A Hidden Masterpiece of Cahors (Dennis Aubrey)


In our previous post about the Cathédrale Saint Etienne de Cahors, we showed the interior of this (mostly) Romanesque church. In the 14th century, it was damaged by an earthquake and major restructuring was done. A new Gothic apse replaced the original and the west front was completely redone. During the reconstructions, the entire western porch was moved around to the north side of the cathedral. Today it is hidden away in an alley.

The porch is a richly carved ensemble featuring a deep inset portal with in the center. The arches are slightly ogive. The double doors are separated by a simple trumeau supporting a lintel. Above the lintel is a large, masterful tympanum.

North portal, Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Cahors (Lot)  Photo by PJ McKey

North portal, Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Cahors (Lot) Photo by PJ McKey

Flanking the portal are engaged columns topped with capitals supporting an ornate blind arcade. Between the columns are carved rosettes, and above the arcade is a row of fantastical corbels.

North porch details - rosettes and capitals, Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Cahors (Lot) Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

North porch details – rosettes and capitals, Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Cahors (Lot) Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

The pride of the entire ensemble is the tympanum. In the center is a figure of Christ flanked by two dancing angels. On either side are scenes of the life and death of Saint Etienne, while below the apostles are seen in pairs.

Tympanum, Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Cahors (Lot) Photo by PJ McKey

Tympanum, Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Cahors (Lot) Photo by PJ McKey

The figure of Christ is shown in the traditional mandorla. In contrast to the rest of the tympanum, this is section simply rendered and the only real decoration is the border of hearts around the almond.

Tympanum detail, Christ in mandorla, Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Cahors (Lot)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

Tympanum detail, Christ in mandorla, Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Cahors (Lot) Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

The dancing angels on either side of the Christ are superb. This picture is of the right hand angel and the stylistic swaying of the body and the movement of the clothing is beautifully rendered.

Tympanum detail, dancing angel, Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Cahors (Lot) Photo by PJ McKey

Tympanum detail, dancing angel, Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Cahors (Lot) Photo by PJ McKey

Details of the life of Saint Etienne are shown in the panels around the figures of Christ and the angels. In this view, the top section shows the stoning of Saint Stephen. Notice the ornate carving in the decorative borders, especially the City of Jerusalem over the apostles.

Tympanum detail - Stoning of Saint Stephen,  Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Cahors (Lot) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Tympanum detail – Stoning of Saint Stephen, Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Cahors (Lot) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is one set of figures which are a bit out of character with the rest of the porch. The outer archivolt is decorated with strange scenes that are traditionally described as hunting and fighting. In this particular scene, it appears that one man is shoeing a horse while another is using a tool to set a bit.

Archivolt detail, Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Cahors (Lot) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Archivolt detail, Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Cahors (Lot) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This porch at Saint Etienne is a riot of sculptural invention that we have only begun to describe. To think that this entire structure was moved piece by piece from the western facade to its new place on the north beggars the imagination. We can only be glad that the builders who reconstructed the church after the earthquake thought that the porch was worth the enormous effort of relocating it and saved it for posterity.

Location: 44.447293° 1.442978°

10 responses to “A Hidden Masterpiece of Cahors (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. The sculptures of the dancing angel and the tympanum detail shine like their washed in gold. So beautiful. Next time I hear ‘How many angels can dance on the head of a pin’ I’ll imagine them twisting and swaying as they do in Cahors.

    • Kalli, what can we say about the artistry? We must remember that this was again all new in Europe – the art had been all but lost in the previous centuries. So we see not only artistry, but discovery. Thanks for your thoughts on this.

  2. this one of the place I loved best, but my canon auyofocus was unglued anf thus all pictures were out of focus… till repaired…

    I hope I’ll be there one day…

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