Nazaire, only its extremities had been torn down when the Hundred Years War intervened in 1317. With bigger fish to fry, the King abandoned the project, and only the destroyed sections were rebuilt in Gothic style. The nave, or central aisle, of the church still has its robust, rounded Romanesque arches, while the chancel (altar area) and transepts (side chapels) have fragile, pointed Gothic-style arches, framing the airy brilliance of Gothic stained glass windows.
Come at mid-day to see the windows at their most brilliant. Most are still originals dating from the 13th and 14th centuries. These windows told Bible stories for the mostly illiterate medieval population. The stories are read left to right and bottom to top. The central window behind the altar shows the life of Jesus; it’s flanked with a window on the left depicting the story of St. Peter and St. Paul, and one on the right of Saint Nazarius (to whom the basilica is dedicated) and his sidekick Saint Celsus, martyred by the Roman emperor Nero in the first century A.D. for evangelizing – reportedly, when Saint Ambrose found their tomb 200 years later, their bodies had not decomposed and their blood was still liquid.
Most of the Tree of Life window in the southern transept (right side of the church facing the altar) was made around 1320. The tree symbolizes eternal life and rises into a crucifix, symbolizing Christ’s sacrifice to redeem men. The lower panels, however, were inaccurately restored by Viollet-le-Duc. Originally these panels showed the four rivers of Paradise, symbolic of God’s love for man, but the restored windows depict Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden and Noah’s ark, stories illustrating God’s anger with men. Some critics now refer to this window as the "Tree of Death" as a result.
The rose window on north wall (left side facing the altar), dedicated to the Virgin Mary, is the oldest, made about 1300. The basilica’s organ is one of the oldest in France, in existence since at least 1522
The church is free. It’s closed between noon and 2pm.
October 18, 2004
From journal The Medieval Walls of Carcassonne