The best thing about Fribourg is that so many of its major sights are so close together. We stepped out of the Cathédrale St Nicholas, and there was the Basilique Nôtre Dame. Unlike the cathedral, the basilica didn’t look like a church at first glance: six pairs of grey columns support a façade with three tall stained glass windows (though from the outside, in bright sunshine, we didn’t realise that it was stained glass). There’s a red tiled roof, and towards the back, an unassuming little spire with a crucifix atop it. If it hadn’t been for the crucifix, this could just have been another smartish mansion from the 1800’s or so.
As it was, our explorations around the outside of the basilica brought us to one of its finest features, the large wooden door that acts as the main entrance. Made of a dark wood, this is divided into nine panels, each of which is carved in beautiful curling patterns of ribbons and arabesques and whatnot: very nice. We turned the silvery handle (the doorknob and handle are both designed to resemble the carving) and entered the church—only to realise that our luck had again run out on us. The inside of the basilica was undergoing renovation and was shrouded in tarps that blocked out most of the bright afternoon sunlight. There was no artificial light either, so we found ourselves drifting about, peering fruitlessly at whatever little we could see.
The Basilique Nôtre Dame is a bit of an upstart as far as Swiss churches go: it was built in the 18th century, though on the site of a 12th century church of which nothing now remains.
From the little we could see of the basilica’s interior, it’s decorated along the tops of the walls and the edges of the ceiling in scrollwork of stucco and gilt. There’s a profusion of statues of Christ, Mary and the saints (including a rather garish one of Christ in a bright red cloak, near the altar), and high, wide stained glass windows surrounding the altar. Small chapels—each with its own statues, vase of flowers, candles, and painting framed in gilt—stand on either side of the nave. Most of these were discreetly curtained behind tarps, so we got to see only a couple.
The best of all that we did manage to see in the Basilique Nôtre Dame were the stained glass windows, some of which are beautifully detailed and painted. My favourite was a striking panel depicting the Madonna and child, surrounded by clouds and cherubs, appearing to a blue-robed, haloed man (Peter?) wearing a habit and holding an open book and a quill pen. More books sit on a set of small shelves, with a crucifix and a skull in front. A border of stylised flowers and leaves surrounds all of it. A fine example of painting and stained glass, and the one reason why we didn’t think our visit to the basilica was completely wasted.
Fortunately, since this church is right next to the Cathedral and the Eglise des Cordeliers, it doesn’t take much effort or time to visit it—and if it’s still being renovated when you visit, you can always take a five-minute tour of the stained glass windows and duck out again.