When you look back to the 14th century, Avignon was the "the" place to be: home of the popes and the capital of Christendom. Today, the popes are long gone, but the legacy left by their "court of splendor and magnificence" makes Avignon one of Europe's most beautiful and interesting medieval cities.
Dominating Avignon from a hill is one of the most famous palaces in the Christian world. The headquarters of a schismatic group of cardinals who came close to toppling the authority of the popes in Rome, it is part fortress, part showplace. Palais des Papes dates back to year 1309, when Pope Clement V fled to Avignon to escape political conflict in Rome. His successor, John XXII, chose to stay in Avignon, as well. The third Avignon pope, Benedict XII, was the one who built this magnificent palace. Avignon became, for a time, the Vatican of the North. During this period, dubbed "the Babylonian Captivity" by Rome, the popes held extravagant court in their palace. Art and culture flourished - and so did prostitution and vice. When in 1376 Gregory XI was persuaded to return to Rome, Avignon decided to elect its own rival pope, and the Great Schism split the Christian world. The real struggle, was of course about the wealth and power of the papacy. The reign of Avignon's antipopes finally ended in 1417 with the election of Martin V, and the papal court here was abandoned.
Chapelle St-Jean is known for its beautiful frescoes, dating back to the 1340s. They are attributed to the school of Matteo Giovanetti and show scenes from the life of John the Baptist and John the Evangelist. There are more Giovanetti frescoes above the Chapelle St-Jean in the Chapelle St-Martial. The frescoes here depict the miracles of St. Martial, patron saint of Limousin.
In the pope's bedroom on the first floor of the Tour des Anges, the walls are decorated entirely with frescoes of foliage, birds and squirrels. In a secular vein, the Studium (Stag Room), which was the study of Clement VI, there are frescoes with hunting scenes. Added under the same Clement, who had a taste for grandeur, the Grande Audience (Great Audience Hall) contains frescoes of the prophets; these are also by Giovanetti and were painted in 1352. Grand Tinel (Banquet Hall) is a large room in which the pope's table was standing.
Inside France's largest Carthusian monastery, built in 1352, you'll find a church, three cloisters, rows of cells that housed the medieval monks, and exhibits depicting aspects of their daily lives. Part of the complex is a workshop for painters and writers, who live in the cells rent-free for up to a year to pursue their craft. There are photo and art exhibits here throughout the year.
Musée du Petit Palais is located on the northern end of Place du Palais. The Little Palace Museum was built for Cardinal Béranger Frédol between 1318 and 1320. Following extensive alterations, Pope Benoît made it his episcopal headquarters. Today, its 19 rooms house an impressive collection of frescoes, sculptures and Italian religious paintings from the 13th to 16th centuries, including works by Botticelli, Carpaccio and Giovanni di Paolo. The Angel of the Annunciation, by Sano Di Pietro (1406-1481), is one of the most remarkable paintings - the golden-haired angel has all the beauty of a Pre-Raphaelite woman.
Avignon is also widely recognized as a cultural center with large numbers of artists and writers living here, with experimental theaters, art galleries and art cinemas, especially around rue des Teinturiers. During the famous Festival d'Avignon, a 3-week stint of music, art, and theater, this walled city of some 100,000 residents reaches its peak and bacchanalia reigns in the streets.