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The baldaquin

Cité épiscopale d’Albi

The grandiose porch marking the southern entry to the Cathedral, the only entrance open to the congregation until the 19th century, is according to local tradition referred to as the ’baldaquin.’

Originally open air, it gives access to a luxuriously ornate portal and to a vestibule covered by a lavish vault, completed between 1510 and 1515 at the initiative of Charles de Robertet whose coat of arms it bears.

The baldaquin and the portal present continuous parallel brick courses in both the abutments (the vertical wall supporting the arches) and the archivolts (or voussures, the ornamental band following the underside of the arches).

The time-scale of the construction can be deduced from the coats of arms with which it is adorned. The pillars were raised under the episcopacy of Adrien Gouffier (1519-1523), the arches at the time of his brother Aymard (1523-1528), the ensemble was completed under Antoine Duprat (1528-1535).

At their highest point the arches reach 12.80 metres and are 6 metres wide, crowned by 12.50 metres of ornamental stonework. These dimensions result from the search for a harmony and balance pleasing to the eye. The baldaquin, with its delicate stonework, was a particularly demanding construction. It consists of very regular courses of the same thickness throughout except at the base of the pillars and in the particularly troublesome areas where we find slightly thicker mortar.

At their summit the pillars are inclined towards the Cathedral itself and the lateral faces move apart slightly towards the Cathedral walls. This trapezoidal layout guarantees the stability of the porch. The intricate stonework above the arches is reinforced by iron strain-carriers which pass into the rectilinear crosspieces dividing the stonework at three levels.

The evolution of style, which permitted the use of horizontal lines, allowed technical simplifications. The torsades (ornamental, twisted moulding), capitals (the crowning member of the columns) and concave escutcheons (the shields bearing the coats of arms) are reminiscent of Portuguese art at the time of Manuel the Fortunate (King of Portugal from 1495 until 1521) and suggest Iberian influences.

The ornate stonework of the baldaquin is itself meaningful, symbolically announcing the sacred. The baldaquin and the portal are an active response to the early developments of the Protestant Reform. Long before the Council of Trent, the prelates occupying the episcopate of Albi, themselves often descended from the monarchy, opposed the richness of the material world to iconoclasm1 and to monumental rigour.

Beyond this historical context the baldaquin can be seen as marking the passage from the profane to the sacred, a door to the New Jerusalem2. It gives access to the Cathedral, physical manifestation of an institutional and mystical community, the Church. It is a passage to the invisible, to mystery, to truth and to redemption.

This impression of passing to another world is reinforced by the fact that it contrasts strongly with the Cathedral’s bare and imposing brick walls, being built in white stone.

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