Carpentras and a visit to the oldest synagogue in France
It is not unusual to find us headed to Carpentras on Friday morning's for the weekly market or shopping for kid's clothes. Carpentras is a short 25 minute ride down the D-7 from Sablet. As we get near, we see Notre-Dame de l'Observance Church towering over Carpentras.
Carpentras is located along the banks of the Auzon River. Carpentras was a commercial site used by Greek merchants in ancient times, and known to Romans, first as Carpentoracte Meminorum, mentioned by Pliny, then renamed Forum Neronis ("Forum of Nero").
Pope Clement V took up residence in Carpentras at the beginning of the Avignon Papacy, along with the Roman Curia, in 1313. It was his successor Pope John XXII who settled definitively in Avignon. Nowadays, Carpentras is a commercial center for Comtat Venaissin and is famous for the black truffle market that takes place every Friday morning during the winter months.
The 14th-century Porte d'Orange, ("Orange entrance"), is a massive fortified gateway on the north side of historic Carpentras. This is all that remains of the defensive wall which consisted of 32 towers and 4 gates. This last tower stands proud and tall at 78 feet high. This tower was saved from destruction during a major urban renewal project which took place in the late 19th century.
As you wander around Carpentras, you will come upon Saint-Siffrein Cathedral which was built on top of two previous churches; traces of one, a 13th century Romanesque church can be seen on the northern side of the apse. The cathedral was constructed in Gothic style by order of Pope Benedict XIII. The work lasted for more then a century, from 1404 to 1519. One of the cathedral's most unusual features is the south doorway known as the Porte Juive (Jews' Gate). This ornate Gothic doorway was designed as an entrance for Jews who wished to be baptized.
The interior of the cathedral testifies to the great artistic fervor during the papal presence in the Comtat Venaissin. Painted panels of the Crowning of the Virgin, 15th century stained glass windows, precious Genoan marble altarpieces, gilded wood sculptures by the Bernus family, outstanding wrought iron work by the Mille family, paintings signed by G.E. Grève, N. Mignard, E. Parrocel and Carpentras artist J.S. Duplessis.
Founded in 1585, the Brotherhood of White Penitents installed themselves near Saint-Jean-du-Bourg Church. Their chapel seen below was consecrated in 1661. The chapel was rebuilt in 1705 and 1779.
The city of Carpentras has hosted Jews since at least February 28, 1276, according to tax rolls from that time. Expelled from France by Philipple le Bel, the Jews took refuge in the Papal lands where they were safe and enjoyed freedom of worship. Along with Avignon, Cavaillon and L'Isle sur la Sorgue, Carpentras was home to a large Jewish community in a neighborhood that did not become a ghetto until the end of the sixteenth century.
The synagogue in Carpentras is the oldest Jewish house of worship in existence in France today. The synagogue, built in 1367, has a Baroque-style interior and a gold-ornamented hall with a blue domed ceiling.
The synagogue is housed within a larger building that once functioned as a Jewish community center. The building boasts spectacular facilities, including a 30-foot-deep ritual bath, fed by turquoise waters from a natural spring, another heated bath, a kosher abattoir and two communal bakeries. The 18th century sanctuary is on the first floor.
A mikvah is a ritual bath used for ablution, which is necessary for rites of purity of Jewish women. It has to be dug to ground level and supplied with a natural source of water. The first mikvah for this synagogue was the small bath of 4 feet 3 inches deep shown below. It had a staircase of seven steps, and included a hand pump system for bringing heated water into the adjoining tub.
The second ritual bath was dug in the rock to a depth of 32 feet and 9 inches. It is fed with spring water. On our tour, the guide indicated that the source for the spring water may be the Fontaine de Vaucluse, that I told you about here.
Among the Biblical prescriptions observed by Jews are ritual rules for food. The synagogue has two bakeries to meet these requirements. The one shown below is reserved to bake Shabbat's bread and for the ordinary days. The cupola oven is still intact.
The other bakery shown below is reserved for the manufacture of unleavened bread called "coudoles" in Provence or what we know as Matzos. These are the only permissible loaves during the eight days of the Jewish Passover.
You enter the synagogue at street level and climb a grand if plainly made staircase to reach the sanctuary. Neither the spare facade (decreed by the Catholic Church, which forbade elaborate exterior decoration) nor the stairs prepares you for the explosion of color and craftsmanship that distinguish this spacious room, which is arranged on two levels and decorated in Louis XV style.
During our visit to the sanctuary, we were treated to the music of an Israeli violinist who was practicing for a concert he was to give in the sanctuary.