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History of the Treasure of Lyon's Saint-Jean Cathedral

In the heart of Lyon's historic district, discover a collection of emblematic pieces, from the Byzantine era to the 19th century, of exceptional quality: ivories, medieval silverware, tapestries, liturgical vestments...

The cathedral complex on the right bank of the Saône dates back to the 4th century. This complex of two churches and a baptistery evolved in the 12th century, and the larger of the two churches was transformed into the Cathedral of Saint Jean-Baptiste.

In a city faced with multiple dominations from the Late Empire to the Middle Ages, the archbishopric represented a stable center of power.

Détail de chapelle ciboire

© Centre des monuments nationaux / Clément Apffel

The archbishop became primate of Gaul in 1079. This title was conferred on the archbishop of Lyon, the former capital of the Three Gauls, by virtue of the seniority of his see. He exercised relative authority over the other bishops of France. His role is evident in a number of events, including the ecumenical councils of 1245 and 1274, and the election of Pope John XXII in 1316.

The episcopal quarters built around the cathedral group included numerous buildings for the use of the archbishop and his dignitaries: among them the episcopal palace, the cloister and the buildings required for communal life, such as the manecantry . TheCarolingian arch on the southfaçade is the last trace of the former buildings. A refectory from the 12th century onwards, its function changed in the 14th century.

Crosse pastorale du Cardinal Fesch

© Centre des monuments nationaux / Pascal Lemaître

Did you know?

The manécanterie takes its name from the singing school for young clerics that occupied it from the 14th to the 19th century: in Latin, mansio cantorum , or house of the singers. The building was used as asinging school for clergymen until 1844, it was closed down during the French Revolution. Following the law separating Church and State, the manecanterie was requisitioned by the Hospices Civils de Lyon as an investment property.

Salle des collections du Trésor

© Centre des monuments nationaux / Céline Bilahorka

It has always reflected the prestige and power of the bishops of Lyon. Guarded by an appointed dignitary, its location changed many times before being partly exhibited in the Manécanterie. It included both the precious objects used for worship and those used to adorn the building. We can only imagine the splendor of this treasure trove built up over the centuries.

It was, in fact, partly destroyed in 1562 when Calvinists led by François de Beaumont, better known as the Baron des Adrets, plundered the church in reprisal for the massacre of Protestants by the Duc de Guise.

Détail d'aiguière de Joseph Fesch

© Centre des monuments nationaux / Clément Apffel

On this occasion, the cathedral's statues were stripped of their heads, and François de Beaumont seized the precious objects so he could pay his troops to return to the campaign trail.

In addition, the melting down of precious metals, ordered to meet the financial needs of the French kingdom under Louis XIV and Louis XV, finally stripped the cathedral of its treasures.

However, a new treasure was found at the beginning of the 19th century, thanks to Cardinal Fesch, Archbishop of Lyon from 1802 to 1814 and Napoleon's uncle, which buys multiple precious objects and works of art. The treasure will be completed by donations from Monseigneur de Bonald, archbishop from 1840 to 1870.


Portrait du Cardinal Fesch

© Centre des monuments nationaux / Clément Apffel

In 1937, a project to exhibit the treasure was conceived. It opened to the public in June 1939, but the declaration of war in September forced it to close temporarily. Finally entrusted to the Centre des Monuments Nationaux, the treasure of Lyon Cathedral reopened its doors in 2000. The upper room of the manécanterie is now the treasure's showcase, displaying the various archaeological pieces, mainly liturgical objects, in different display cases.

Salle des collections du Trésor

© Centre des monuments nationaux / Céline Bilahorka