Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 10, 2003
In Search of St. Peter's chair
Normandy's Eglise St-Pierre melds Gothic and Renaissance forms
Chair of St. Peter -- Feast Day -- February 22
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
The church of Saint-Pierre, in Lower Normandy's capital of Caen, is an architectural jewel. It's one of the finest examples of transition between Gothic and Renaissance forms.
These stylistic mixtures give this church features not found in combination elsewhere - ornate, sculpted candelabras instead of pinnacles on the Gothic flying buttresses and a contrasting 72-metre-high spire, "a model Norman-Gothic steeple."
Inside, the nave is famed for its pointed Gothic arches that are replaced by exuberant Renaissance style vaulting above the choir.
A series of pendants, downward extensions of keystones above the rib junctions in the vault, are intricately ornamented. And, directly over the altar, the largest and most elaborate of these, three metres in length, displays a life-size, sculpted likeness of the church's namesake.
St. Peter was the pre-eminent Apostle, one of the first chosen by Christ. He demonstrated his humanity by denying Jesus and fleeing during his agony and death but was still chosen to lead the Church as its first pope.
The feast of the Chair of Peter, celebrated on Feb. 22, commemorates the founding of the Christian Church by Jesus when he said "You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church" (Matthew 16:18), the first use of the word "Peter" (rock) as a proper name.
The city that is home to this monument honouring the first pope began as a Saxon settlement in the third century, later became Roman and by 1060 was the regional capital of William (the Conqueror).
Churches have existed on the site of St. Pierre ever since seventh century Bishop Saint Regnobert of Bayeux visited there. The present structure, begun in the 13th century, was built and supported by generous royal patrons as Caen's main parish.
High drama surrounds the more recent history of St. Pierre. The life of Caen was thought by many to have ended in the early summer of 1944 when Allied bombers and then German artillery reduced the city centre to a sea of rubble. (Caen, nearest large city to the D-Day landings, was expected to fall in the first day but proved to be a formidable obstacle, well defended by enemy troops.)
And the saint's pendant, three tonnes of limestone, came crashing down with much of the church of St. Pierre. The delicate spire was left a decapitated stump by a shell from a British warship, positioned far out in the English Channel.
But even more amazing than the destruction that turned central Caen into a moonscape was the determination of city councillors to restore their beloved city to its former glory, a phenomenal feat completed in 1957.
Now, St. Pierre is the centrepiece of downtown reconstruction.
Attending one of the two daily or two weekend Masses in the expansive nave provides a good opportunity to study the church's interior, particularly at the well-attended Saturday afternoon Eucharistic celebration, when sunshine often floods the building, pouring through impressive stained glass windows.
"You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church"
- Matthew 16:18
One of these, The Apocalypse, is dedicated to Canon Ruel and Abbe Porier, both killed in the raids of 1944.
Much appreciated, is the inspired concept of the rebuilders to replicate the St. Pierre pendant, high overhead, while exhibiting the original at floor level. Now details of the sculpture can be studied at close hand where it rests beside the church's south aisle, a visible reminder of the tragedy of war.
It's difficult for visitors to this stunning house of God to avoid seeing an analogy between the universal endurance of the 2,000 year-old Chair of Peter and the determination of the people of Caen to restore their own stone Eglise St-Pierre.