Christmas in Limoges. Part One.

Posted on February 5, 2014 by


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If like us you are not a fan of Christmas, try Limoges. Shops and supermarkets are refreshingly hype free. No BUY! BUY! BUY! No carols, Santas, tinsel, tat, plastic trees and not a Christmas card to be seen. If it were not for signs on buses wishing passengers Joyeux Fêtes you wouldn’t know it was Christmas. We played spot the decoration. When we saw one, said ‘must be a Brit’.

Limoges is small enough to explore on foot so, although the cobbled streets are unforgiving, there is no need for a car. The Art Deco station built in the 1920s is grand, as is the Town Hall which is more flamboyant than the cathedral but after Rouen, Le Mans, Tours, Chartres and Amiens, many cathedrals pale into insignificance. However, it does have a simply wonderful Black Madonna and Child.

Limoges Cathedral is where the Dukes of Aquitaine were crowned. One was Richard Coeur de Lion who died, not lion hearted but greedy. Hearing that a treasure trove of Roman gold had been found in a chateau near Limoges, he tried to grab it. Walking around the perimeter he saw something which made him laugh. A man was standing on the walls, crossbow in one hand, frying pan in the other, using it as a shield. When he aimed at Richard, the king, still laughing, applauded him. At that moment, another archer struck the king in the shoulder. Richard tried to pull the arrow out but failed. A ‘surgeon’ also tried, but in the process mangled the King’s arm and the wound swiftly became gangrenous. Richard died in his mother’s arms. His mother being the redoubtable Eleanor of Aquitaine.

During the Middle Ages, Limoges was on the route to Santiago de Compostella in Spain. Two bridges were built over the river Vienne to accommodate hordes of pilgrims. The bridge of St. Martial, built on the remains of a Roman bridge, was destroyed by the Black Prince. Brass scallop shells in the pavements mark the pilgrim trail. The story goes that when the body of Saint James (Santiago) was found on the Spanish coast it was covered in scallop shells.

It’s no wonder few in Limoges speak English. The Black Prince (son of Edward III, father of Richard II) not content with trouncing the French at Crécy and Poitiers carried out a massacre in Limoges. The Bishop had handed the town over to the French which was not a good idea considering that Limoges was under English control.

Limoges is also on the route of the Tour de France. The road from St Etienne Bridge is so steep it’s classified HC (hors categorie). Climbs are designated from Category 1 (hardest) to Category 4 (easiest), based on steepness. A climb harder than Category 1 is designated hors catégorie, beyond categorization. You have to be fit to live in Limoges.

Besides the cathedral there are three other delightful places of worship. The tiny Chapel of Saint Aurélien dates from the 1300s. Aurélien was a Bishop of Limoges. Inside are his relics and brightly painted medieval wooden statues. The Church of St. Michel des Lions (stone lions guard the entrance), also from the 1300s has the relics of St. Martial. The church of St. Pierre is even older, it dates from the 1100s.

Apart from the bonus of escaping the festive (sic) season we went to Limoges to see its unrivalled collection of Limoges enamels and Limoges porcelain. Limoges was the centre of enamel production during the Middle Ages and still produces vast quantities of porcelain.

Enamel is powdered glass fused on to a metal base by firing at a very high temperature. It was usually applied on copper but, according to the person who commissioned the artefact, also on silver or gold. Enamel is also the raw material, a powder made from silica, soda, potash and metallic oxides (manganese for yellow, copper for green, cobalt for blue). The cloisonné (partition) technique involves soldering strips of gold, silver, brass or bronze on to the base making compartments to hold the powder. The champlevé technique involves making hollows in the metal base then filling them with the powder. The technique of painting enamel on to glass or porcelain is still used by enamellers in Limoges.

The enamel collection in the Fine Arts Museum is awesome as is the porcelain in the spectacular Adrien Dubouché Museum. 12,000 pieces tracing the history of ceramics are in the original (1875) magnificent showcases. The exquisite, impossible to reproduce works of art, slowly give way to mundane pieces. Somewhere along the way, wannabes, inspired – if that’s the right word – perhaps comforted is better – by the likes of Duchamp and Magritte decided they were artists. Duchamp’s urinal was exhibited in 1917, Magritte’s pipe in 1928 (Ceci n’est pas une pipe – This is not a pipe). Excellence gave way to mediocrity.

Once upon a time, all porcelain came from just one place, China. Kaolin, a white, soft powder, also called china clay, is named after Kao-ling, a hill in China where it was mined for centuries. Kaolin has to be mixed with silica and feldspar to make it malleable. Until a French missionary sent samples home in 1700, the manufacture of porcelain was a closely guarded secret. Limoges porcelain began in 1771 when kaolin was found locally.


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