Notre-Dame Des Dunes

“every statue tells a story”

We watched The Lion in Winter on Monday evening. If you haven’t seen it, don’t bother. Awful film. Over-theatrical, with Hepburn and O’Toole hamming it up outrageously (a minority view admittedly – Hepburn got an Oscar and O’Toole was nominated for one).

I’d bought the DVD a while back because Eleanor of Aquitaine (Hepburn) is a bit of a star here in Poitiers. Heiress of the Duchy of Aquitaine, she held court in the ducal palace, later to become the Palais de Justice, which was, until last year, the law court of the département of Vienne. She commissioned the building of the city walls and organised the construction of the original marketplace. She also commissioned the building of Poitiers Cathedral, and it was here that her marriage to Henry Plantagenet (later Henry II of England) was celebrated. The cathedral still has a fine stained-glass window which depicts her, Henry, and four of their sons. She died in Poitiers in 1204 and is buried nearby in Fontevraud Abbey.

To my disappointment, none of this gets a mention in the film. I’m getting used to this. I’ve become a big Maigret fan and got very excited a while back when I heard about a Georges Simenon novel called The Couple from Poitiers. I managed to track down a copy only to find that the couple get married on page 2 and go to live in Paris. Poitiers is never mentioned again.

There is no statue of Eleanor in the city. In fact there are very few statues at all – the city’s significant architectural reputation is largely built on its impressive collection of Romanesque churches. That said, there is the fine statue of Joan of Arc in Rue des Cordeliers (pictured last week). From time to time, alert passers-by will notice that Joan has suddenly started wearing red lipstick. Those wishing to attribute a miraculous significance to this would struggle to explain the empty beer cans which are placed on the end of her lance whenever the lipstick appears. There are two other statues of significance in Poitiers, both of women, and I went to take a closer look at one of these, Notre Dame des Dunes, the other day.

I’ll come back to that, but just to return to The Lion In Winter for a moment, something that is mentioned in the film, albeit briefly, is the murder of Thomas à Becket and Henry’s involvement in it. Henry always denied this, and after some dodgy dealing with the Pope (the Compromise of Avranches, if you’re interested) in which he promised to go on a crusade, he was cleared of any complicity. Despite this, Henry decided it would be politically sensible to do public penance in England. At Canterbury in 1174 he confessed his sins, received five symbolic blows with a rod from the bishop and then three each from the eighty monks present. He then offered gifts to Becket’s shrine and spent a night’s vigil at the martyr’s tomb.

A person wearing a costume

Description automatically generated
Pope Julius II, Raphael

Now, this idea of public expiation has always interested me. There is a painting by Raphael in the National Gallery of a very sad-looking Pope Julius II. The picture was painted between 1511 and 1512, and we are told that the beard the Pope has grown is a sign of penance for the loss of the city of Bologna in a war. This is all well and good of course, but growing a beard is hardly putting yourself out, is it? It’s certainly not in the same class as getting whacked by eighty-one members of the clergy, symbolically or otherwise. I suppose if you are Pope you can do what you like, with advisors too scared to tell you otherwise:

We’ve lost Bologna. I’m going to grow a beard.

(A long pause) Very good, your Holiness. But if we were to lose another city?

I’ll stop eating cheese.

And another?

No more sex.

And another?

**** off!

Anyway.

Moving forward a few centuries, we see that public penance becomes more corporate. After France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the debacle of the Paris Commune, the Catholic hierarchy in France was quick to interpret these events as divine punishment for a century of moral decline since the French Revolution, in which French society had divided into Catholics and legitimist royalists on one side, and secularists, socialists, and radicals on the other.

On 24 May 1873, François Pie, Bishop of Poitiers, declared that the nation yearned for spiritual renewal – ‘the hour of the Church has come’. The most immediate and obvious manifestation of this was to be the building of the Sacré-Cœur Basilica in Montmartre (the site of the Commune’s first insurrection). The proposal was fiercely debated in the National Assembly, but the Church got its way and in July 1873 the construction was approved ‘to expiate the crimes of the Commune’.

Closer to home, Bishop Pie decided that another act of expiation would be appropriate in his own diocese of Poitiers, and he took the initiative to have a statue, Notre Dame des Dunes (I told you I’d come back to it) built on the rock escarpment to the east of the city. Ideally placed to observe and dominate the whole city, it is located not far from the ‘Coligny rock’, where the Admiral de Coligny and his Protestant troops were posted during their siege of the city of Poitiers in 1569.

By night
By day

As in Paris, the decision to build was not met with unanimous approval. Republicans and members of the local masonic lodges were bitterly opposed to it. Nevertheless, the archbishop got his way, and the statue was inaugurated with a torchlit procession and fireworks on 6 August 1876.

The statue, including its pedestal, is over 6 metres high and weighs more than a ton. It depicts the Virgin Mary holding Jesus and standing on a terrestrial globe. It’s floodlit at night and, from a distance, it is impressive, like a golden beacon high on the hill. Unfortunately in daylight the effect diminishes the closer you get to it. (To be fair, I did go on a dull overcast day.) It is a sickly mustard colour, and the Virgin’s arm, described in most travel guides as being extended in greeting or blessing, begins to look distinctly fascistic. I suppose it could have been worse. It’s been pointed out that the arm points directly at the town hall in the city below. Given the original opposition to its being built, one might have expected two fingers to be raised.

So there you have it. Every statue tells a story. Alert readers will have noticed that I mentioned two statues of significance, and there is an interesting connection between them. However, Madame S has just indicated that dinner is about to be poured, so I’m afraid that will have to wait till another day.

One thought on “Notre-Dame Des Dunes”

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