Fifty miles from Vézelay pilgrims reached the crossing of the mighty Loire river. Visible on the far shore stood the immense church and surrounding complex of the priory of Notre-Dame de la Charité-sur-Loire.
There, a semi-derelict eighth century monastery had been donated to Cluny in 1059. The new priory was established with the primary intention of being a major halt on the Compostelan pilgrimage. This objective was achieved with evident rapidity when the site, which had never fully recovered from being destroyed by Saracens in 743, quickly developed into one of the most important monastic centres in Western Europe.
By 1070 it was designated by the name Caritate which conveys the sense of the function it performed in receiving pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela.
Two hundred monks performed the liturgy and La Charité had jurisdiction over fifty dependent priories across Europe, further extending the power and influence of the great abbey of Cluny over the region and generally over the Limoges Road to Spain. Over one hundred churches in Burgundy and the surrounding regions were also dependencies of La Charité.
The priory church was was the longest structure after Cluny itself and in its second building campaign during the first quarter of the twelfth century was intentionally modelled after the mother church at Cluny.
It had five radiating chapels and a nave measuring one hundred and fifteen metres in length.
A profusion of sculpture marked it out as one of the highest achievements of Romanesque stone carving.
Deep cut relief sculptures of apostles and prophets were set in niches which line the exterior of the nave, the crossing tower and the chevet.
The western end of the church was flanked by two towers. The façade featured five porches each with a sculpted tympana, of which only two now survive. The central tympanum would most likely have been a depiction of Christ in Majesty.
La Charité was dedicated to the Virgin and in keeping with its status as a Marian shrine, each tympanum was paired with lintel scenes of the Incarnation.
Of the two remaining sculptures, one presents a singular Ascension scene with the Virgin gesturing towards Christ in a mandorla and the archangels Michael and Gabriel in attendance, an image of the Mother of God as intercessor. The lintel beneath shows the Annunciation and the Nativity.
The other surviving tympanum relief is of the Transfiguration above a lintel of the Adoration of the Magi and the Presentation in the Temple.
In 1132, Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny had introduced the feast of the Transfiguration into the Cluniac monastic calendar and it was about this time that the porch sculpture at La Charité was done.
The subject of the Transfiguration for a large scale west porch relief was unique to La Charité with the exception of the Santiago de Compostela. It reflects on the pilgrimage to the shrine of the Apostle James since this Biblical episode wherein Jesus assumed His divine form in the presence of His three closest disciples, Peter, John and James, was also a commentary on the primal importance of the Galician saint.
N.B. This is a revised version of an earlier post
Biblio: A Propos du tympana de la Vierge à Notre-Dame de la Charité-sur-Loire, Yves Christe, Cahiers de Civilisation Medièvale 9. 34 1966