Collégiale de Candes-Saint-Martin (Sara Lutan-Hassner)


The small village of Candes-Saint-Martin is located in western France, en route from Tours to Chinon, on the border of three regions – Anjou, Maine and Touraine – close to Fontevraud (about 5 km). The reputation of Candes is tightly connected with the death of St. Martin, in November 397. Although the enigma of its collegiate church is not entirely unveiled, its dimensions, its topographic setting, as well as its remarkable sculptural programs and assumed patrons, illustrate the way a Medieval work of art elucidates itself and guides the scholar through the unknown pages of its historical and artistic biography.

Based on art-historical data and examined in the historical context of the Angevin Empire, it might be assumed that in the course of its construction and decoration St. Martin in Candes may have been mostly under the Plantagenet domain: Henry II (since 1154 king of England, Duke of Aquitaine, Count of Anjou, Maine and Touraine), Queen Eleanor, and their sons Richard the Lionheart and John Lackland. From the 1180s until the last quarter of the 13th century France witnessed the decline of the Angevin Empire and the severe crisis between Henry II and his sons, which led to a fierce war of succession and finally brought about its end. From 1204, when Philip Augustus defeated John and annexed Anjou, Maine, and Touraine, St. Martin in Candes was integrated into the Capetian royal domain.

The northern main façade (fortified in the 15th century) and two-story northern porch constitute the most imposing part of the edifice, where the major sculptural programs are located.

Collégiale de Candes-Saint-Martin, Candes-Saint-Martin (Indre-et-Loire) Photo by Marc Hassner

Collégiale de Candes-Saint-Martin, Candes-Saint-Martin (Indre-et-Loire) Photo by Marc Hassner

They continue into the inner church where they are carved on capitals, consoles, corbles and key-stones of the nave, the transept, and the choir, making their iconographic ensemble problematic to decipher.

Interior, northern aisle, Collégiale de Candes-Saint-Martin, Candes-Saint-Martin (Indre-et-Loire) Photo by Marc Hassner

Interior, northern aisle, Collégiale de Candes-Saint-Martin, Candes-Saint-Martin (Indre-et-Loire) Photo by Marc Hassner

The association of St. Martin in Candes with royal patrons is supported, mainly, by its architecture and the royal iconography of its sculptural programs. The two-level northern porch conforms to a well-established imperial tradition. Its upper story comprises a rib-vaulted hall-chapel dedicated to Saint Michael. Its ground level is dominated by a multi-ribbed vault supported by a central column

Northern porch, Collégiale de Candes-Saint-Martin, Candes-Saint-Martin (Indre-et-Loire) Photo by Marc Hassner

Northern porch, Collégiale de Candes-Saint-Martin, Candes-Saint-Martin (Indre-et-Loire) Photo by Marc Hassner

Thus, although it draws elements from the massive Carolingian Westwerk, the double northern façade in Candes seems to constitute, rather, a monumental Northwerk that may have served as a royal portal for local dignitaries.

The exterior northern wall, which faces the confluence of the Vienne and Loire rivers is incomplete. Nevertheless, its upper part is dominated by a gallery of fourteen frontal figures of haloed saints.

Northern porch, Collégiale de Candes-Saint-Martin, Candes-Saint-Martin (Indre-et-Loire) Photo by Marc Hassner

Northern porch, Collégiale de Candes-Saint-Martin, Candes-Saint-Martin (Indre-et-Loire) Photo by Marc Hassner

Among the figures we can identify Saint Theodore (or Saint George), Saint James, Saint Denis and Saint John the Baptist.

Seven stairs lead today into the inner porch of the northern façade, which leaves too, like the exterior wall, a general impression of incompleteness. Its sculptural program covers three main areas: the tympanum and the sculpted inner left archivolt, a row of statutes on either side of the central door, and the socles. The tympanum displays a local depiction of The Last Judgment that echoes the well known scenes of the early Gothic cathedrals (St. Denis, Chartres, Reims). The single sculpted archivolt consists of four scenes sculpted in individual miniature “architectural shells.” The lower scene to the left presents a blessed royal couple on its way to Heaven, led by a large, high ranking clerical figure, while two angels shelter them under their large wings.

Northern porch, left archivolt, lower scene, Collégiale de Candes-Saint-Martin, Candes-Saint-Martin (Indre-et-Loire) Photo by Marc Hassner

Northern porch, left archivolt, lower scene, Collégiale de Candes-Saint-Martin, Candes-Saint-Martin (Indre-et-Loire) Photo by Marc Hassner

The lower area of the inner porch features a row of saints who relate to the figure of Christ on the tympanum in a manner reminiscent of the jamb statues around the “Beau-Dieu” in the great Gothic cathedrals. They wear haloes and their postures and attire indicate high social or clerical ranks.

Northern porch, figures on right side of the central door, Collégiale de Candes-Saint-Martin, Candes-Saint-Martin (Indre-et-Loire) Photo by Marc Hassner

Northern porch, figures on right side of the central door, Collégiale de Candes-Saint-Martin, Candes-Saint-Martin (Indre-et-Loire) Photo by Marc Hassner

The socles are topped with nine male and female sculpted heads (four of them crowned), of various ages and both genders, set within floral frames.

Northern porch, right socle, Collégiale de Candes-Saint-Martin, Candes-Saint-Martin (Indre-et-Loire) Photo by Marc Hassner

Northern porch, right socle, Collégiale de Candes-Saint-Martin, Candes-Saint-Martin (Indre-et-Loire) Photo by Marc Hassner

The foliage clusters beneath them are populated with monsters and hybrid creatures, some of them devouring human heads . Their place in the portal’s hierarchical program of the Last Judgment, beneath the images of the saints, not only identifies them as among the blessed, but also follow a long pictorial tradition of reflecting the Christological concept of heavenly and earthly hierarchies, usually enhanced by royal patrons.

Northern porch, left socle, detail;  a young girl of the court, Collégiale de Candes-Saint-Martin, Candes-Saint-Martin (Indre-et-Loire) Photo by Marc Hassner

Northern porch, left socle, detail; a young girl of the court, Collégiale de Candes-Saint-Martin, Candes-Saint-Martin (Indre-et-Loire) Photo by Marc Hassner

The images of royal figures in Candes, molded with unusual attention to detail, constitute a rather unique appearance. As a group they gains a new collective significance, far more expanded, profound and concrete than that of each image individually. Seen thus, they bear a definite associative power to the traditional image of the Tree of Jesse, whose earliest depictions (ca. 1140-1150) are believed to be found in the windows of St. Denis and Chartres cathedrals, as well as on the western façade of Notre-Dame–la-Grande in Poitiers. I postulate that while reading the individual images from right to left, one may identify members of a unified royal succession: the founder ,the king and queen (sharing identical, geometric-patterned crowns and similar features), the loving couple, the prince and princess (wearing floral crowns, ) and the young children of the court. The Tree of Jesse was often used by patrons during the 12th and 13th centuries, as a means of political and religious strategy to enhance simultaneously their royal and ecclesiastical images.

The images above the sculpted heads, in ten arched niches, seem significant for the figures below: an amorous pair of birds, a fully dressed knight slaying a dragon, a crowned merman playing the harp, and a mermaid with a fish behind her, holding her tail in her left hand . Some of them seem to be symbolic expressions of the historical and legendary attributes of the Plantagenets. The knight slaying the dragon recalls St. George, the patron saint of the English kings, who is associated with Richard the Lionheart. The peculiar depiction of the mermaid above the founder’s head possibly alludes to the often cited comment by Richard, “We came from the Devil and to the Devil we will return”, a reference to the legends about the demonic origins of both sides of the Angevin House.

It seems that the sculpted images of the collegiate church were part of a vast program initiated by the Plantagenets to portray their double nature as members of a noble and royal dynasty, as Angevin counts and as Anglo-Norman kings. The “two bodies” of the Plantagenet dynasty grew out of both noble and royal roots. On the one hand, they were the descendants of local Angevins nobles – the Dukes of Anjou, Maine, and Touraine, and on the other, of the Kings of England. The collegiate church of St. Martin was built during a turbulent period in the history of the region. Situated at the core of the Plantagenet dominions, Candes was caught in a lengthy conflict between the Plantagenets and the Capetians. This was also a period of severe political and family crises for the Plantagenets, among them: the murder of Thomas Becket and his canonization two years later (in 1172); the rebellion of Henry’s sons against him, headed by their mother, Eleanor, in 1174; the ensuing imprisonment of Eleanor in England for the next ten years; and the death of young King Henry in 1183.

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

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


Additional depictions of royalty in the Angevin kingdom suggest that the royal busts sculpted on the socles of the collegiate church in Candes can be associated with an even larger program that may represent a successive dynastic group (The Crucifixion Window in St. Pierre cathedral in Poitiers [See Dennis Aubrey’s post on Poitiers’ Angevin Masterpiece. Via Lucis Photography, 27.7.13], or the Plantagenets tombs at Fontevraud ). The goals and meanings of these programs can be compared to the literary campaigns led by Henry II and his court.

Their visual patterns plausibly echo Plantagenet courtly ideology and dynastic awareness. Angevin genealogical literature during the 12th century, in both England and Anjou, as laudatory and flattering as it may have been, could not set the Anjou dynasty on a par with the long since famous Capetians, who did not need to consolidate their royal origins or courtly rights. Obviously, in shaping their new dynastic perception, the Plantagenets found it essential not only to glorify and commemorate their noble origins as counts of Anjou, Maine and Touraine and dukes of Normandy and Aquitaine, but also to reinforce their royal descent as kings of England.

Though powerful in the latter capacity, in France they were still subordinate to the king of France, to whom they had to pay homage. By enhancing their royal lineage, the Plantagenets presented a royal dynasty comparable to the indisputable, time-honored dynastic conception of their utmost rivals, the Capetians. Their dynastic consolidation was most likely underpinned by visual representations that turned their dynastic awareness into a highly useful political tool in their struggle for courtly recognition in France.

Location: 47.211108° 0.073893°

Biographical sketch for Sara Lutan-Hassner

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