The Roman Town of Iluro:The first christians

The remains of the first christians in Béarn  Oloron from the fourth to sixth century

Oloron is the town with the most Christian remains in Pyrénées Atlantiques


In June 2001, during the restoration of the tympanum of the roman gateway of the cathedral, it became necessary to remove a slab of marble bearing the image of the Virgin Mary. Then – wonderful surprise – on the hidden face sprang out the god Mars. The master mason in the 12th Century needed a beautiful stone to complete his work. His eye fell on a nearby block which had only been used on one side.  Having sculpted the mother of God, he cut the heroic image of the idol in order to fit it between two slabs.  So Mars remained hidden. He had probably been part of the temple which had preceded the cathedral.  There he would have received homage from the first Oloronais who were at that time pagans. Two copies of this exceptional sculpture had previously been made: one is not far from here, in the passage Mgr Saurine ; the other is exhibited at the archaeological museum.


Tracked down by Anne and Pierre-Louis Giannerini in 1989, this sarcophagus decorated the rear courtyard of a house, like a coat-of-arms.  Dating from the beginning of the IVth century, it has without doubt been taken from the rubble of the old necropolis. In fact, since the Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Tolerance in 313, a notable  Oloronais was able to buy in Rome or in the Pyrenees, a luxurious paleo-Christian vault to witness to his new religion.  The first scene shows the young Christ, his lovely face beardless, multiplying the loaves in the basket held by the apostle Peter. In the second sequence (detail), other figures, tense and astonished, watch a miracle, missing here, « Abraham’s sacrifice ». Finally, a last piece – not shown – represents the prophet Daniel in the lions’ den. These parts of the sarcophagus may be seen in the archaelogical museum at the Maison du Patrimoine (Heritage Museum), thanks to the donation of the owner, Alice Bordenave.


Archaeological excavations were undertaken in 2005 on the site of the Roman necropolis.  At that point, further tombs dating back to the Merovingian period (VI to VII centuries) were discovered. Luc Wosny, in charge of the excavation, explained that trapezoidal sarcophagi “frequently decorated with a cross may be a key indicator of increasing Catholic influence”. In fact, a Greek cross is still visible on the pitch of the cover of one of the graves.  The tomb accommodated three Christians and some rich furnishings, notably a magnificent glass goblet.


In 1997, Pierre Castillou noticed in the building which accommodates the Artigarrède shop – creators of the succulent pastry « Le Russe » – a delicious sculpture. Removed from the wall and restored, it shows a seductive Eve and an anguished Adam. A true miracle, as it turned out to be a splendid section of a tomb dating from the time of the Emperor Constantine. The fortunate proprietor hoped that after his death, he would arrive in Paradise from which Adam and Eve had themselves been banished.  And the icing on the cake is that the sarcophagus can be seen in the pastry-shop at no 1, place de la Cathédrale  (Cathedral Square).


In 1986, an Education Action Project which linked the Tristan Derème College with Pau University took as its goal to initiate pupils into archaeology on the site of Robert Cauhapé’s farm.  The outcome was spectacular, since they discovered a Gallo-Roman villa in one of the most remarkable pieces of which a « Christian » oil-lamp found by a pupil.  The symbol you see between the two holes is an acronym formed from the first two letters of the name of Christ in Greek, Chi and Rho.  The grand owner of the villa was not afraid to let his visitors know that though his villa was literally lit by oil, figuratively it was Jesus who illuminated his life.


This sarcophagus bearing a cross confirms that a Christian community certainly existed during the Visigoth and Merovingian periods, when the first Bishop of Iluro was called Gratus.  We only know one thing about him: in the year 506, he took part in the Council of Agde along with all the bishops of Novempopulanie.  The agenda included the monitoring of the faithful, celibacy, fears of a return to paganism, and the conversion of the Jews . . .  In the life of Saint Grat, legends fortunately fill the gaps in history.  So don’t miss his statue in bronze, behind you, and his chapel in the cathedral.