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Cathedrals 2a:
Dax and church iconography

medieval East porch at Dax cathedral
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church iconography
 background facts
end notes

related pages:

Cathedrals 2b : Bazas - iconography and architectural styles photo

church iconography

mediæval west porch, indoors
at Dax cathedral, south-west France
[ click for larger version]
mediaeval East porch at Dax Cathedral, south-west France Medieval west porch at Dax cathedral, south-west France, click to go to larger version Statues of saints to the left of the mediaeval east porch at Dax cathedral, click to go to larger version Statues of saints to the right of the mediaeval east porch at Dax cathedral, click to go to larger version
Statues of saints to the left of the mediaeval east porch at Dax cathedral, click to go to larger version Statues of saints to the right of the mediaeval east porch at Dax cathedral, click to go to larger version

The ancient portal [12 metres high and 8 metres wide] shown in this photograph is an anomaly. The porch probably originated in Northern France, having similarities with portals to be found as part of the cathedrals at Chartres, Amiens and Notre-Dame de Paris.

However, this doorway has ended up in a small cathedral in south-west France. As a result, and despite damage through neglect down the centuries, this porch has been practically unaffected by by the awful deterioration seen in much cathedral architecture of northern France, caused by the traffic and industrial pollution in modern times. On the other hand, the small town of Dax and its surrounding area are little industrialised, and the portal was moved inside (probably about a hundred years ago) before the worst pollution started.

Like much mediæval church iconography, this porch revels in the seriously scary stuff of hellfire and damnation. You can even see some of the damned souls being tormented in a cauldron of boiling oil.

The devil's cauldron
The devil’s cauldron
You can see this carving at the far right
of the archivault, in line with the lintel.

Of course, in mediæval times you didn’t switch on the light or pop out to the supermarket; you struggled to survive disease, starvation and war. Indeed, Dax Cathedral was smashed by the English in 1295, to be replaced by a gothic edifice, which in turn was replaced in the late 17th/early 18th century by the present building. I think it probable that this was a West portal incorporated into the gothic building that was begun in the early 14th century, it having been transported from elsewhere.

The mediæval population was mainly illiterate, the stained glass and statuary in churches being the ‘books’ by which the people were taught their culture. The cathedrals were the centre of the community, serving as meeting houses, markets, places of pilgrimage (tourism) , education and much else.

The statuary was usually painted in bright colours, not left as the dull grey or beige stone of Victorian romanticism, fashionable to this day. The floor would slope, enabling easy hosing down after animal markets. Towns vied to build bigger and better cathedrals than their neighbours, often on the local highest point.[1]

French cathedrals were places of life and bustle, a matter of civic pride. Between approximately 1170 and 1270, a great building craze was under way, producing about 80 cathedrals and at least 500 large churches. It is said that this effort took up about one-third of France’s gross national product. Now they remain the glory of France, and one of the great wonders of the world.

I am no expert in architecture, or of stained glass iconography. My main interest, as usual, is as a psychologist and, in the case of stained glass, as a painter. So this introductory area on cathedrals and their stained glass follows my interests, while serving as an general orientation and guide to further study. For further, detailed and more local information, look at the Michelin Green Guide books on France (available in English), and other sources. The Michelin Green Guides have a useful introduction to church architecture, complete with labelled diagrams.

Here are excellent pages for helping to recognise different saints. The first discusses saint symbols in general, and the second lists saints and their associated symbols.

Background facts
DaxDax coat of arms approximate population : 20,860
average altitude/elevation : 12 m
cathedral dimensions
overall length : 72 m
overall width: 39 m
height, vaults: 33 m
height, towers: 96 m

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Some reference keywords/tags:

Dax Cathedral,Cathedrale,photos,image,images,photograph,picture,pics,France,Gothic architecture,saints,apostles,martyr,statue,iconography,symbol,Amiens,Notre-Dame de Paris,Chartres,Dax Cathedral,photos,image,images,photograph,picture,pics,France,Gothic architecture,saints iconography,Amiens,Notre-Dame de Paris,Chartres,

end notes

  1. The cathedrals of France were involved with townships, whereas in Britain the cathedrals were more associated with monasteries. Another geography-associated difference is that the further south, the less vicious is the weather and winds. Thus, to the south, buildings with more height and verve were possible.

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