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The Sunken Cathedral

Updated on November 30, 2012

There is a Breton legend that a cathedral sank to the bottom of the ocean when the ancient city of Ys was engulfed by the sea. The cataclysm was God's punishment on the wicked city for its terrible sins.

The legend has it that once every century, the Ys Cathedral rises from the sea. Witnesses hear the sounds of unearthly music, and the sonorous chanting of the priests, before the cathedral slowly disappears into the ocean again.

Claude Debussy was so taken with this legend that he wrote a piano prelude entitled "The Sunken Cathedral."


One night off Brittany the lookout pointed,

"See, Captain! Where the waves are white with froth!

The ocean thrashes like Leviathan,

And lights below the water! See them move!"

No sooner had he said it, than a sound

Like thunder burst from out the sea,

The ship beneath us trembled with a chord

Vibrating from the floor of the abyss:

Benedictus es, Dòmine!


"Cathedral spires -- another spire, another!

A forest rising from the sea to heaven!

It is the ancient holy place of Ys

That sank beneath the anger of our God,

That capitol whose sin caused it to drown,

That perished in one awful inundation.


"Saint Christopher and Brigid intercede,

That we survive this strange and holy sign!

The torment of these phosphorescent waves,

This unearthly shivering of bells!

Or else like sinners long ago we die,

Plunging headfirst into this our doom,

Lest this cathedral ever be our home,

These fretwork towers glittering like stars,

These doorways pouring water from the depths!


Ah, Jesu, grant us just one friendly breeze

To speed us from the boiling of this sea,

This place too near Your gates, O King of Heaven,

This home of spirits, not for human eyes!

Forgive us now our sins, Lord of the earth,

We whose hands and mouths are filthy pots,

Return us to our homes, and let us learn

The lesson of this vision, and be clean!"


"Now sailors, cross yourselves in fear of God,

Lest even this be too much like a dream,

This miracle that never comes again

To any man a second time in life.

Remember it, when doubts assail your souls,

This fading chant that freezes like the snow,

The strangeness of these whispers on the air,

The terror of the rising of the dead!"

Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto,

Sicut erat in principio, et nunc,

et semper, et in saecula saeculorum!


Many thanks to Timothy Barsotti for permission to share his beautiful video and performance in this hub.

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    • mollymeadows profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Strain 

      5 years ago from The Shire

      Thank you, Nell! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    • mollymeadows profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Strain 

      5 years ago from The Shire

      Thank you, Nell! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      5 years ago from England

      I have never heard of this legend before, but I love your piece, this was amazing! voted up and shared! nell

    • mollymeadows profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Strain 

      5 years ago from The Shire

      Thank you, Xstatic! It was too romantic a legend to resist. If you haven't heard it already, follow the link I left for Theresa to hear Debussy's treatment. It really is wonderful.

    • xstatic profile image

      Jim Higgins 

      5 years ago from Eugene, Oregon

      Legends are wonderful stories, kept alive by thr retelling. You have retold this one beautifully and poetically.

    • mollymeadows profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Strain 

      5 years ago from The Shire

      Thank you, Theresa! I appreciate the read and you're very kind to share. I didn't feel the poem was really complete without Debussy's piece, but I couldn't get permission to display a video. Here's the link to the video I wanted to use. Treat yourself and listen to the piano prelude. It just makes you see it:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zJgL3uS43zA

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 

      5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Molly- This was simply splendid. Loved the legend (although I had never heard about it before), the pictures, and the verse. Like Mhatter, I found it strangely romantic as well as powerful and melancholy. Great work. Sharing.

    • mollymeadows profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Strain 

      5 years ago from The Shire

      Thank you, Teaches! I appreciate your visit! It was such a romantic legend, I couldn't resist. I was going to include a You Tube video of the Debussy piece at the end, but couldn't get the permissions. I'm glad you enjoyed the poem.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      5 years ago

      Your photo posts are really awesome and make the poem come to life. Inspirational and breakthaking poem!

    • mollymeadows profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Strain 

      5 years ago from The Shire

      Thank you, Gypsy, for reading and for passing the poem on. I'm glad you enjoyed it!

    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 

      5 years ago from Riga, Latvia

      Voted up and beautiful. Spiritually wonderful poem. Great pics and much enjoyed. Passing this on.

    • mollymeadows profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Strain 

      5 years ago from The Shire

      Irish, you're very kind. If you haven't heard it already, check out Debussy's piano prelude online. It will just take you there. Thank you for looking in!

    • shiningirisheyes profile image

      Shining Irish Eyes 

      5 years ago from Upstate, New York

      Fantastic read. Includes all the emotions as well, spine tingling dread, awe inspiring faith and amazing beauty while providing a prophetic symbolism.

    • never ben married profile image

      never ben married 

      5 years ago

      Music to my eyes, that's what this read was for me... just beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

    • mollymeadows profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Strain 

      5 years ago from The Shire

      Hi Always! And you're always so kind. The legend and the piano composition just spoke to me. I was saying before, I only just heard the Debussy piece a few months ago and was completely mesmerized. The music just paints a picture. If you get a chance, check it out on You Tube. There are lots of wonderful renditions.

    • mollymeadows profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Strain 

      5 years ago from The Shire

      Hi Blossom! Thanks for the read! It's possible that the legend was based on some cataclysm long ago. The story was so haunting and lovely that I couldn't resist a riff. A cathedral rising from the ocean...what a mental image!

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 

      5 years ago from Southern Illinois

      Thi is very beautiful and spiritual, Thank you for sharing..

    • BlossomSB profile image

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 

      5 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      I'd heard about that legend and a matching one on the shores of Cornwall, so I guess they're both Celtic legends. It's a great story - I wonder if it's based on something that actually happened?

    • mollymeadows profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Strain 

      5 years ago from The Shire

      Hi, Mhatter -- thanks for looking in! I listen to a classical music station and heard the piece for the first time a few months ago. It was just magical and inspired me to write the poem. :-)

    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 

      5 years ago from San Francisco

      Strangely romantic, in keeping with the original legend. Thank you. I first learned of it when learning piano piece by Debussy.

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