L’Art Roman en Poitou: Oriental Gold

The churches in Poitou-Charentes, despite being firmly set within the western-central part of modern France, all display strong cultural influences from a variety of sources.  After considering the vast and exotic trade lines seen in places like Lattes which had been established in France for hundreds of years, the fact that there is great variety in cultural images and symbolism should not come as a surprise.  The website states that such diversity (namely with consideration to Eastern cultures) is easily explained:

“Les ducs d’Aquitaine ont participé activement à la reconquête de l’Espagne musulmane aux XIe et XIIe siècles : une allusion à la prise de Daroca (1128) contemporaine de la construction de la cathédrale d’Angoulême figure sur sa façade sous la forme d’un épisode de la Chanson de Roland où l’on voit le païen Marsile vaincu par le neveu de Charlemagne” (http://www.alienor.org/articles/source_roman/orient04.htm).

The fact that influences from as far as the Orient were used in important ways in the creation of churches, however, proves the extent of the bonds shared between Poitou-Charentes with almost all of their known world.  It is also worth considering that the influences of these exotic cultures were so powerful, in fact, that even in the 10th, 11th, and 12th centuries, they could be seen shaping the very framework of European societies through places of worship.  To the modern Christian, the idea of borrowing themes or images from other cultures for religious purposes might seem too pluralistic; something perhaps threatening to dilute the profundity of solely Christian themes and iconography.  The churches of Poitou-Charentes, however, borrow freely, and seemingly without any reservations.  There is a valuable lesson to be learned, which might not be more lucidly explained than by Augustine in his “On Christian Doctrine,” as he describes the reshaping and reforming of pagan philosophy into Christian philosophy as a recasting of “Egyptian gold.”  A good example of this appears on stonework seen in a church in Smarves:

La scène représentant des oiseaux buvant dans un calice, motif repris des tissus orientaux, est une allusion à la prière des morts recommandant leur âme à Dieu. Cette image est excessivement répandue. (http://www.alienor.org/articles/theme_roman/animaux03.htm).

The splicing of pagan symbols in the church therefore becomes a matter of the interpretation of these themes and objects being fundamentally shifted away from their physical place of origin, to their spiritual place and meaning in the sacred space of a church. The website makes an interesting point along the same lines:

“Les artistes romans créent un art nouveau à partir d’un substrat culturel riche qu’ils s’approprient et transforment. Un objet roman ne peut pas être pris pour une création romaine ou orientale; le traitement n’est jamais le même” (http://www.alienor.org/articles/source_roman/pre_roman02.htm).

Additionally, when looking at the fantastical creatures and monsters on some of the churches, which bear no semblance to any known creature, the idea of strange images, however random, does not seem to matter so long as they can still be cut to a Christian focus.  As the website again points out:

“L’imagination des sculpteurs aiguisée par les recueils de bestiaires donne aux animaux un tour fantasmagorique qui les rend peu reconnaissables, comme au portail sud d’Aulnay. Ils viennent rappeler les horreurs qui attendent le mauvais chrétien en Enfer. Ils reprennent souvent des motifs issus de l’Orient”(http://www.alienor.org/articles/theme_roman/animaux07.htm).

In this context, the diversity of Poitou-Charentes defends the notion of Christianity as a patchwork quilt in culture and symbolism, which must and can simultaneously uphold its unique mission to serve and point to the one true God.

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