The city of Cahors is located on the river Lot as it makes a dramatic loop, creating a site of important strategic value which had been exploited as an urban centre since pre-Roman times.
The subject of the tympanum relief of the great north portal is the Ascension.
This was the favoured theme of the first portal sculptures which emerged from the sphere of influence emanating from the Burgundian abbey of Cluny at the end of the eleventh century.
In 1085 bishop Gerard II of Cahors had appealed to abbot of Hugh of Cluny to submit the cathedral chapter of canons to the Cluniac reform.
The design of these Ascension portal reliefs was derived from Byzantine models which appeared in the sixth century and featured Christ standing upright within a mandorla being borne aloft by four angels.
Both arms are raised, in the left hand is the Book of Life and the right is raised in benediction.
The Eastern Ascensions had evolved to acquire a secondary tier which featured the Apostles and the Virgin in a register below, representing the terrestrial Church.
There are three accounts of the Ascension in the New Testament: as the culmination of the Gospels of Mark and Luke and at the opening of the Acts of the Apostles.
Jesus is described rising up to Heaven and disappearing from the view of the Apostles. “A cloud received him out of their sight”, according to Acts.
At the top of the Cahors tympanum, four angels are descending from the clouds ready to assume Christ into heaven, to be veiled henceforth from the view of man, as represented by the Apostles below, until the day of his return.
The disturbed Apostles are interrupted by two angels who declare, “This same Jesus which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven”.
Accordingly, the Ascension, which was the theophanic vision adopted by Cluny as the chosen image for portal reliefs, was considered a prefiguration of the Second Coming.
At Cahors this is strikingly rendered by the prominent and dramatic poses of the two angels of Acts poised in both reverence and celebration.
Significantly, the Gospel of Saint Mark does not limit its account to Jesus passing from view but states, “He was received up into heaven and sat on the right hand of God”.
In addition to the principal theme, on each side of the Ascension there are episodic representations of the life and death of Saint Stephen.
A series of scenes depict, first Stephen’s profession of faith before the angry Sanhedrin priests, then his expulsion from the city.
This association of the Ascension with the martyrdom of Stephen was not simply a way of commemorating the cathedral’s patron.
It was a juxtaposition intentionally derived from a longstanding exegetical tradition emanating from the writings of Gregory the Great in the sixth century and further expanded upon by Rabanus Maurus in the ninth.
They drew an important link between the martyrdom of Stephen and the principal subject of the tympanum relief, the Ascension.
The very literal treatment of the episodes of the martyrdom arises directly from this exegetical tradition.
In the lapidation scene, Stephen’s gaze is fixed directly above. This is his vision prior to the moment of martyrdom. According to the Acts of the Apostles, Stephen was possessed by the Holy Ghost and, “Said, behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God”.
The account of the protomartyr’s vision of Jesus in heaven, together with Saint Mark’s narrative of the Ascension, were taken as the only texts which corroborated the appearance of the Son at the right hand of the Father after the Ascension.
The image which is depicted above the lapidation is of the Trinity, the Holy Ghost is represented by the hand which reaches down towards Stephen.
The Father is shown seated and the Son standing, both wear the cruciform halo. The iconological inference of the composition is drawn from the exegesis of Gregory and Rabanus Maurus.
Both writers had pondered the question posed by the differing accounts in Mark and the Acts of the Apostles. Whereas the Gospel of Saint Mark states that Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father, Stephen’s vision is of Christ standing.
As Rabanus asks, “How is it that Mark says seated and Stephen testifieth to seeing standing?” For Gregory the Great and Rabanus Maur, this apparent contradition is evidence of the duality of God’s nature, both Judge and Redeemer.
It serves to explain why for Stephen, who is redeemed by both his ministry and martyrdom, the vision he sees is of Christ standing in his role as Redeemer.
The attributes of Judgment and Redemption are present with both the Father and Son holding the Book of Life and right hand held up in benediction.
The presence also of the sun and moon confirm an Apocalyptic context. Stephen’s vision is of the moment after the Ascension, in other words, the celestial reality now veiled from man but available to Stephen in the moment of martyrdom and a reminder of the words of the angels of the Acts of the Apostles, that the Ascension was a prefiguration of the Apocalypse.
Sources and Biblio. La Cathédrale de Saint-Etienne de Cahors, Architecture et Sculpture, Marcel Durliat. Bulletin Monumental, 137 1979.
Yves Christe. Les grands portails romans. Études sur l’iconologie des théophanies romanes, Genève, Librairie Droz, 1969
Quercy Roman. M. Vidal, J. Maury, J. Porcher. La Nuit des Temps, ed Zodiaque, 1959