Notre-Dame-la-Grande of Poitiers: the mysterious west-front figures

The wind carried me back from Al-Andalus through Poitou and Aquitaine. I had read and been told many things about the church of Notre Dame la Grande in Poitiers but I had to see it with my own eyes to appreciate poitevin Romanesque art at its best. Standing outside the west front, I was struck by the richness of its decoration. The building did not look imposing but the sculpture brought it to life. Many of the sculpted figures were defaced at the Reformation but the rest is still there, if only as a funereal cortège.

The frieze just above the ternary portal is a marvel of 12th century iconography. Beginning with the Creation of Man, the story unfolds to cover the Old and the New Testament and concludes with two figures whose identity and significance seem mysterious. Below I offer my own idea of what that could be.

West front of Notre-Dame-la-Grande, Poitiers

It all starts here: the temptation in the Garden: Adam and Eve and the snake coiling around the Tree of Life

Nabuchodonosor, king of Babylon

Four prophets, Daniel, Jeremiah, Isaiah and Moses foretelling the Messiah

The Annunciation of Gabriel to Mary

Jesse, the father of king David with the Tree symbolising the ancestors of Christ. David is most likely shown playing the harp, celebrating the imminent birth. Christ’s incarnation does not follow immediately after the Annunciation but is prepared, one might say strategically even, by this interposition, giving full weight to the notion of God’s directing role in the economy of salvation. 

The Visitation: Mary with her cousin Elizabeth.

s

Possible contemporary depiction of the present church as the city of Bethlehem and an anticipatory cross. 

The Nativity. Baby Jesus in a manger surrounded by animals. Mary is pointing to the baby with a disproportionate hand which might just as well be God’s hand acknowledging the birth of His son.

The purifying bath of Baby Jesus with St. Joseph to the right of the basin. The two mysterious figures below close the historiated frieze and seem to bring the story full circle back to the opening scene with Adam and Eve.

So who are these last two figures and what do they mean? The panel outside the church explaining the sculptures says the two might be either hugging or fighting each other. Clearly there is no sign of subordination between the two, which makes it hard to fit with any eschatological narrative. Their contemplative faces seem disconnected from any sort of violence and appear to be facing the same location as the other figures in the assembly, therefore pointing to a sense of anticipation of the Last Judgment, all the more so as this scene represents the terminus of a linear narrative, beginning with Creation and the Fall of Man. My view is that these two figures are not at all fighting each other but a contrario they stand in stark contrast with the first sculptural couple (Adam and Eve) and carry a contradictory message, that of the reconciliation of humanity through Christ, whose Incarnation is depicted nearby. That there is no Crucifixion remains a mystery, although it might be possible that the artifex either ran out of space or wished to give emphasis to the Incarnation as God’s last direct intervention in human history. The two men, for bearded men they seem to be, abolish the work of the sinful trinity (Adam, Eve, snake) and restore fallen humanity to its original state and purpose. The binary embrace could also signify the reconciled humanity through Christ’s human and divine nature who calls Creation to a final act of peace through God’s grace.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s