Basilica of Notre-Dame de Boulogne
The Basilica of Notre-Dame de Boulogne is a minor basilica located in Boulogne-sur-Mer in the Pas-de-Calais département of northern France. The basilica was built between 1827 and 1875 on the site of Boulogne's medieval cathedral with its 101 metre high dome. The basilica is still known locally as the "cathedral", despite the present church never having held that status.
History of the site
The site of modern Boulogne was occupied by the Romans and was used by the emperor, Claudius, as his base for the Roman invasion of Britain. By the 4th century, the town was a major port of the empire, and known as Bononia.
The first Christian building on the site was probably built by the occupying Romans during the 4th or 5th century, and would have occupied the peak of the hill that forms the modern haute ville.
According to legend, in about 633, when Saint Audomare (Saint Omer) was a bishop, an unmanned boat carrying a luminous statue of the Virgin Mary was sighted in the estuary at Boulogne. The statue was carried to their church and soon miracles were reported at the site.
On the final Monday of August each day, a modern replica of the statue is paraded around the city, a tradition that has been held since 1854. The statue wears a soleil, a resplendent headdress that is worn by the townswomen during the parade.
In around 1100 a new church was built on the site and over the next few centuries underwent numerous changes, such as the addition of a choir in the 14th century, and in 1567 Notre-Dame was made a cathedral. Between the 13th and 16th century the statue of "Our Lady of the Sea" became a popular site of pilgrimage, leading to a period of prosperity for the town.
The cathedral flourished until the French Revolution, when the 1790 Civil Constitution of the Clergy brought it under government control. Worship in the cathedral was prohibited at that time, with the city's convent of the Annonciades becoming the seat of worship, and after a period as a military warehouse, the cathedral was sold to traders from outside Boulogne. The building was then demolished in stages, and, in 1793, its celebrated miraculous statue of "Our Lady of the Sea" was burned. Only a small portion of the statue's hand survived, still on display, and pilgrimages to visit the relic continued into the twentieth century. Of the original cathedral, only the impressive Romanesque crypt of the medieval cathedral still exists.
Following the destruction of the former cathedral, a local priest and self-taught architect, Benoit Haffreingue, vowed to rebuild the church to restore the honour of "Our Lady of the Sea" and return the episcopal seat to the city. After a strong campaign he was able to gain the support of many including Victor Hugo and François-René de Chateaubriand, and soon had considerable public opinion behind him.
Construction of his design began in 1827 with the building of the rotunda and continued for nearly fifty years. The dome that dominates the town was finished in 1854 and its western towers completed in the 1870s. However, despite the campaign the building never regained its episcopal seat, though in 1879 it was given the honorary title of a basilica.
Notre-Dame was built to a new design and was inspired by both classical and renaissance styles, and bears many similarities to St Paul's Cathedral. The area beneath the dome was initially designed to form the complete church, but additional funding allowed the expansion to the nave and transept that form a Latin cross. This gives the finished building the unusual internal appearance of being formed by two distinct churches.
The tall nave is dominated by its rows of slender Corinthian columns, with unusual features scattered throughout. Haffreingue's lack of professional training unfortunately gave the building an inherent fragility that led to the collapse of the nave's arches in 1921. During their reconstruction the whole building was reinforced with concrete, which without doubt allowed it to survive the bombing received by the city during the Second World War.
When Haffreingue began work on the new church in 1827, the workmen discovered a crypt that had lain unknown for centuries, having probably been filled in during the 1544 siege of Boulogne by Henry VIII of England. The crypt is 128 metres long in total, and is believed to be the longest in France. Its Romanesque columns date back to the 11th century
With 19th-century masonry lying alongside the original medieval work, the many rooms also include the foundations of a Roman temple dedicated to Mars. Cannon balls from the 1544 siege lie alongside offerings from the site's many medieval pilgrims.
- Bonser, Wilfrid (Nov., 1920) "Three Annual Fetes at Boulogne." Man 20: 169-171
- Official guide literature of Notre-Dame de Boulogne
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