The cathedral was built on the site of the ancient episcopal group (including baptistery of S-Jean) at the eastern edge of the Roman city. The earliest known cathedral was Merovingian. Other than the fact that a fire took place in 1018 little is known of the edifice where Eleanor was married in 1137 and 1152, or of the date of the start of work on the Gothic cathedral. Traditionally this is put in the 1160s and associated with the patronage of Eleanor, last sovereign of the duchy. In the 1170s she presided over a brilliant poitevin court.
Begun ca. 1160
Work probably began under Bishop Jean Belmain (aux belles mains, consecrated 1162), an Anglo-Norman prelate and associate of Henry II . Construction of two eastern bays of chevet as 3-aisled hall church; six domed-up quadripartite vaults 24.2m high, lit by great windows in outer wall. Second phase of construction, c. 1200, probably begun under Bishop Maurice de Blason, 1198-1214, began in westernmost bay of chevet, brought signficant changes in the structure. Lierne vaults with penetrating ribs 5 meters higher than in the chevet (starting in "crossing" bay. Presence of tympana over arcades Work reached the west end by c. 1230; frontispiece c. 1250 refers to Notre-Dame transept, but the completion of the upper nave and vaults continued to around 1290
The theme of the western frontispiece's north portal is the Coronation of the Virgin, a theme with well-known antecedents at Senlis and Notre-Dame of Paris, among others. Among a bevy of angels, the Virgin and Christ share a throne in the tympanum. The iconography of the sole lintel culls details from the apocryphal tales of the Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin.
The central portal of the western frontispiece is devoted to the Last Judgment. Christ is represented displaying the stigmata, his garment slung over one shoulder, revealing a portion of his gaunt torso. The figure of Christ is flanked by two angels carrying instruments of the Passion, the Virgin, and Saint John. Kneeling at either corner of the triangular composition of the tympanum, two angels are depicting in a three-quarter pose, their cheeks full with breath intended for their trumpets, now missing. In the register below, we see two orderly rows of souls: one line is heading toward the angel at the left edge of this register, who extends a crown to the redeemed souls before heaven's gate; the second line is destined for the voracious Hellmouth at the right edge. As we have come to expect, Saint Michael is depicted in the center of this field, presiding over the division of souls; however, unlike some other interpretations of this theme, the Archangel is not shown in the process of weighing souls. In the lower lintel, we see an array of souls opening and emerging from their tombs. In the four archivolts surrounding the central tympanum, 72 voussoirs are populated with Old Testament figures, apostles, martyrs, and saints.
The south portal is a saint's portal dedicated to Saint Thomas. Iconographic considerations of this portal universally dwell on the supposed incongruity of the appearance of a portal dedicated to Saint Thomas here. Although the hagiography of Saint Thomas is admittedly an unusual portal theme, portals dedicated to locally relevant saints are, in fact, quite common. The familiar story of the incredulity of Saint Thomas appears on the lintel, and in the tympanum above we see the saint distributing alms. The tabernacle, which appears as if it is floating in the tympanum, refers to an apocryphal story about the innumerable palaces prepared for the elect. In the surrounding voussoirs, we encounter figurations of the wise and foolish virgins from the eponymous parable, angels, and saints, some of them in knightly garb.
Double tiered arcade of socle zone, first seen in the Coronation portal of Notre-Dame of Paris, is expanded here, as at Bourges.
Williamson has drawn stylistic comparisons between the western frontispiece sculpture at Poitiers and the mid-thirteenth-century sculpture at Paris and Amiens, as well as to that at Charroux, leading the scholar to wonder whether the same imagiers were responsible for the Poitevin composition.
The triple portal of the western frontispiece dates to the 1250s.
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