Angers – Power and Prestige (Dennis Aubrey)


Angers is the prefecture of the department of the Maine–et–Loire now, but it has always been the seat of great power in France. Home of the powerful dukes of Anjou who became the Plantagenet kings of England, the city was built to demonstrate the power of its rulers. From the founder of Angevin power, Foulque Nerra who had to make three pilgrimages to Jerusalem to atone for his earthly sins to Henry II and Rene of Anjou, the rulers of this province have been among the most powerful in France and England.

The medieval city represents that power completely, from the massive fortifications that still surround the old city to the great Cathédrale Saint Meurice d’Angers and the Episcopal Palace that was the home of the Bishop of Angers, everything reinforced the image of power and prestige.

Cathédrale Saint Meurice, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

And there is nobody who better understands this power and prestige today than our guide from the office of the Conseil Général of the Maine-et-Loire, an intelligent and passionate advocate for the medieval arts of Angers and its surrounding areas. This man took a great deal of time to introduce us to the wealth of sumptuous Romanesque art in the region. The offices of the Conseil Général are located in the ancient Abbaye de Saint Aubin.

The cloister of the Abbey is a fragment of the original, but what a fragment! It features deep arches composed of five and six echeloned columns, each topped with beautifully carved capitals.

Cloister, Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

The centerpiece is a tympanum that combines superb sculpture with a fresco that interact in the story-telling.

Cloister tympanum, Abbaye de Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

In the following shot we can see one of the magi in the painted section offering a gift to the Virgin and Child above in the center of the sculpture.

Cloister tympanum detail, Abbaye de Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

As we were shooting, our guide asked if we knew about the refectory of the abbey, which we did not. When I asked if it was as impressive as the cloister, he could only roll his eyes. “Better?” I asked. He nodded. A few hours later we were taken to the refectory and we understood his enthusiasm. It is one of the most unique and powerful sculptural ensembles that PJ and I have ever seen from the Romanesque world.

Refectory tympanum, Abbaye de Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The elements of the sculptural ensemble were superb and filled with evocative details like the demons assailing an almost feminine-looking knight. It is also possible to see the wonderful remnants of polychrome from the original painting of the piece, which have survived only because the tympanum is indoors.

Detail, Refectory tympanum, Abbaye de Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The next day, we were introduced to the extraordinary Palais du Tau, the Bishop’s Palace behind the Cathédrale Saint Meurice. This deserves a post of its own and we’ll follow up in a few days.

✚ We were introduced to our guide in Angers by Marie-Laure and Jean-Gaël Cesbron, our very kind hosts at the Chambre d’Hotes where we stayed, the Manoir du Bois de Grez. The Manoir is a lovely site about ten miles from Angers and the ideal place for us to call home while we explored the region. When we go back next year, we shall surely return. ✚

19 responses to “Angers – Power and Prestige (Dennis Aubrey)

    • Janet, the sculpture in the Abbaye Saint Aubin is remarkable. We had no idea that there was so much Romanesque material in Angers – the Zodiaque book is sparse, but Surchamp gave a possible explanation. I remarked at one point in the conversation how lucky he was to have such access to the churches because of his status as a Benedictine monk. But he said that in many cases that worked against him because of the significant anti-clericalism that existed earlier in France. Most of the Romanesque structures in Angers seem to be in the hands of the secular world and that may explain it. When I talked to our guide about this, he said that there was a tremendous wealth of Romanesque material in the city. Next year when we go back we will contact him well in advance and plan our itinerary accordingly.

  1. How lucky you were to have found such a guide. I know how much research you do in advance of your visits, but hands-on help from a local has proved invaluable. Thanks for visiting my old Hambye pix, not worthy to sit beside yours, though I was quite proud of one or two of them at this time last year when they were taken.

  2. Denis, PJ, what a brillant piece,. This is my kind of architecture, and my kind of history, the era, and the culture and the famous personalities who dominated it- fascinates me. It is marvelous and magical , and with your photographs and acute commentary, you have brought it to life so beautifully, as always. I was particularly taken with you description of the almost feminine looking knight, being assailed by demons. One of the things that intrigues me about this age of history is the huge, unseen influence it has on subsequent culture, including even our own sometimes debased age. The patronage of Eleanor of Aquitaine for example, as you two know well, was critical in establishing – through Troubadour poetry for example- archetypes of chivalric and gentlemanly behavior, as well as romantic and courtly love. Such influence is so enormous it become invisable. we always look at history and culture through the “wrong end of telescope” as some writer once put it. Of course this knight is being assiled by evil and temptation, and what a visceral imaging of that notion. Thank you guys. Another triumph !

    • Arran, thanks so much for your post. The entire Romanesque era is the unknown renaissance, just as you suggest. At the beginning of the 11th century, European builders could barely vault a small church. Two centuries later they were building Gothic cathedrals with their own hard-won knowledge. In doing so they created an entire artistic vocabulary which speaks to us across nine centuries. Do you think that most of our current artists will be doing the same? I’ve written elsewhere that one of the wonderful things about these churches was that they took so long to construct and design that the intellectual currents that drove the builders were deep and powerful, not short, erratic eddies of fashion.

  3. I could not agree more Denis. This era is indeed the unknown renaissance, that is a very good way of describing it and thinking about it. Indeed I’m also tempted to agree with your value-judgements on the quality of artistic expression in the medieval, as opposed to the modern era, (although with some cautious reservations). Your point about the sheer duration of the building process contributing to superb artistic quality is well made and well taken. The selfless, God-centred, (as opposed to self- or people-centred) nature of the artists’ work also makes a huge difference. (These builders, master-masons and sculptors were of course praising God through their work – the work and art was itself a form of worship)
    Having said all that, I am glad we live in our own modern age, glad for Humanism, for the Enlightenment and all the other intellectual currents (and revivals) of the last 600 years. But of course I am a product of those very currents, so I too look at history “through the wrong end of the telescope” But I am still in love with these extraordinary buildings. I consider the church, abbey and cathedral art & architecture of Europe as our finest human cultural achievement to date. (and most unlikely to be bettered anytime soon, if ever.) I fear we have seen the best of ourselves. Where would the lost skills come from; the coherent vision, the universal language of faith and the Bible, (endlessly re-worked and re–imagined in new and more visceral ways) or or the selfless, obsessive motivation for all that mighty work. But perhaps we have also seen the worst of ourselves pass too: the Inquisitions, clerical immunity, trials and burning for heresy witch-huntings, drowning and burning (effectively church- sanctioned murder, very often of of midwives, herbalists, and other “threatening” independent women) . It is one of the great contradictions of history, that the monolithic faith of a united christian Europe- forcibly centred on the authority of Rome- produced endless masterpieces about faith, fear, nature, worship and love. Anyway, this is one of the dangers of your fascinating, beautiful work, it tends to be very thought-provoking too! Forgive my epic response I really should get back to my own work and leave you both in peace. Many thanks for all your wonderful work, and for your thoughtful reply. Respects from Ireland – Arran.

    • Your epic response is not only forgiven, but welcome, Arran.

      I do not believe that we possess a rose-colored vision of the Middle Ages and we are fully aware of what people are and were capable of, both good and evil. Our post on Beziers is probably witness to that.

      But we know that extraordinary things were happening in Europe in the 11th, 12th, and 13th Centuries, just as they happened in Greece during the Classical period, just as they happened in the Enlightenment. There are many reasons that these flowerings occurred, but we believe at least a partial explanation is that people came to believe in something greater than themselves. And when that happens, it triggers waves of discoveries as if a new vista had opened up in the distance.

      On a more personal level, however, we believe that a person becomes what that person believes. If you believe in something monstrous, that monstrosity becomes part of you. If you believe in something generous and profound, some of that becomes part of you. Why, then, would we not choose to believe in something strong and beautiful and profound?

      We believe that in this world we examine, people did believe in that something strong, beautiful, and profound, and it resulted in extraordinary achievements. It is the examination of the traces of those achievements that is our work.

      Thank you for your contribution to our work at Via Lucis, Arran. It is a gift.

  4. That is a very generous and considered response Denis, I thank you for it and I agree as always with much of what you say and, in terms of its thoughtful, distinctive and generous spirit, with of all of it. It’s a great and rare pleasure to encounter your work, this terrific, project and all the hundreds of hours you put in, it is always thought-provoking, challenging, beautiful and singular, so the gratitude is all mine. I look forward to reading nearly every post, and if I seem to be a silent audience at times, that’s only because I know that, if we start to discuss these marvelous places sometimes, places that you know so, so much better than I, but which we all love, then we, (or at least I) will never stop ! Always a pleasure, or more accurately, a privilege. thank you once again. Arran.

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