Poitiers’ Angevin Masterpiece (Dennis Aubrey)


Seldom has a marriage union proved so devisive.

On July 25, 1137 the French King Louis VII married a 15 year old girl, Elienor, Duchess of Aquitaine and Countess of Poitiers. He was pious, devout, and rather unintelligent while she was brilliant, beautiful, headstrong, and passionate. She complained afterward that she had thought she had married a king but had instead married a monk.

Elienor accompanied Louis on the Second Crusade where her behavior scandalized her husband and just about everyone else who took part in the adventure. After a military disaster against the Turks, they returned to France and were granted an annulment in 1152. The children were accorded legitimacy and Louis took custody.

Polychrome effigy, Elienor of Aquitaine, Abbaye Royale de Fontevrault, Fontevrault l'Abbaye (Maine-et-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Polychrome effigy, Elienor of Aquitaine, Abbaye Royale de Fontevrault, Fontevrault l’Abbaye (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Elienor, now 30 and still a beauty, was the object of several suitors. Two tried to kidnap her, but she married the young Count Henri of Anjou eight weeks after her annulment. Two years later Henri became King Henry II of England. His holdings, including Anjou, the Aquitaine, and England, were the greatest in Europe. These continental holdings of the King of England precipitated a series of fifteen great wars that can only said to have ended 760 years later in the holocaust of trench warfare that was World War I.

Polychrome effigy, Henry II of England, Abbaye Royale de Fontevrault, Fontevrault l'Abbaye (Maine-et-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Polychrome effigy, Henry II of England, Abbaye Royale de Fontevrault, Fontevrault l’Abbaye (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But there was something positive in the union, and that was the marriage of Poitou Romanesque and Angevin Gothic architecture. France is filled with these monuments, but perhaps the masterpiece is in Elienor’s home in Poitiers, the Cathédrale Saint Pierre.

Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The cathedral has several elements that mark it as firmly in the tradition of Poitou Romanesque. The richly sculpted west façade is one – in this case, the Resurrection tympanum of the central portal, executed in Gothic style. Notice the lintel at the base of the tympanum with its figures of the dead rising from their graves.

West central portal, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

West central portal, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The second is the interior structure – like most of its brethren, it is a hall church with wide side aisles the same height as the nave. Perhaps it is this that gives Saint Pierre the sensation of enormous size. The vaulting is also quite interesting Angevin addition. Each bay has a transverse ogive arch separating it from the next and the ribs divide the vault into eight sections.

Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Poitiers (Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The east end (chevet) is completely flat, not rounded like most Romanesque and Gothic structures. In addition the transepts are very short. Because of the width of the nave and side aisles and the soaring arcade arches of the three bays, the nave gives an impression of open spaciousness. The vaults allowed for large windows and the cathedral is full of light.

Transept,  Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

Transept, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

The choir is filled with light as well. The 13th century choir stalls feature misericords filled with carved figures. Like most Gothic churches, the capitals topping the high columns are decorated with floral as opposed to historiated scenes.

Choir, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

Choir, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

The wide side aisles give fine vistas along the length of the church. Each is almost a miniature of the nave except that the exterior wall is richly decorated with blind arches. There are side chapels echeloned on either side of the apse, but no trace of them can be seen from the outside because the flat east wall is so thick.

Side aisle, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

The single most magnificent feature of this cathedral is the Crucifixion window at the center of the flat chevet, a large (8.45 x 3 meters) stained glass ensemble from Suger’s Saint Denis atelier. It is described by Robert Grinnell as having “an Ascension lunette at the top, a large Crucifixion register in the center, and a smaller quatrefoil in the lowest register containing a Visitation to the Sepulcher, the Martyrdom of SS Peter and Paul, the resurrection of Adam and Eve, and a donor’s lobe with a badly mutilated inscription in the bottom panel.” [Robert Grinnell, Iconography and Philosophy in the Crucifixion Window at Poitiers (The Art Bulletin V. 28 No. 3, September 1946)]

The window is located in the oldest part of the structure and ascribed to the second half of the 12th and the first quarter of the 13th century. The iconography is so compelling and powerful that I find it difficult to describe, and for this reason the image we posted is of higher resolution than normal to allow readers to inspect it closely. But let me draw your attention to one thing beyond the brilliance of the reds and blues – the image of the crucified Christ is not an image of suffering as we would expect. Instead, the saddened Christ seems to be embracing the world with eyes open and arms outstretched, beyond the pain and suffering and already taking on his role as Redeemer. This is an astonishing depiction and gives the window a sublime majesty.

Crucifixion window, Cathédrale Saint Pierre

Crucifixion window, Cathédrale Saint Pierre

One thing we have always liked about Poitiers is that it has kept its provincial roots alive. Dorothy Noyes Arms observed that “the whole atmosphere of the town was dignified, scholarly and devout; we felt we were among a people whose entire being was centered in their intellectual and family life and in the expression of their religious beliefs.” We found much the same a century later – the people are devout and justly proud of their medieval architectural heritage. And these churches are not just monuments, but living parts of the community. For a Poitevin to be baptized in the Baptistere Saint Jean is an honor and our friend Thérese Gayet is a lifelong member of the parish of Sainte Radegonde. And the Cathédrale Saint Pierre shows its ties to the community as well, as in the bronze statue of the eponymous Saint rubbed to brightness by the touch of thousands.

Statue of Saint Peter, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Poitiers (Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Statue of Saint Peter, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The great square outside the southern porch is home to countless soccer games among the youth of the town, as evidenced by the additions to the exterior sculpture. At any time there are at least half a dozen balls adorning the cathedral.

Modern addition to exterior sculptures, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

Modern addition to exterior sculptures, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

The corner stones of the Cathédrale Saint Pierre were laid by Elienor and Henry at the same time that Louis VII began his Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris. It is a testament to the endurance of art that both cathedrals outlasted seven centuries of war that followed the marriage uniting England, Anjou, and the Aquitaine. Perhaps spiritual fatigue after such slaughters requires the soul’s solace. And where better can that be found than in such a masterpiece as Saint Pierre and contemplation of the Redeemer in glass “blue as profound as sapphires and a crimson that glows like blood-red rubies…”?

Location: 46.580296° 0.349462°

20 responses to “Poitiers’ Angevin Masterpiece (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Another masterpiece of history and photography! (Having logged more than 20 years as a soccer coach, I particularly liked the image of the soccer ball ensconced in the sculpture.)

  2. Great piece! The demo is coming along nicely. Can’t wait to share it with you soon. Currently taking a mini-break with the boys in Asheville, NC and nearby Smokey Mtns. Regards, –David

    Sent from my Mobile Device

  3. Thank you for a great demonstration. A less known collegiate church, connected with the Angevins is Saint-Martin in Candes (just 5 Km. from Fontevraut in the Touraine).

  4. Thank you again and again, Dennis, this time on behalf of my daughter Lisa who studied in Poitiers, stepson Jeff who coaches soccer and grandchildren Wes and Amani who love knocking those balls around!!!

  5. Plucky student at UC Santa Cruz spent junior year studying film semiology and art history at Universite de Poitiers plus sculpture at Ecole des Beaux Arts. It served her well. She came back to earn credits on George Lucas films.

    I’m a novice here, Dennis, but while I have you on the line, am interested in hand signal blessings used in religious art such as that shown here by Saint Peter. Do you know a good reference where I can study them further? As always, many thanks.

    Judy

    • Judy, so sorry it took so long to respond, but I thought I had already done so. One book you can use is Gertrude Grace Sill’s “A Handbook of Symbols in Christian Art”, which is a great primer for the subject.

  6. It’s pretty much insane to allow balls being kicked in, nice touch of disrespect. I guess for locals who see this place everyday is like hamburger chain for North Americans..

    • Thanks, Aquila. This Cathédrale Saint Pierre is worth a visit if you return to the land of your ancestors. The effigies are at Fontevraud-l’Abbaye, which is about an hour north of Poitiers.

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