Saint Peter Cathedral in Angouleme : a romanesque jewel

Saint Pierre Angoulême Cathedral was built inside the Roman and medieval walls, at the end of the rocky promontory and especially close to one of the former gates, which facilitated the transport of the huge quantities of necessary materials.

This is the 4th building built on the site of the previous buildings.

Despite some restorations carried out by the famous architect Paul Abadie in the 19th century (also restorer of St-Front de Périgueux and builder of the Sacré-Cœur in Paris), we can admire in Angoulême a rare and precious jewel of Romanesque art. Apart from the representations of Saint Martin (to the right of the main gate) and Saint Georges (to the left), which are from the 19th century restoration campaign, this richly sculpted façade dates from the 12th century. It is the centrepiece of the building!

 The Romanesque cathedral we see was built at the beginning of the 12th century by Bishop Girard II. This is the 4th building built on the site of the previous buildings : 

  • The 1st cathedral of the Visigothic period supposedly demolished by Clovis 508
  • The 2nd cathedral, consecrated in 566, disappeared in its turn (probably during a fire) - Anecdote: 2 capitals of this former cathedral are dated from the 7th century and still remain. You can see them in the choir, on either side of the axial chapel
  • The 3rd cathedral dedicated 1015
  • The current cathedral is the work of the eminent bishop Girard, who himself directed the construction. It was covered with domes as in Périgueux. Its great originality remains its magnificent facade entirely covered with sculptures. The work began in 1110 and was completed in the late 1130s. 
     

As in many reconstruction campaigns, the chevet was built first, then the new façade, while the former cathedral was gradually destroyed (1118). Fortunately, it was relatively spared by the Hundred Years' War but its domes were blown out during the Religious Wars.

Despite some restorations carried out by the famous Paul Abadie in the 19th century (also restorer of St-Front de Périgueux and builder of the Sacré-Cœur in Paris), we can admire in Angoulême a rare and precious jewel of Romanesque art. Apart from the representations of Saint Martin (to the right of the main gate) and Saint Georges (to the left), which are from the 19th century restoration, this richly sculpted façade dates largely from the 12th century. It is the centrepiece of the building!

 

Let's take a closer look...... follow the guide! 

 

First, I suggest that we focus on the most admirable thing, so we will ignore the orange highlighted areas for now. We do not dwell on it here because many later restorations, but you will approach to better observe the details. Among them, to the right of the gate is a hunting scene and a carved frieze depicting a cavalry fight inspired by Roland's Song. The sculptures in the tympanums on the ground floor show us the apostles who disperse to proclaim the Gospel (there is a central portal flanked by two blind arches. The apostles going on mission are depicted on the tympanums of the lateral arches).

Facade cathedrale angouleme parties ignorees

 

Stay well away from the building to immerse yourself in the overall concept.

3 main themes are presented on the façade: the Ascension of Christ, his return at the end of time at the last judgment and Pentecost.
The sculpted program is read from bottom to top. The lower part has been restored to its original appearance. It does represent life on Earth : hunting scenes, horses, vices and virtues.....

 

The Ascension of Christ
The median part represents on either side of a large bay, 2 series of superimposed arcades that house sculptures. It is the 11 apostles and the Virgin (on the left of the bay) who attend the Ascension (window damaged the decor so you have to use your imagination!) 

Look... they have divided into 2 rows of 3 apostles on either side of the window and they look upwards where the Ascension of Christ is represented. Remember that part of the program is missing in the middle!

 Angouleme Cathedral - Sculptures programme - Apostles and Virgin

 

The Last Judgment and Pentecost
Higher up, the Christ of the Ascension stands upright inside a mandorla (this space in the shape of an elongated almond) and raises his right hand in the blessing gesture. It is surrounded by the symbols of the 4 Evangelists: the Angel for Matthew, the Lion for Mark, the Bull for Luke and the Eagle for John. 

Above Christ, we can see these kinds of flames that symbolize the Holy Spirit and Pentcost.

The Last Judgment is the second coming of Christ, often accompanied by the representation of the chosen and the damned. The chosen ones take their place in medallions located inside the arcades that frame the Ascension. The damned, on the other hand, are depicted with devils and demons in scenes placed at each end of the second register of the middle part.

In the outer arcatures: demons torment the damned ones who are nevertheless destined for hell!  On the left: the demon pulls with a long hook on the tongue of the one who has sinned less seriously by mouth!

Angouleme Cathedral - The devils pulling the tongue of the sinner

You will also see the two angels, one of whom sounds the trumpet announcing the Resurrection and/or the Last Judgment. The two great angels are of lower quality because they have been directly sculpted into the facade.

The symbolism of the Eucharist

There is a common factor that unites these themes, all developed along a horizontal axis; there is a vertical axis that transcends the different scenes and represents the notion of the Eucharist. Pay attention and let's go! 

  1. The birds that drink from the chalice: it is a very ancient symbol used by the first Christians
  2. Above, the angels who frame the tree of life whose sap is a beverage of immortality
  3. Still above, at the very top, Christ the Savior and his promises of resurrection

 

 This magnificent facade has served as a model for many similar facades such as Sainte Croix de Bordeaux or Notre-Dame la Grande... The construction of Angoulême Cathedral had a great influence on the spread of Romanesque art.

 Cathedral angouleme vertical axe

 

As you can imagine, the city of Angoulême has many other surprises to offer, so don't hesitate to take a guided tour of the pretty city of Angoulême....

Here is a non-exhaustive list of my must-sees in the city of Angoulême

  • The cathedral of Saint Pierre d'Angoulême (hahaha, we can imagine!)
  • A selection of painted walls scattered throughout the city of Angoulême, capital of the comic strip.
  • The town hall and the few vestiges of the Middle Ages incorporated in the building
  • The splendid view from the stroll along the lowered ramparts