The town of Parthenay-le-Vieux lies approximately thirty miles west of Poitiers and the great shrine of Saint-Hilaire on the Road of Tours, the pilgrimage way to Santiago de Compostela. It is just to the south of the abbeys of Saint-Jouin-de-Marnes and Airvault.
Treasurers to the abbey of Saint-Hilaire who counted archbishops of Bordeaux among their number, the lords of Parthenay were prominent figures in medieval Aquitaine.
At the crossing of the river Thouet a fortified bridge was built and was named the Pont Saint-Jacques after the Apostle of Compostela. The main town is perched on heights above.
Saint James was also the designation given to one of the suburbs of the town. These toponyms suggest that the authorities were keen to identify Parthenay with the passage of an important artery on the pilgrimage to Spain from an early date.
The town benefitted from two churches. Notre-Dame-de-la-Couldre was in the elevated quarter.
In the late eleventh century a new quarter was established known as Parthenay-le-Vieux around the priory of Saint-Pierre which was a dependency of the Benedictine abbey of La Chaise-Dieu.
Both churches, Notre-Dame and Saint-Pierre, feature the same iconographic programme. A relief of an equestrian figure to the left and on the right a man wrestling a lion.
The latter figure has most often been identified as a representation of Samson in a story from the Book of Judges. This image was intended to evoke Christ triumphing over Death and His representative on earth, the Church. The same iconography was also shared by another Old Testament figure, David who’s most common personifications were as musician and subduer of a lion. The slayer of Goliath was viewed during the medieval period as the archetypal ruler and it is said that Charlemagne was commonly referred to as David by his courtiers.
Similar riders to those featured at the Parthenay churches are a recurrent motif on twelfth century Poitevin facades such can be found at Airvault and elsewhere. Many have been lost, disfigured and dismantled as at Aulnay or replaced as at Melle. The rider at Parthenay-le-Vieux is the most complete that remains.
The continuing association of the Parthenay family with high ecclesiastical office led to them adopting the name Parthenay-l’Archevêque. The secular function of local lord was passed onto the brother or son of the cleric, who assumed the title of Vidame. The church of Saint-Pierre was possibly founded by either by Joscelin Archbishop of Bordeaux or by his brother Ebbo, Vidame of Parthenay.
Having originally shared and then contested the role of Vidame with another brother Gelduin, Ebbocommitted fratricide to take over as sole ruler of Parthenay. It was in this capacity that he travelled to Jerusalem and fought with the First Crusade.
The sculpture on the facade of Parthenay-le-Vieux may be a way of rendering the dual role of the local lords. The one representing the Archbishopric and the Church, the other the Vidame of Parthenay, secular Defender of the Faith.
Biblio Y. Labande-Mailfert, Poitou Roman