The Cathedral of St Etienne in Cahors.

Hors Course stage 19: Castles, saints and religious relics

Stage 19. We're almost there. But before the weekend, there's one more stage that looks like one for the sprinters.

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As heard on the Tour Daily podcast, José Been is taking us off the race route for some local historical and cultural context for each stage, from Denmark all the way to Paris.

Stage 19. We are almost there. The last real road stage and it looks like one for the sprinters. The start of Friday’s stage is in Castelnau-Magnoac. Castelnau is a place name you see everywhere in the south of France. It’s nothing else than the Occitan version of Chateauneuf, new castle, of which there are hundreds in France. There are many castles in this country and they were all new at some point in time.

The sprint is in Auch and that is the birthplace of Nicolas Portal, former rider and sports director. The duo of Portal and Servais Knaven were the architect behind five Tour de France wins for Team Sky: four for Chris Froome and one for Geraint Thomas. Portal died when he was just 40 in 2020. He is missed by many at Team Ineos, and his name is displayed on the team vehicles – I am sure the team will remember him all the more on today’s stage.

On the route we pass through Cahors which is a center of gastronomy but also home to an important relic in roman Catholicism. Relics are pieces of a body, clothing and utensils that according to popular belief actually possessed the power of the saint.

In the late Middle Ages, the faithful considered a saint to be close to God. They therefore invoked him as an intercessor with God, who is far above the common man. A saint was more accessible and, in a way, more attractive than God because he was more concrete and moreover tangible through his relics. 

In theory the saints themselves had no divine power, but in practice they worshiped the saint directly and expected miracles from him and from the awesome supernatural power of his relics. In the Middle Ages people were fond of relics. These not only functioned as a reminder of the saint, they stood in the place of the saint, as it were, and thus formed pieces of heaven on earth. To worship the relics was to worship the saint himself. 

In Cahors we find a relic of Jesus Christ, namely the headdress he wore after His crucifixion for His burial. At that time, the Jews covered the head of the dead with a headdress that served as a chin strap. Then they wrapped the body in a shroud tied with bandages. Finally, they covered the face with a veil to retain the perfumes. After the resurrection of Christ, the disciples would have taken the mortuary linens from the empty grave.

There are many stories on how this important piece of fabric ended up in Cahors. It would have been given to Charlemagne around 803 and he gave it to the bishop of Cahors. Or it was brought back from one of the many Crusades by local knights. The Sainte Coiffe, as it’s known in French, shows blood stains that match the stains that appear on the Shroud of Turin.

The relic has been part of Cahors history for many years. In 1482, when the pest ravaged the region, the inhabitants of Cahors carried the headdress in a procession through town asking to be spared. 

Nowadays the relic is taken out very rarely for display or for a procession. There was a procession in 1940 at the start of the Second World War and then again 79 years later in 2019 when the cathedral was 900 years old. In 2020 the bishop prayed in front of the relic for all the victims of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This very important relic of the Passion is now held in secrecy in the Saint-Gausbert chapel of the Saint Etienne cathedral.

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