Poitiers: the halfway point walking south

Day 36 of Walking Out of the World, in which the pilgrim’s walk is now halfway down France and fully in the territory of the Romanesque. Some thoughts on ‘ornament’ and on the pilgrim’s viewpoint concerning religious art.

With my pilgrim credencial stamped with the tampon of Poitiers Notre-Dame-la-Grande, I am symbolically halfway down France. Several weeks ago when this ‘virtual pilgrimage’ entered France I approached Georges Meisner and asked if I might use some of his professional photographs of Romanesque imagery. Today all the images of the façade of Poitiers are taken from his breathtaking photography and used with his permission, and especially from the Poitiers page which I recommend to the reader as it informs my observations below.

In the last post I ventured the image of the Church as an aeroplane – an alternative image to the traditional figure of the Church as a ship (nave). This was not simply due to the ‘mirroring’ I noticed while flying over the Romanesque Saint-Savin abbey in Barbara’s light aircraft and seeing a ‘fuselage and wings’ in the abbey’s ground plan. I tend to read complex structures in the terms I was taught as an airframe technician in the RAF’s No.1 School of Technical Training. Our foundation text in was Flight Without Formulae by A.C.Kermode (who was a First World War pilot but his book remains a standard aeronautical text).

The starting concept in aircraft structures and stresses is ‘lift’ force, but in buildings the forces work in the opposite direction: gravity and the outward pressure on walls. A thought that occurred to me when flying over Saint-Savin abbey had been that the key area of stress in both cases is the central structure: where fuselage and wings join, or the crossed vaulting brings north and south bays together with the central nave at the transept crossing.

The common factor is the relationship between the component parts and the behaviour of the entire structure: stonemasons are responsible for each single stone in a fluted column that supports an entire bay of a Gothic nave; an airframe fitter may remove a corroded section of duraluminium from an aircraft wing and replace it with a newly-fashioned piece made in the hangar workshop. I enjoyed many conversations about these parallels when I was on my fourth career – as a teacher in Canterbury – and a favourite drinking pal in the Miller’s Arms pub was a stonemason who arrived at the end of the working day covered in white dust, to drink a pint of Shepherd Neame Spitfire bitter, thick dusty fingers with short stubs of fingernails wrapped around the handle of his pint jug. It was a memorable experience to be invited by him one day into the stonemasons’ workshop inside the cathedral precincts and see him working on a piece of stone that would replace a weather-worn 12th century stone voussoire up near the roof.

The fine chiselled fluting of this new block – fashioned from a 300 milimetre cube of limestone – would never be seen by people down below, but only noticed by surveyors on their periodic structural inspection high above the leering gargoyles. Or to put it another way, only seen by God. What does that really mean, ‘only seen by God’? As I look up at the immensely detailed craftsmen’s work here at Poitiers – so much of it only visible from the ground using binoculars – what is clear to me is that the entire structure, down to the very last vine leaf finely carved in stone on a pinnacle out of human sight, is a necessary part of the whole. It is not merely ‘ornament’.

Nothing in the detailed theological programme from the Creation to the Last Judgment is put there as an adornment, and likewise in the three-dimensional architectural and sculptural expression of it. As Ruskin puts it, “The especial condition of true ornament is that it be beautiful in its place and nowhere else, and that it aid the effect of every portion of the building over which it has influence.” So the master-builder’s vision and the craftsman-sculptor’s handiwork is conformed to a complete expression ‘only seen by God’ because the human viewer of this programme of stonework will never know the whole. Nor know the mind of the Creator.

I am a pilgrim and not a theologian nor an architect, and the further I continue south towards Compostela I know that my reflections in this journey are prompted by the same kinds of impressions made upon thousands of other pilgrims on this route over many centuries. Some pilgrims walking south would have seen these sculptures and architectural styles as the new art of their own age, so is my reading of this art as ‘historic’ or ‘antique’ – while a natural emotional response – misplaced and distracting? I think it is and as a pilgrim I need to learn to respond to it on its own terms.

I am now halfway down France and it is still raining. Before leaving Poitiers, I stop in front of an parapluie shop and consider buying one, but you cannot walk with a 15th century bourdon and an umbrella. I wondered if I could attach it to the bourdon? With the extra stability of an added two-metre staff, I could buy the biggest one in the shop! It would be perfectly stable against the strongest gusts of wind! I gave up: it was entirely impractical. Having compared complex structures such as aeroplanes and cathedrals, I couldn’t even solve the problem of combining a walking staff and umbrella.

Pilgrimage paused at Poitiers

This exercise – as some kind readers have thoughtfully observed in email messages –
is a considered and crafted draft of a piece of personal writing.
Comments will be welcome if related to the content.

The virtual pilgrimage will continue on 26 December 2020
south from Poitiers
The virtual pilgrimage continues south from Poitiers to Saintes on 26 December, joining the route of the 15th c. Worcester pilgrim.