The Chapelle Saint Gabriel… Scavenger hunt anyone ?

Chapelle Saint Gabriel and the Roman city “Ernaginum”.

The “Chapelle Saint Gabriel” was one of the earliest registered historical monuments back in 1840 along with Saint Trophime in Arles, another architectural jewel  and possibly by the same architect.  It was built on a rocky perch late in the 12th century from the riches made by the transportation of goods through the area.


Standing directly in front of the Chapelle Saint Grabriel, take a few moments to observe the following :

  • The contrast between the highly decorative facade and the starkness of the remaining edifice
  • The main portal, with its elaborate triple surround, the carved borders, and the two columns topped by ornate cornices
  • Just above the door, on the left of the half circle, Daniel and the Lion (prophet from the old testament). On the right of the half circle, Adam and Eve with the serpent.  Looking down from above, an angel pulling the prophet Habaquq.
  • In the upper half of the façade, notice the magnificent central rosette with the four elements representing the four evangelists (Tetramorph).  The cross-shaped representation is actually a very rare style of Tetramorph.  The eagle unfortunately has lost his head.  Not to be missed is the intricate double border that includes very well-preserved figure heads.
  • In the triangular-shaped decoration above the main door, you will see a representation of the Annunciation and Visitation to the Virgin Marie. This is topped by the symbolic sacrificial lamb which was relocated to this position when the front entrance was modified. Notice the spelling of “GABRIHEL” with the added H inscribed above the figures.
  • Finally, peeking in from the back of the church, reflect on the plainness of the interior in contrast to its highly decorative main facade.


The chapel, dedicated to Saint Gabriel and built by his wife  in memory of her husband Marcus Frontonius Euprous (Patron of “Utricularius” and the sailors of nearby Arles).  It is one of the finest examples of Roman Art in Provence. Should you visit inside the chapel, the funerary ornament with its inscription is located in the back on the right side of the chapel.  Open every first Sunday of the month from April to October,  or alternatively you can grab the keys from the Tourist Office in Tarascon Tél. : 04 90 91 03 52.

“Tour Carrée du Castrum de St-Gabriel”

Continuing upwards, on a rocky outcropping overlooking the chapel, you will find three towers.  These medieval towers – a main two-story tower with vaulted ceiling  and two smaller less well-preserved towers – were most likely built early in the 14th century. The restoration work leaves to be desired in my opinion, but then I am no expert.

Under the main tower is access to a subterranean river that feeds an aqueduct which in its Roman heyday brought fresh clear water to the city of Arles. There are many of these hidden entrances to subterranean rivers sprinkled throughout the region.

The towers were connected by ramparts in the past, surrounded by a moat, and joined by a small bridge. They were probably built to protect the access to the river underneath the main tower. Rumors has it that one of the building stones is inscribed with the word “HATHIQOM”, Hebrew for “Will you seek revenge?”  This seems to suggest there may have been Jewish prisoners held in the tower at some point in time.

The Roman city “Ernaginum” :

The site was first populated in the 5th century by the Romans on the marshy crossroads of three main trade arteries: the via Domitia, via Aurelia/Julia Augusta (note the beginnings of the now famous highway N7), and Via Agrippa.  This artery was strategic and quite important.


Assistance was needed for traders to traverse this marshy area that was created by the overflowing of the Rhone and the Durance rivers. This need translated directly to the creation and growth of  the ancient city of Ernaginum.

The “Utricularius” (transportation specialist of the day) assured the passage of goods to their final destination. Goods would be placed on wooden rafts and floated through the marshes on air-filled goat skins (kind of like an oversized leather bota bag). The city became quite prosperous, even more so than the nearby Glanum.  The site extended well over 2km along the rocky hills and persisted for several centuries.  The site lost its reason for being with the diversion and drying of the banks of the rivers that had flooded the area.

Ernaginum has all but disappeared; all that you find today is a lovely olive grove surrounding the Chapelle Saint Gabriel.  The stone that built the city was later excavated to build other structures in the area (Tarascon included). Traces of the quarry are still quite apparent behind the chapel.  If you take my hike  suggestion (see my previous post : Hiking Chapelle Saint Gabriel) you will quickly understand why this was such an ideal area to harvest stone.



Now for a little fun…  A scavenger hunt to test your skills of observation (and your eyesight)

Medieval stone masons have left their mark throughout the site.  The masons markings are clearly visible not only on the chapel both inside and outside, but even more obviously on the medieval towers above on the hillside. These marks were used by the masons to track their work and claim payment (they were paid by the finished piece).  Stone masons led nomadic lives – traveling far to find work. As a consequence, similar markings by potentially the same masons are found at Saint Paul Trois Chateau in the Rhone Valley.  Look around next time you visit a medieval stone structure (the ramparts of Aigue-Mortes and Avignon as an example), you are sure to see many more of these markings.

To note, the round symbol on the south side support column that looks like a partially divided pie is actually a sun quadrant with noon being the central downward line. Only the essential hours were marked : religious service hours and work hours. There is also some carved graffiti that also has nothing to do with anything other than bad manners.

How many of these types of marks can you find ???

If you find a few of these markings, send a picture and I’ll post it on the web !

If you scratch the surface just a little bit, you will find there are traces of Roman presence everywhere throughout Provence.  Nearby Arles, which was on the axe to Ernaginum, is particularly rich in this history.  A marble bust of Julius Caesar dating back to 46 B.C. was found there by divers in the Rhone River  a few years back.

I wonder what other unfound treasures lurk buried beneath the centuries…

Happy Travels,
-Girl Gone Gallic

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  4 comments for “The Chapelle Saint Gabriel… Scavenger hunt anyone ?

  1. January 16, 2016 at 7:39 am

    Great post! I didn’t know about this place until now.
    Very interesting story about the markings, I will pay attention when I see them!

    Thank you for joining #MondayEscapes 🙂

    • January 20, 2016 at 11:55 am

      Thank you! Once you start looking, you will be amazed at how much you will see these markings – they are really everywhere. I’d love to do even more research, quite fascinating!

  2. July 25, 2015 at 10:08 am

    Just cycled here today, trying to find Roman remains in the area; was impressed by the site. And by your post- it’s the most informative in English! I’m particularly interested in the markings- will keep an eye out!

    • August 7, 2015 at 10:47 am

      Send pictures if you find some of the markings – they intrigue me as well ! The Pont d’Avignon has several as well, and I see them almost everywhere now that I know what I am looking for ! Provence is such a beautiful place to explore by bike, enjoy 🙂

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