The famous bridge of Avignon was built in the 12th century by St Bénézet, but was abandoned in the 17th century after having been swept away on several occasions by floods of the Rhône. But who was this ‘saint’ and how did he come to build this bridge?
For those wanting to know what St Bénézet looked like, there is a statuette of him, bridge in hand, in a niche in the wall at the corner of rue de la Bourse and place des Corps Saints.
It should first be noted that he was wrongly designated ‘saint’ as he was never canonized, but rather than being the stuff of legend, there is an ancient parchment with two texts which validate his actual existence. One relates to the story of Bénézet, followed by an appeal to the generosity of the faithful to pay for the bridge. The other is a collection of witness statements to support his canonization.
In 1177, the young Bénézet (the name means “little Benoit”), watching over this mother’s sheep at Burzat (Vivarais*), heard a voice from the heavens addressing him: “I am Jesus Christ and I want you to leave your mother’s sheep to go and build a bridge over the Rhône for me…” The child, who had never left his village, protested his ignorance of roads and bridges, but be that as it may, an angel disguised as a pilgrim accompanied him to the banks of the Rhône and the little Benoit went to find the bishop, who was delivering a sermon. The bishop sent him to the provost who set him the challenge of lifting a stone that 30 men couldn’t move. Bénézet lifted the stone and carried it and laid it down beside the river, in the place where he knew he had to build the bridge. The provost, conscious of the supernatural nature of this happening, came to Bénézet’s aid and supplied him with men and money, so that he could fulfil his architectural destiny.
Bénézet died in 1184 before seeing the completion of the bridge. His remains were preserved in the Saint-Nicolas chapel on the bridge itself until 1674, when they were transferred to the Célestins convent, where you can see his statue today. The convent was desecrated in 1791 and most of his remains disappeared, but those that did are kept as relics in the cathedral of Notre-Dame-des-Doms in Avignon.
So next time you here the famous song ‘sous le pont d”Avignon’, think of the little shepherd boy who received a voice from the heavens ordering his to build the bridge.
(Adapted from Secret Provence by Jean-Pierre Cassely)