The cathedral town of Cahors in the Lot has a stunning location – nestled into the curve of a cingle, or a u-shaped meander of the river Lot. The Cathédrale Saint Etienne de Cahors is the oldest of a small group of churches in Western France that featured domes instead of vaults over the nave. The others are the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre d’Angoulême, the Cathédrale Saint Front de Périgueux, and the royal abbey church of Fontevraud. The cathedral in Cahors is a large, well-preserved mostly Romanesque structure. It was dedicated by Pope Calixtus II in 1119, but the church was probably not finished at that time.
Upon entering from the west, one is immediately struck upon by the huge, well-illuminated nave, which measures 144 feet long and 66 feet wide. Unusually, there is no transept.
The nave is covered by two massive Byzantine-style hemispherical domes, 105 feet high. They rest on pendentives, supported by gigantic pilasters. The inner surfaces of the two large domes were covered by coats of plaster and painted because the construction was not of sufficiently high quality to leave them bare. In Angoulême and Périgueux, the stonework of the domes was beautifully finished and left unplastered.
Saint Etienne was damaged by earthquake in 1303 and the apse was rebuilt, this time in the Gothic style, but it harmonizes well with the rest of the church. Where the nave has plain whitewashed walls, the apse is filled with painted walls and columns and brilliant with stained glass windows. And like many other churches and cathedrals from this time, the apse is not on the exact same axis as the nave; it inclines slightly to the south.
The apse’s Gothic mass is mounted on the Romanesque base. We can see the lower level with eight columns topped by sculpted capitals that support the rounded arches in the walls. Above are the mass of stained glass windows at the second level and the smaller windows of the clerestory level.
There is a fine Flamboyant Gothic cloister attached to the north wall of the church. It was built in 1504 by the presiding bishop, Antoine de Luzech. In this shot, we can see the western towers and the nave cupolas. There is a mathematical curiosity associated with the cloister; the surface area of the courtyard is strictly equal to the surface area of the gallery that surrounds it.
Cahors was an important center of religious and political life and was assailed continuously in the wars of the region. For this reason, the exterior of church looks much like a fortress, dominating the old town of Cahors with the buildings covered with red tiles. The west side looks like the great westwerks of the German churches, then we see the two great domes over the nave, each mounted on a large ashlar drum. Finally, we see the Gothic apse, protected by towers of its own.
The interior of the cathedral, however, preserves within its great mass a beauty and sense of dignity. This is fully in keeping with its importance as the seat of a powerful Bishop, who was also granted the ex-officio titles of Count and Baron of Cahors.
So what does this post have to do with tomatoes? When we returned last fall, we arrived late morning to find the square of the cathedral crowded with the activity of the local marché. While we waited for the square to clear, we decided to have a light lunch at the outdoor tables of a small bar a couple of blocks away. It was at that time that we made a major discovery.
I ordered a salade périgourdine, a simple regional dish of lettuce, tomatoes, gesiers de canard, and walnuts, garnished with garlic and walnut oil. I bit into one of the tomatoes and was astonished. I quickly asked PJ to taste hers and the response was the same – this was a miraculous tasting experience. It was sweet, ripe and full of a rich, concentrated “tomato-ness”. It was at this moment we understood why the tomato is classified as a fruit and not a vegetable, despite an 1893 US Supreme Court ruling.
The second discovery we made that day was the sculpture of the Romanesque north portal, hidden away on an alley next to a driving school. This remarkable work will shortly receive a post of its own.
Location: 44.447293° 1.442978°