Tuesday, 5 July 2005

Facade of Notre Dame La Grande

After our long day yesterday, for the first time on this tour we didn't have a wake-up call, and were able to sleep in if we liked until we gathered for a walking tour of Poitiers at 10:15. We divided our group between two local guides at the city's tourism center, right across from the church of Notre Dame La Grande. Poitiers has seven churches dedicated to Notre Dame (Our Lady, i.e., the Virgin Mary), so they are distinguished by informal additions to the name: the Great (this one), the Small, the Old, the New, etc. The facade of this 11th- and 12th-century church, described as "a book in stone" for its depictions of scenes and individuals from the Old and New Testaments, was restored in 1992-1994. One unusual note is that, in the Nativity scene, Mary is depicted reclining on a bed as if she actually just gave birth, instead of, say, kneeling next to the manger containing Jesus as is more common.

Nave and organ

Here we are looking back down the nave, toward the great organ. Note the colorful paintings on the pillars; I asked why they were present here, given that Romanesque churches we've previously seen have been largely unadorned inside. It appears that this is mostly a matter of wear and tear; often there would have been decorations inside those churches, but they didn't survive the ravages of time and have not been restored. These patterns, inspired by Moorish geometric decorations (Islam, to avoid the risk of idolatry, frowned on representation of humans or animals in art), were recently restored; there were also 12th-century frescoes in the ceiling above the altar that had been cleaned but not restored. The outside of the church also used to be painted, and every summer night an image is projected on the facade for several minutes in order to show what it would have looked like originally. Many of our folks went to see this display this evening.

Our Lady of the Keys

In the middle of the church is this image of the Virgin holding some large keys: Our Lady of the Keys. This statue, and one of the church's stained-glass windows, is in reference to a legend from the time of a siege of the city by the English. The enemy had obtained the keys to the gates of the city from a traitor within; when this was discovered, the leaders prayed in the church, and miraculously the keys were returned. Then, goes the story, a vision of Mary accompanied by the patron saints of the city appeared to the English army, who went mad with fear and killed each other. The historical record has less of a happy ending for Poitiers: the French actually lost the battle, and their King was carried into prison in England until the French paid a large ransom to get him back. Well, it's a good story anyway.

Hall of Endless Pacing

Next we went to the former palace of the powerful Counts of Poitou, the Dukes of Aquitaine. Its great hall, built around 1200, is the largest medieval hall still in existence in France. It has three cavernous fireplaces at one end; the roof is a 19th-century restoration, and parts of it including the entrance were rebuilt around that time to house the Law Courts. As we listened to our guide, we saw a number of lawyers going from door to door on their business; the hall is so large that it used to be called the "hall of endless pacing." The palace dates to the 6th century; the great hall was built by Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry Plantagenet in the 12th century.

Outside of palace, wall, statue

The great hall of the palace is the church-looking structure to the right of this photo; the architect did a great job of disguising the flues for those vast fireplaces, integrating them into the stone around the windows. Here you can also see a segment of the original city wall, built on a Roman foundation, and also a statue of Joan of Arc. She was interrogated here in 1429 by the French before they would accept that she was on a mission from God. Not long after that she was allowed to fall into the hands of the English, who burnt her at the stake and solved a problem for the King of France, who had discovered she was more popular than he and a potential rival once she had outlived her usefulness in rallying his cause.

Facade of St. Peter's Cathedral

The Cathedral of St. Pierre (St. Peter) was constructed from 1162 to 1379, which is time enough for styles and governments to change. It was begun in a period when the region was independent of France, governed by the line of the Counts of Poitou, the Dukes of Aquitaine, in alliance with the English; the early Gothic style is also known as "English," "Plantagenet," or "Western" Gothic. By the time the facade shown here was built, the region had come under the sway of France, and the style shifted to match. The rose window above the central door is a copy of the one in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Also, the original idea was to honor Thomas Becket with sculptures over the rightmost door; by the time this door and its surroundings were built it would have been politically awkward to honor this Englishman, so it was done indirectly with the Apostle Thomas as the stand-in.

Singing in St. Peter's

As one of our two tour groups was going in to St. Peter's, we met the other one going out. Having the whole choir there, our local guide suggested we sing, so we all went back inside to sing "Cantate Domino Canticum Novum." The reverberations as we finished each phrase were wonderful! We always seem to sing this song on occasions like this, and we joke that we need to memorize another song or three; however, "Sing to the Lord a New Song" seems like an appropriate text for cathedrals, chapels, and other holy places where we've assembled for an impromptu song. (Thanks again to Steve Campbell for wielding my camera.)

Window over altar in St. Peter's

The main window at the east (older) end of the cathedral was overexposed in the previous photo; here is a more balanced picture. This window is very old, donated in 1170 by Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry Plantagenet; they are depicted at the bottom center (you can just see their heads above the railing), holding the upper part of the window. Aquitaine, a region covering much of the south of France, was as I mentioned independent of France in the twelfth century; Eleanor was the daughter of the last Duke, and has quite a story. Since the Duke had no sons, to prevent his domains from breaking apart after his death he married his daughter Eleanor (Aliénor) to the King of France, Louis VII, which brought the region into union with France. However, she decided to divorce him; since she bore him three daughters but no sons, he agreed, and they got the marriage annulled on the grounds that they were too closely related. She very quickly married Henry Plantagenet, who a couple of years later became King of England, shifting the alliance of the region to the west. She bore him four sons and four daughters; the sons are depicted in the window with their parents, and include Richard the Lionhearted and John Lackland, whom we probably know best from the legend of Robin Hood. We'll learn more about Eleanor tomorrow when we visit the Abbey of Fontevraud, where she spent the last decade of her long life. She lived to 82, about twice the average lifespan at the time; at the age of 72 she was still traveling Europe and involved in statecraft, arranging the marriage of one of her granddaughters to King Louis IX of France.

Nave and organ in St. Peter's

Here we are looking back down the nave toward the main entrance and rose window above it. The great organ, built by François Henri Cliquot in 1787-1791, is the last such instrument in France made before the Revolution, and is regarded as one of the finest. The dark wooden structure in the left foreground is one of the 13th-century benches for the monks, one of which stands on either side of the "choir," the central part of the church. The individual stalls have seats that fold up so the monks can stand, with a short "misericord" seat that was not visible from the nave. The name means "mercy," and allowed the monks to lean on something while, as seen from the nave, they appeared to be standing through an hours-long service!


After visiting the Cathedral of St. Peter, we walked back to the city tourist office to get briefed on tomorrow's activities, and then had the rest of the day at liberty. I returned to the hotel to take care of a few things, then joined several others for lunch rather late, around 2:30. Many restaurants were closed by this time, so we were getting fairly hungry by the time we found one open! The waiter only spoke a couple of words of English, and none of us had more than "phrasebook" French, but with some effort and good faith we were able to communicate and had a delicious lunch of beef stew and (most of us) Belgian beer. Then I went walking to see some more of the city; here is a view from the other bank of the river Clain, to the east. The city, founded as Lemonum by the Romans in 52 BC, is on a promontory surrounded by two rivers; as we've seen before, the Romans were pretty good at choosing defensible sites. To the right of center you can see the church of St. Radegonde, a 6th-century German princess who founded the first abbey in France (Gaul at the time) and who along with St. Hilaire (a 4th-century bishop of Poitiers) is patron of the city. The Cathedral is to the right of this.

Baptistery of St. John

The Baptistery of St. Jean (St. John, i.e., John the Baptist) is one of the oldest Christian sites in Europe, with the baptismal pool dating to the 4th century. Portions were rebuilt in and before the 11th century, and the building was saved from destruction in the 19th century and renovated; a good cleaning every thousand years doesn't do any harm, I guess! Inside are colorful frescoes from the 12th and 13th century, but photography wasn't allowed; again, I had to break out my "phrasebook" French (and a few gestures) to make sure I understood that the sign meant "no photography even without flash" rather than "no photography except without flash," which would have allowed me to use my usual technique of leaning against a wall or pillar for a long unflashed exposure.

City Hall

The City Hall was build in 1875, in the Renaissance style of the 17th century that was popular at the time. You'll notice that I post a lot more photos and text about portions of a city where we have a guide than portions that I "discover" solo. Some of us in the group occasionally feel overwhelmed by the flood of dates and names that a local guide will sometimes give us, but amongst all the data you get to hear some good stories! Throughout this trip I always have the feeling that each place we visit has many more stories than we have time to hear; I guess that's reason enough for a return trip on your own time!

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