Saint-Malo Cathedral

Saint-Malo Cathedral (Cathédrale Saint-Vincent-de-Saragosse de Saint-Malo) in Saint-Malo, Brittany, is a Roman Catholic church dedicated to Saint Vincent of Saragossa, and a national monument of France,

Interior view of Saint-Malo cathedral showing the rose window
Saint-Malo Cathedral's bell tower
Part of the cloister of the Saint-Vincent cathedral in Saint-Malo

La cathédrale Saint-Vincent-de-Saragosse de Saint-Malo

Saint-Malo is located in Brittany's Ille-et-Vilaine. The cathedral is a mix of Roman and Gothic styles and is listed as an "Historic monument". The cathedral was built during the episcopacy of Jean de Châtillon (1146-1163) on the site of an ancient church founded in the 7th-century and re-built in the 9th-century. Several vestiges of de Châtillon's 12th-century building remain today including part of the cloisters, the nave and the transept crossing. The choir was constructed in the 13th-century and the tower, started in the 12th-century, was finished in 1422. The south side of the cathedral and the three chapels in the choir area date to the 15th-century. Between 1583 and 1607 the north side of the cathedral was reconstructed and the north transept enlarged. In the 18th-century the south chapel was built and the façade of the cathedral was reconstructed between 1772 and 1773. A door, previously kept in the courtyard of the Hôtel-Dieu in the rue Saint-Sauveur, was brought to the cathedral in the early 17th-century and a portal from the chapelle Sainte-Anne-des-Ursulines was placed in the south west of the cathedral.[1] → The cathedral was the ancient bishopric of Saint Malo from the year 1146 until 1801, when the Concordat of 1801 abolished that bishopric and divided its territory between the Rennes, Saint-Brieuc and Vannes bishoprics. In 1146, Jean de Châtillon, who had been the bishop of Aleth since 1144, transferred his bishopric to Saint-Malo which was considered more secure a base than Aleth and it was in 1146 that Pope Eugène III agreed to the transfer. The monastery of Saint Malo which had been founded in 1108 became de Châtillon's official residence and the monastery became a cathedral replacing the previous cathedral of Saint-Pierre at Aleth. Thus was born the cathédrale de Saint-Malo [2] Jean de Châtillon was also known as "Jean de la Grille" as when he was buried in the cathedral his tomb needed a grill installed to ward off his many fervent admirers.[3]

Early history

Records of the history of the rocky outcrop on which Saint-Malo stands show that it was a hermit called Aaron d'Aleth, who founded a hermitage there and that towards the middle of the 6th-century, a Welsh monk called Maclow or Mac Law or Malo arrived on the rock and joined with Aaron. Malo devoted himself to preaching and in due course became Bishop of Aleth (Saint-Servan) He was succeeded by Saint Gurval who had a church built in honour of his predecessor. This church, burnt by Charlemagne's lieutenants in 811, was rebuilt in 816 by bishop Hélocar and was given the name of the deacon saint Vincent d'Espagne who had been martyred in 304 by Diocletian. In the middle of the 9th-century, the Breton king Nominoë nominated Aleth as the location of the episcopacy and called it "Pagus Alethensis". The Norman invasions of the 10th-century left the church in ruins and in 1108 it was gifted to the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Martin de Marmoutier in Touraine and they converted the church into a priory. It was Jean de Châtillon, the Saint-Malo bishop, who retook possession of the church after a long struggle and rebuilt it completely in around 1152, designated it a cathedral and called it Saint-Malo. He also transferred the episcopacy from Aleth to Saint-Malo-de-l'Isle (on the rocher of Aaron). This action created an episcopal area which included the ancient parish of Saint-Servan. In this period the ecclesiastical authority dominated the town but by the beginning of the 13th-century the Dukes of Brittany started to have designs on possession of Saint-Malo and in the following centuries Saint-Malo was to be embroiled in many international and dynastic struggles. [4][5]

The interior

The layout of the cathedral follows that of the Latin cross. The vaulting of the choir and the south aisle is ogival (gothic), the vaulting for the north aisle is groin vaulting and the ceiling of the south chapel is decked with modern panelling.

The tower

In 1422 rebuilding of the tower was started using the foundations of the earlier tower and in August 1858, Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie were passing through Saint-Malo and were persuaded by a priest called Huchet to finance the addition of an arrow to the tower spire which would be visible from the sea. The tower was completely destroyed during the 1944 bombing but replaced in 1972. The new tower's design was based on a Norman church in Périers. The tower has four bells:-

"Jean de Châtillon" which chimes the note "re". The bell weighs 1.500 kg and was blessed on 16 September 1894,

"Jacques Cartier" which chimes the note "do". The bell weighs 2.550 kg and was blessed on16 September 1894,

"Noguette" which chimes the note "B". The bell weighs 1750 kg. It was recast and blessed on 12 November 1989,

"Gros Malo" which chimes the note "B-flat". The bell weighs 3.500 kg. It was recast and blessed on 17 July 1994

Francesco Maria Schiaffino

The statues of "La Foi", Saint Maur (Saint Maurus) and Saint Benoit (Benoît de Nursie) in the cathedral are the work of Francesco Maria Schiaffino from Genoa. They date to 1743 and came from an old Benedictine church.

The fountain

On the west face of the arm of the north transept, there is a fountain known as the "Fontaine Saint-Jean" or "Saint-Côme" which was restored in 1719.

The transept wings

The Saint-Côme wing on the north façade was designed and built by the architect Thomas Poussin between 1593 and 1607, whilst the wing on the south side is known as the "Saint Julien wing" and was built between 1461 and 1486. This wing has an entrance door known as the "Porte de Velours" which was added in 1851. Poussin came from Dinan. He also worked on military installations in Dinan and Saint-Malo and participated in the building of the "Palais du Parlement de Bretagne" from 1624 to 1631.

The chapels off the north ambulatory

These three chapels are the Chapelle Notre-Dame de la Délivrance or de Port de Salut which dates to 1530, the Chapelle Notre-Dame of 1560 and the Chapelle-Saint-Denis, du Théologat or de l'Ascension which dates to 1600. One of these chapels had originally belonged to the "Confrérie des Hommes Blancs".

The stalls

The stalls and the pulpit date to the 18th-century and the one gisant in the cathedral dates to the 13th-century. There is an old baptismal font of 12th-century origin and a 19th-century baldaquin.


The wooden statue entitled "Notre-Dame de la Croix du Fief" dates to the 17th-century and the statue "Notre-Dame de la Consolation". The reliquary containing Jacques Cartier's skull is in the neighbouring chapel.

The 1944 bombing

The city of Saint Malo suffered much bombing and artillery fire by both Germans and Americans during fighting in early August 1944. Shells fired from a German mine-sweeper on 6 August decapitated the cathedral steeple which toppled onto the Sacred Heart Chapel causing huge damage. One of the casualties was the old organ which had been built in 1893 by Louis Debierre. On 21 May 1972, after twenty-eight years of work, a ceremony was held to celebrate the completion of the cathedral's restoration which had been master-minded by Raymond Cornon, the then official architect for historic monuments.[6] Cornon also worked on reconstructions in Fougères, Rennes, Quimper, Vannes, Nantes and Vitré.[7]

The main altar

A view of the dramatic bronze high altar. On the left side we see the winged bull and on the right side the lion

The bronze high altar in the cathedral was consecrated on 8 December 1991 and was the work of the painter Arcabas and Étienne Pirot the sculptor who was known simply as Étienne. The theme of the altar is the tetramorph or the four Evangelists appearing in animal form. They are winged, the wing being an ancient symbol of divinity and each represents the virtues required for Christian salvation. The lion of St Mark represents courage, resurrection, and royalty. The ox, or bull, is an ancient Christian symbol of redemption and life through sacrifice and signifies Luke’s records of Christ as a priest and his ultimate sacrifice for the future of humanity. The eagle represents the sky, heavens, and the human spirit. Matthew's emblem is a man. These four symbols first appear in the book of Ezekiel as the four animals pulling the chariot of Ezekiel's vision (Ezekiel 1. 1-14) and later in St John's Apocalypse (Apoc 4; 7-8), later being adopted by the Church as the emblems of the four Evangelists. The lion for Mark, the bull for Luke, the eagle for John and a man for Matthew. The high altar furnishings include desks, an armchair and two stools, an elaborately carved stoup and a candlestick.[8][9]

The cathedral organ

The pipe organ was made by Koenig factors, father and son, built in 1977 and inaugurated in 1980. It is composed of four keyboards and one pedal and 35 stops. This organ replaces an older one (1893) built by the Nantes born Louis Debierre in the romantic style, which was destroyed in 1944. A new choir organ of two keyboards, one pedal and 18 stops has been also built by Koenig in 2014.[10]

Stained glass windows in the nave

These are the work of Max Ingrand, continued by the Michel Durand atelier. They depict scenes chronicling the history of the city and the cathedral. On the south side of the nave are two windows. One depicts the arrival of the Welsh monk Malo in about 560 at Aaron's hermitage. A small chapel still marks the spot where the hermitage stood "La Chapelle Saint-Aaron". The second window shows Jacques Cartier being blessed by the bishop for his discovery of Canada in 1535. On the north side of the nave are three windows. One celebrates the martyrdom in 304 of Vincent of Saragossa the patron of the cathedral. Another celebrates the foundation of the See of Saint-Malo by Jean de Châtillon in 1152 and the third the Tro-Breiz pilgrimage to the relics of the seven founders of the Breton bishoprics. Below the main door, hidden by the organ, stained glass depicts the Assumption of the Virgin.[11]

La Chapelle Saint-Aaron

The Great Rose window and other stained glass

The Great Rose window was the 1968 work of the architect Raymond Cornon and replaced the great rose window destroyed in 1693 during an attack on the cathedral by the English. On the north side of the building, there is a 1970 stained glass window by Jean Gouremelin and Michel Durand which depicts Paul Aurélien, Tugdual, Corentin, Malo, Guillaume, Samson and Patern.

Some of the great Breton saints: Paul Aurélien, Tugdual, Corentin, Malo, Guillaume, Samson and Patern

The transept

The arms of the transept date to 1623 and contain four windows.

La Vierge de la Grand’Porte/Notre-Dame de la Grand'Porte

This 15th-century marble statue is greatly venerated by the people of Saint-Malo and is also known as the "Miraculeuse Protectrice de la Cité Malouine", as it was associated over the years with various legends and miracles. For hundreds of years, the statue had in fact been placed in a niche over one of the entrances through the city's defensive wall, this until 2003 when the statue was restored and placed inside the cathedral to protect it from the elements. A copy was made and this is still kept in the defensive wall niche [12][13][14]

Jacques Cartier

The cathedral holds the tomb of the great explorer Jacques Cartier who was born in St Malo on 31 December 1491 and died there on 1 September 1557. The tomb is in a chapel off the ambulatory and north of the choir. In 1949 the original grave had been found during the course of excavations and moved to its present spot. It was Cartier who claimed what is now known as Canada for France. He was the first European to describe and map the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and the shores of the Saint Lawrence River. It was in 1534 that he made his first voyage, two years after the Duchy of Brittany was formally united with France in the Edict of Union. Cartier had been introduced to King Francis I by Jean Le Veneur, bishop of Saint-Malo and abbot of Mont-Saint-Michel, at the Manoir de Brion and encouraged the king to pick Cartier to head the next major voyage to explore the eastern coast of North America on behalf of France. After several important voyages to North America, Cartier spent the rest of his life in Saint-Malo and his nearby estate, where he was often useful as an interpreter in Portuguese. He died at age 65 on September 1, 1557, during an epidemic, possibly of typhus, though many sources list his cause of death as unknown.

Images relating to Jacques Cartier

René Duguay-Trouin

Duquay-Trouin is another famous malouin who is buried in the cathedral. He was initially buried in the Saint-Roch church in Paris but his remains were moved to Saint-Malo on the three hundred year anniversary of his birth. He had a brilliant privateering and naval career and eventually became "Lieutenant-General of the Naval Armies of the King" (i.e. admiral) (French: Lieutenant-Général des armées navales du roi), and a Commander in the Order of Saint-Louis. Ten ships of the French Navy were named in his honour.[3]

The old Cathedral of Saint-Pierre at Aleth

Ruins of Saint-Servan Cathédrale Saint-Pierre d'Aleth

All that is left of the original cathedral at Aleth are ruins as seen in the photograph shown here. When in 1144 the bishopric was transferred to Saint Malo, Aleth put itself under the protection of Saint-Servan. [15]

Capitals in the nave and transept

Several of the capitals of the pillars supporting the roof of the nave and transept crossing have carvings both grotesque and biblical. These capitals, hard to see properly because of their height, date to the 12th-century.[3]

Stations of the Cross

There is a "Chemin de Croix" (Stations of the cross) in the cathedral by Henri Chaumont.

Tro Breizh

Tro Breizh (Breton for "Tour of Brittany") is a Catholic pilgrimage that links the towns of the seven founding saints of Brittany. These seven saints were Celtic monks from Britain from around the 5th or 6th century who brought Christianity to Armorica and founded its first bishoprics.

The tour originally was a month-long 600 km (370 mi) walking tour, but when relaunched in 1994 by Les Chemins du Tro Breizh ("The Paths of the Tro Breizh" in French), it was decided to limit the tour to one week-long stage every year, still following the original path:

The seven towns are:-

Quimper, Saint Corentin's town

Saint-Pol-de-Léon, Saint Pol's town

Tréguier, Saint Tudwal's town

Saint-Brieuc, named after its founder Brioc

Saint Malo, similarly named for Malo

Dol, Samson of Dol's town. Cathédrale Saint-Samson de Dol

Vannes, Saint Patern's town.Église Saint-Patern de Vannes

An old Breton legend says that those who do not complete the Tro Breizh in their lifetime will be sentenced to complete it in their afterlife, walking the length of the tour from within their coffin every seven years.

One of the stained-glass windows in the cathedral by Max Legrand is dedicated to Tro Breizh.[3]

Famous people associated with the cathedral

Amongst those baptised in the cathedral are François-Rene de Chateaubriand, François Broussais and Félicité Robert de Lamennais as well as René Duguay-Trouin.[3]

Chateaubriand wrote in "Mémoires d' Outre-Tombe" in 1859 "Lorsque dans l'hiver, les rafales de Noël ébranlaient les voûtes de cette nef que fit résonner la mâle poitrine de Jaques Cartier and Duguay-Trouin j'éprouvais in sentiment extraordinaire de religion"

Rene Duguay-Trouin and Robert Surcouf were "privateers", men who received "letters of marque" from the king, which permitted them to attack warships or merchantmen without being treated as pirates.

Miscellaneous. Saint Aaron

See also

Église Saint-Patern de Vannes

Quimper Cathedral

Dol Cathedral

Saint-Brieuc Cathedral

Tréguier Cathedral

Saint-Pol-de-Léon's Cathedral of Saint Paul Aurélien, the Notre-Dame du Kreisker Chapel and the Chapelle Saint-Pierre and cemetery


  1. "Facts on French Government website". Retrieved 17 September 2016.
  2. "La Cathédrale Saint-Vincent à Saint-Malo". Retrieved 16 September 2016.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 Cathėdrales et basiliques de Bretagne. Editions ereme. Preface.Yves-Pascal Castel/Text.Chantal Leroy and Dominique de La Rivière.Photographs.David Bordes.
  4. ""infobretagne" the informative website on Brittany". Retrieved 17 September 2016.
  5. "Early history of St Malo". Retrieved 20 September 2016.
  6. "Brittany website". Retrieved 18 September 2016.
  7. "Raymond Cornon". Retrieved 6 October 2016.
  8. "The High Altar". Retrieved 27 September 2016.
  9. "Arcabas website". Retrieved 18 September 2016.
  10. newspaper report, in Ouest-France (accessed February 7, 2015)
  11. "Stained glass in the nave". Retrieved 27 September 2016.
  12. "The legend of the "Vierge de la Grand'Porte"". Retrieved 18 September 2016.
  13. "Miracles associated with the statue Notre-Dame de la Grand'Porte". Retrieved 19 September 2016.
  14. "City website". Retrieved 19 September 2016.
  15. "The original cathedral at Aleth". Retrieved 22 September 2016.
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