Notre Dame la Grande is one of the great Romanesque churches in France and this is my favorite photograph of her. At the time, an elderly woman was preparing to light a candle in the radiating apsidal chapel in the distance. I thought it would be a fine shot and set up the camera and tripod, but when I was ready the woman had lit her taper and disappeared. I took the shot anyway and forgot about it.
North Side Aisle, Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey
It was not until the trip was finished and we returned home to the United States that I saw the shot for the first time and fell in love with it immediately. It captures for me the pure unadulterated spirit of Romanesque, the kind of architecture that is done by people who truly believed that their God was powerful, protective and enveloping.
There are ideas and beliefs embedded in these buildings. They did not merely evolve from earlier structures; conscious design decisions were made to reflect intangible thoughts and beliefs.
Nave, Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Romanesque architecture was a physical manifestation of a mystery, and to believers, explained the world and its mysteries. The soaring height was a tribute to the majesty and power of God above. The solid and thick walls, pierced by a series of arches, represented the strength of His love and protection of us. The cruciform layout of the transepts and nave represented the crucifixion, the windows represented the light of the Lord leading us from darkness and ignorance and fear.
Chancel, Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey
All structures led to the chancel, the altar where the mysteries of resurrection were enacted, where the humblest of believers could taste of that resurrection. The dark and mysterious narthex kept unbelievers and sinners at bay, separated from the faithful by great doors that led to the lighted interiors beyond.
Garden of Eden detail, west facade, Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey
The carved stones themselves spoke of sinners and saints, martyrs and demons. They spoke of mysteries of faith, each and every sin, and the path to redemption. They spoke of salvation and damnation, the ultimate verdict of the Last Judgment.
Side aisle windows, Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey
Later the windows told the stories in glorious panoplies of color with the light of God streaming through the stained glass to touch the very soul of the believers.
South side aisle, Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey
The church was a book, a testament, the record of their faith and beliefs, readable by every one of the faithful familiar with the stories of Balaam’s ass, David and Goliath, Sampson, Jacob’s Ladder, the Fall in the Garden of Eden, or the Flight to Egypt.
Sculpted west facade, Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey
The penalties of a life of sin on this earth were displayed over the doors on the great carved tympana, or in the case of Notre Dame la Grande, across the entire west facade. The judgment of God, the long lines of saints and the roiling and writhing agony of the sinners were expressed in lasting stone to remind us of the rewards and penalties that await each of us at the Judgment. Demons fed souls through the very maws of hell, the Devil cheated during the weighing of souls, even trying to capture a marginal soul by cheating, lest he lose one more to Paradise.
In this universe, it was not enough to barely get by; one had to believe wholly and completely, and the way to believe was writ large on these great buildings for all to see. There was never an excuse for ignorance. Guidance was available to all. Free will dictated the path taken by each soul and the judgment of God accepted no excuses.
The Église Notre-Dame-la-Grande in Poitiers is a magnificent Romanesque-Byzantine church from the 11th and 12th centuries. Its wide facade is flanked by pinecone-shaped towers and covered in carvings of saints and biblical scenes.
History of Notre-Dame-La-Grande
The early history of this fascinating church is something of a mystery, but the first recorded mention of it dates from 924 AD. The present Notre-Dame-la-Grande is thought to date from the late 11th century to the middle of the 12th century. The facade dates from the latter period. The church is not particularly large, so the name probably indicates there were less impressive churches dedicated to Our Lady in medieval Poitiers.
Since at least 1428, every Easter Monday a miraculous statue of the Virgin Mary known as the "Virgin of the Keys" was carried in procession around the ramparts of the town. This statue survives today and is kept in the choir of the church.
The church was thoroughly cleaned and restored in 1996; its stone is now a gleaming white. Interestingly, most of the dirt and damage to the facade was caused less by pollution and pigeon droppings than by the salt from the nearby market, which seeped into the ground and up the facade.
What to See at Notre-Dame-La-Grande
The west front of Notre-Dame-la-Grande (c.1150) is one of the finest Romanesque facades in France. It is flanked by turrets topped with conical spires, which, along with the rich sculpture, are the hallmarks of Poitou Romanesque architecture.
The sculpture of the west front is divided into three tiers. The middle and top tiers are a jumbled array of carved saints, prophets, creatures and foliage. The bottom tier tells the story of Jesus from right to left, based on The Drama of the Prophets, a fifth-century sermon. From left to the right, the carvings depict:
In the middle tier, the word of God is spread by the Twelve Apostles (eight seated below; four standing above) and two local bishop-saints on either end: Hilary and Martin. Only a few apostles still have distinguishable faces; among them is St. Peter, with keys in his left hand. The top tier features a richly-carved oval medallion of Christ in Glory (now headless), surmounted by the sun and moon and surrounded by the symbols of the Four Evangelists. There are interesting carvings of creatures and foliage in thearches at eye-level, too.
The interior consists of a dark, barrel-vaulted nave with no clerestory, narrower side aisles, a transept crossing topped with a tower, a small choir, and a groin-vaulted ambulatory with radiating chapels. A faded 12th-century fresco survives on the choir vault. The rest of the murals, which cover the nave columns and other surfaces with garish geometrical designs, date from the 19th century. There is only one narrative capital, which depicts the Ascension of Christ with angels.
Quick Facts on Notre-Dame-La-Grande
|Names:||Église Notre-Dame-la-Grande · Great Church of Our Lady · Notre-Dame-la-Grande · Notre-Dame-la-Grande de Poitiers|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||46.583266° N, 0.343977° E|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Notre-Dame-La-Grande|
- Personal visit (July 14, 2008).
- The Collegiate church of NOTRE-DAME-LA-GRANDE Poitiers - French Ministry of Culture
- Peter Strafford, Romanesque Churches of France: A Traveller's Guide (London: Giles de la Mare, 2005), 224-25.
- Rolf Toman, ed., Fiona Hulse, Ian Macmillan, trans. Romanesque: Architecture, Sculpture, Painting (Ullman & Könemann, 2004), 153 and 257.
- Medieval Poitiers - Images of Medieval Art and Architecture
- Rough Guide to France 9 (April 2005).
- Darwin Porter, Frommer's France 2007 (October 2006).