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Perhaps prior to viewing the next church building in Poitiers, a brief look at the rather charming town might be in order.

This is Place Char;es De Gaulle, directly in front of Notre Dame La Grande. Many half-timber medieval facades have been retained, lending a sense of time as well as scale to the town.

A gently curving street leads into a narrow side street off the Place De Gaulle.

Approaching Notre-Dame-La-Grande from the northeast presents us with an almost paradoxical view, in that viewed without the figures the church is totally in proportion to its parts, all of which seem simple and small. Yet the first roof horizontals are about 30 feet above the ground (9 m.), without interruption, save window openings. The photo presents the people as tiny scale models juxtaposed against blank walls.

The title of the church is sometimes mis-translated as “Our Lady The Large,” though the church is not particularly large. Some think its title might refer to the fact that it is larger than other churches in the city named Notre Dame. Perhaps more correctly it should be “Great Church of our Lady.”

The south elevation, with what appears to be a transept. However, an explanation inside the church indicates quite specifically that there are no transepts in this church. The construction jutting out of the facade might be a sacristy added on much more recently than the original construction. Internally, there is just a locked door.

A view of the plan is in order. The areas in black are from the original Romanesque period, beginning in the 11th century. White markings indicate chapel additions to the apse in the 15th century. Red shows chapels added to the north wall in the 16th century. The entrance is in the west. There is no written indication of the above-mentioned “new” construction. Basic dimensions according to one source are: length is 187 ft. (57m.), width 42 ft. (13 m), and the height 54 ft. (16.5 m.).

Coming around the corner towards the west, we get our first glimpses of the much heralded Western facade. The date is approximately 1150, and the design is declared by many to be “one of the finest Romanesque facades in France,” based on the profusion of very rich sculpture. Interestingly, the two turrets are topped by conical spires, apparently a local tradition.

Just below the turret level, are three rows of sculpture. The top two rows of carvings feature saints and prophets inside the arches, with all sorts of animals and assorted creatures in the capitals, topped by stylized foliage in the architraves.

A closeup view.

The third tier tells biblical tales, beginning on the left with sculptures depicting Adam and Eve under the Tree of Knowledge, through Nebuchadnezzar on a throne, to Daniel, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Moses seated above the left portal. On the right are scenes taken from a 5th century sermon: “The Drama of the Prophets,” depicting the story of Jesus.

The elevation has a large oval medallion-like design in its pediment. Here a fairly circular frame surrounds the figure of Christ. Technically, this type of design is known as a mandorla (mandorle) or aureole. It certainly could have been a forerunner of the rose window.

A large figure of Christ appears in the center, holding a book in one hand, and possibly giving a benediction with the other. Bas-reliefs depict the sun and moon over his head, while he is flanked by representations of the evangelists Mathew, Mark, John, and Luke.

Do note the incredible detailing here and in the arch below. Again, we are witness to masons who poured their souls into their work.

As seems to have been typical, there is evidence of the facade figures being painted. Apparently there is a light show with projections of color placed on the facade, as at Amiens (see below), though weirdly it is not even promoted, much less mentioned, within or outside the church.

Entering the church, aside from being struck by the vibrant colors – to be discussed below – we are greeted by a barrel vault with prominent transverse ribs in its nave. The ribs were probably the result of an effort to cut down on the amount of scaffolding and formwork required to support the stone vault during construction. Something tantamount to a forest of trees was required to create curved formwork, on which stones would be laid. Actually, we still create such “forests” of scaffolding (wood or metal) today when concrete slabs and beams are poured in place.

As discussed elsewhere, but worthy of repeating, the articulation here allowed for a section to be completed, terminated with a rib; scaffolding was then moved to the next section down the nave.

Although visual continuity was achieved in the nave, the major problem was that clerestory lighting was impossible in this building because the arcade of the nave was extended in height, so as to be immediately at the bottom line of the barrel. The structural integrity of the barrel vault itself would have been lost had it been penetrated with window openings.

The side aisles come up to this level also. The triforium gallery was also lost in the process. Contrast this with St. Etienne in Nevers, immediately below.

Here a view of the rather narrow side aisle ambulatory. Note the groin vaults over the side aisles, continuing in the “Roman” tradition.

The crossing is topped by a tower.

The choir roof consists of a half dome blended into or out of a barrel vault. The fresco is a survival from the 12th century.

With regards the coloring of the nave columns and other surfaces, which date from the 19th century, they are dismissed by one critic as being: “garish.” Personal thoughts are that they enhance the building design, and might actually achieve a sense of the spirit of the Middle Ages. I am reminded of the variety of geometric designs in mosaic tile decorating the floor of San Marco in Venice.

As a bit of summary here, we are seeing the continued use of round arches, barrel vaults with articulation, rich carving, and effort being made to rise upwards, albeit with resultant shortcomings.

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