It’s easy to think of Gothic cathedrals as a single thing. The way we think of high-rise office buildings all being glass and steel towers, totally interchangeable. But each Gothic church is distinct. As you visit them, you find something completely outside the generic “plan.”

The cathedral at Laon, for instance, is sometimes called a “barn cathedral.” That seems insulting, at first, but when you visit, you realize what is meant.

The “standard” Gothic church is built on a floorplan based on the Christian cross, with the long part of the cross stretching to the west, with a main entrance in the western facade. There is a cross-piece, called the transept, which cuts across the primary axis at 90 degrees, and at the eastern end, a shorter part of the cross: the choir, ending in a rounded apse. The choir and apse together are known as the chevet.

You also expect a great round rose window cut into the western wall, and perhaps two other roses in the north and south ends of the transept.

The central corridor of the axis is called a nave, and it is usually paralleled to either side by an aisle. Above the aisles is a second story gallery known as the triforium, and above that a row of windows called the clerestory.

The nave is tall and narrow and topped with a series of ribbed vaults, holding up the ceiling.

Outside, the west facade is usually bounded by two towers, one to the north and one to the south.

The problem is, that no single example follows all these descriptions. Each church is unique. This one has tall spires instead of blunt towers; that one has apsidiol (rounded) transepts instead of flat-ended transepts; another has two aisles on each side of the nave; yet another (like Rouen) has a tower above the crossing of the transept — that point where the nave and choir transect the transept. (Is all that confusing enough, and enough specialized vocabulary to bog things down?)

Laon is a town built on a mesa in northern France. In some ways it is reminiscent of the Hopi mesas in Arizona. At the top of the mesa the cathedral rises above the surrounding plain. Like the Hopi mesas, the oldest part of the city is on the summit, and the more modern parts below in the shadow of the mesa. You can see the cathedral from many miles away as you approach.

If you drive to the top of the mesa, the streets are narrow and convoluted; parking is at a premium, and while most other cathedrals have a broad parvis, or plaza, in front of them, the parvis at Laon is a shrunken little wide spot in the narrow road not much bigger than a Burger King parking lot. It makes getting a suitable photo of the cathedral facade nearly impossible; you simply cannot get back far enough to get it all in, unless you use an extremely wide-angle lens, in which case, the perspective goes all askew. The central tower allows for a great open lantern at the heart of the cathedral, which thrusts upward beyond the vaulting, adding an extra level of windows, making the highest part of the church the brightest.

The first idiosyncrasy you notice (after the parvis) is that the church has five towers instead of two. There are the usual towers at the north and south edges of the west facade, but there is a single tower at the face of each of the transepts and a fifth tower over the crossing, in the center of the church. That’s a lot of towers for a church — you hardly know which to pay the most attention to. The western towers are the traditional high points, but at Laon, the transept towers are much taller. (The central tower is a dwarf, truncated and hardly to account).

Then, there is the interior elevation. Instead of a nave arcade on the ground floor, a triforium and clerestory above that, there is a fourth layer in the cake: a blind arcade above the triforium. The triforium itself is distinctive, because it has windows behind its arches, helping to light up the interior of the building.

But what makes Laon a barn, if you want to use that word for something so spiritually uplifting, is that at the far end of the nave, the eastern end of the cathedral, you do not have the usual curved, graceful apse, but rather a squared off butt end, graced with an extra rose window.

The nave is wide and the effect is to give the sensation of a large warehouse or barn, rather than the more usual gracefulness of curves and lancet stained glass you find elsewhere.

With its barn-end long-stretch, Laon manages four rose windows instead of the usual three. The one in the north, like the western rose at Chartres, is simple and heavy with stone.

The western rose, while glorious as far you can see it, is mostly blocked by the church organ.

The southern rose is mostly clear glass, with simple radial stonework tracery.

Leaving the east rose as the prize. It is mostly replacement glass, but with some original glass in it. With three lancets, it makes a stunning bit of stained glass as you look past the altar into the choir.

Laon also had towers on the sides of each of the transepts — towers that were actually taller than the west facade towers, giving the whole a rather different proportion than any cathedral we had seen before.

And there was a giant rhinoceros on the facade, with a man under him holding a noose around its neck. Actually, it was a flying rhinoceros, because it had wings.

But also on the front of the cathedral was a giant hippopotamus, also with wings, and with a man under it poking it with a sword.

We thought this singularly odd. When we asked, we got a reply in French pidgin English that implied — although we aren’t confident we understood properly — that one of each was “sacrificed” at the opening of the cathedral.

This seemed odd enough, but when we got to Rheims, it had a rhino, too, between the north and central portals, and a bull’s head between the central and south portals.

There are lots of animals on the cathedrals. They are one of the surest joys of cathedral going. But Laon was special. It’s two western towers were ringed, two-thirds of the way up, with pairs of giant animals at the corners — eight animals per tower, in pairs of four. Two unicorns, two horses, two bulls (or cows), two goats, all giant enough to be the villains in 1950s Hollywood sci-fi monster films.

Yet, what most people probably remember most from Laon are the oxen. Strange as it may seem, it looks as if the cathedral is dedicated to cattle. The two west towers are filled with animal sculpture, it is a stone menagerie, a carved zoo.

“When we looked up high at Laon at the stone animals and identified them together, I had the feeling, yes, this is the world I live in,” wrote Carole in her diary. “There is a goat, there is a horse, here’s an angel, devil, saint, monster, son of god. But here is a donkey, and a bear. This is about my world.

“And these little animals were elevated to the towers of the cathedral where they looked out on all the countryside. I know ancient children really loved those animals. And probably tried to make them out of clay.”

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Next: Reims

Noyon Cathedral is a shabby little church, in an obscure little town in northern France that almost no one has heard of. Yet, it holds a special place in my heart; it may be small, but I know it more intimately than most other Medieval churches from the time. I have crawled through its guts.

The town has about 13,000 inhabitants, making it roughly the size of Fergus Falls, Minnesota. Never heard of Fergus Falls? Well, that’s my point.

In the Middle Ages, it was the seat of a bishop, although the bishop left and moved to Beauvais in 1801 after the Concordat between Napoleon and Pope Pius VII. The town had had a bishop since AD 531, when the Bishop Medardus moved his seat to Noyon, choosing it over a rival city because he deemed the wine in Noyon superior.

A cathedral had been built on the spot since then, being the place where in AD 768 Charlemagne had been crowned co-king of the Franks, and later, in AD 987, Hugh Capet was crowned the first Capetian monarch. It’s hard to imagine that now, with Noyon being such a backwater.

That early church — or churches (there were probably a sequence of them) — burned down in 1131 and the current building was begun in the new Gothic style soon after. Like most such churches, it was constructed and renovated, rebuilt and added to over the centuries. But the major part of the church is in the early style, including some Romanesque holdovers.  Indeed, it looks rather plain compared with its compeers.

Noyon is notably smaller than Amien or Beauvais, and its cathedral is almost a miniature version of the familiar formula. Yet, it isn’t merely its style that explains its homeliness. The French Revolution had treated it miserably, knocking off pretty much all of its external sculpture. You can see the scars.

You approach the cathedral through some narrow streets and we could see it before us, plain-spoken, with no statuary on its facade. Two nearly identical towers framed the central portals, of worn and weathered wood. The West Facade also had two flying buttresses, something I had not seen before anywhere. They stuck out into the parvis.

When we got closer, we could see that there had once been sculpture on the exterior of the building, but it had been chiseled off. During the French Revolution, anticlerical feelings ran high and many of these old churches were defaced. Some, like Notre Dame in Paris had been restored in the 19th century, but poor Noyon had been left bereft.

During the Revolution, churches had been deconsecrated and repurposed as “Temples of Reason,” or had, like Notre Dame in Paris, turned into warehouses for grain storage.

Noyon was, apparently, too insignificant for thorough restoration.

Chapelle Episcopale Saint Nicolas

You can walk around the building. To the right you discover the ruins of the Chapelle Episcopale Saint Nicolas, an 11th century revenant, pass around the back and on the south side, the half-timber library. The larger stone edifice beyond that is the cloisters and refectory.

Library

Time to go through the portal.

The interior is in better shape than the exterior and provides some of the awe and reverence you require from a Gothic church, and is truly their raison d’etre. It severs off a section of the universe, a bit of space, and lets you contemplate it divorced from the commotion and concerns of the day-to-day. You feel the immensity of that captured space and its stillness and it reminds you what is truly important, truly permanent. It is caged eternity and we watch it the way we see a panther at the zoo.

I walked around inside, taking photos. And when I got to the ambulatory and got around to the far point of the apse, I stepped up to take a few pictures of the altar and nave, when an old, withered man walked up to me and spoke rapid French to me in a stutter. I was worried I had broken some taboo or regulation, and the man indicated I should follow him. I thought I was being taken to the principal, or at least the monsignor. He dragged me along the length of the north aisle till he got to a side door, officiously pulled out a key and unlocked the door, opened it with a creak, and motioned for me to follow him into the cloister and garden that take up the north side of the church exterior.

Then he unlocked another door, to the refectory, and motioned for me to enter. Then he began speaking again, but with such a stutter, I couldn’t make anything out. I kept telling him, “Je ne comprend pas Francais,” and he kept answering, “Oui.”

He was thin as a rail, with a day’s whiskers on his pointy chin, and gnarled hands twisted with arthritis.

Je ne parle Francais pas,” I repeated. And he said, “Oui, oui,” again. Then I said, “I get ma femme. She parle Francais.” And he said “Oui, oui,” and I walked out of the refectory, down the cloister, into the nave, found Carole, waved at her wildly to get her attention, brought her back to the refectory, where the old man began speaking wildly to her.

She answered like she understood what he was saying and they had a grand conversation. I’m not convinced either one had a clue what the other was saying or intended.

“A frail old man with a terrible stuttering problem and crippled hands seemed to earnestly and excitedly be trying to communicate something to Richard,” Carole wrote in her diary entry for the trip. “And when I caught up with Richard, he took me to the cloister to the man and I told him I spoke only a little bit of French and he began speaking French as fast as he could. But, I was in luck. He was a terrible stutterer, so I got five or six reinforcements of every syllable. And after each of his phrases, I asked him in French, that is, my French, was I correct in thinking he had said so and so and so and so, and each time he replied “Oui,” and continued.

“Then I would speak five and six sentences at a time. I was totally on a roll. I was understanding everything he said. He was assuring me he was understanding everything I was saying. I left the conversation walking tall, my chest swelling with pride. Hell. I was ready to light up a Gauloise. Let’s go do something French. Let’s go drink some vin ordinaire.

“Then, Richard mentioned that this may have been a crazy man, and since the man was holding a basket, I asked Richard for some money and dropped coins in the basket. Now my confidence is going limp. I am realizing this is like the time I played the piano drunk. I could tell most of the notes I was hitting were wrong, but somehow, I felt it was my finest performance.

“I think what the man was telling me, and he reassured me at the time that I was correct, was that a great battle was fought in Noyon in the First World War, and that many British soldiers died and that this cloister, where he had taken us, was the part of the cathedral that was used for special prayers for those British men, who died in Noyon.”

He finally left us alone, and we enjoyed the refectory and the cloister and the garden.

When we went back into the nave, Carole went off on her own and I walked back to finish what I had started at the apse end. When I noticed that there was a door open at the east end of the north transept, with a light on inside and a spiral stone staircase. I decided nothing ventured, nothing gained, and began climbing.

Where I got was the triforium around the apse, a second story ambulatory, covered in chunks of stone and mortar, with an uneven floor, loose electrical wiring and in places a floor that might as well be dirt. It looked as though in 800 years, it had never really been finished, but left roughed out, since it had no useful function other than to be looked at from the cathedral floor.

I walked to the far end of the apse, took some pictures of the nave, full length, and was ready to walk around the triforium to the transept to have a look when four more people came up the stairs.

Great, I thought. I’m OK. This must be part of the tour.

But no, one of the four scolded me and told me something in French that made it clear I was not supposed to be there.

I walked over to them, apologized, explained that the door was open, and I asked if they spoke English. The woman said “un peu.” and held up the thumb and index finger to indicate about three quarters of an inch.

I told her that I didn’t understand what the man had said to me. She told me that I was not permitted up here, that she was bringing these two journalists up for a tour, and the third man was the sexton, who had the keys.

The young sexton was grim and adamant, but when I explained that I was also a journalist, and that I was studying cathedrals and had been grateful for the chance to climb to the triforium, she smiled and said, “We are going to climb the tower now. If you would like, you can come with us.”

Merci, merci, plus merci,” I said, and tagged along.

We went to the south tower at a door on the south aisle. The sexton pulled out his handful of keys and opened the door very slowly, to reduce the squeal of old hinges. We mounted the stone spiral staircase and began climbing, me bringing up the rear.


Well, I’ve been up towers before, and they can be worse than lighthouses: We climbed and climbed, with no relief of window or landing, till we got to the first level of the tower. The bells were clanging; it was quite an impressive sound, not quite enough to deafen poor Quasimodo, but loud enough. The floor looked like a construction site; the kind with grout and cement spilled on the ground and left to dry to a powder. The floor was bumpy and uneven, and the walls were unfaced stone, left as raw as when it was cut from the quarry. If it doesn’t show, why spend the time and money to finish it.

We went up another level — killing my poor knees, by the way, and practically bringing rigor mortis to my leg muscles. I huffed and puffed, but mostly, I sweated, Niagaras of sweat into my sports jacket. My shirt was a bathmat.

The next level was much like the previous, but with slots to the outside, allowing a cool breeze to filter through.

Yet one more level up, and we were at the top. Only the wooden roof was above us. Each of these levels was perhaps 30 feet high from floor to ceiling, and all left rough and unfinished.

But we could look out at the city and see the paysage all around: Farm field and woods as far as the eye could see beyond the village.

At one level, we ventured in towards the body of the church, and I could see the strut-work keeping the peaked roof up. Crawling through the guts of the cathedral, I felt the thrill of Rotwang and Maria traipsing among the buttresses and gargoyles.

Noyon may be a forgotten relic of centuries past, but it is now the church I feel most intimate with. I have seen it backstage as well as front.

After we walked back down, the church was being used for a funeral, and we all tried to be as quiet as possible. I thanked the woman and sexton for their hospitality, and left the church looking for Carole.

She was outside, having sat through some of the funeral, but then having felt a bit intrusive, left the building to walk around outside.

Anyway, it proved to be one of the best cathedral visits ever, and though I was drenched with sweat and beginning to stink that blue-collar stink, I was elated.

Next: Laon

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Size matters, at least in the case of Medieval churches vying with each other for bragging rights. The two tallest Gothic cathedrals in France are only a few miles apart, but they tell very different stories.

In the high Middle Ages, towns built churches the way American cities build sports stadiums, striving for the biggest, best and most impressive. They also advertised the best saintly relics, to draw pilgrims and their money to town. Some 70 miles north of Paris is the city of Amiens, which has the cathedral with the highest vaulted ceiling of any completed church and some 30 miles from that is the incomplete Beauvais, with a ceiling even higher, but an unfinished nave, leaving the church truncated and mutilated.

Amiens is a nearly perfect relict of the architecture of those years (and I shorthand the city’s name for the cathedral, otherwise I must write Notre Dame d’Amiens — or more precisely “The cathedral basilica of Our Lady of Amiens” to give it its official name — and almost all of these churches, cathedrals and basilicas are called Notre Dame or “Our Lady,” after the Marian cult that figured so prominently in Roman Catholicism in the area and at that time) It is the largest by volume and the tallest from floor to ceiling (save only the unfinished Beauvais, about which more later) with 13 stories of emptiness above the visitor.

It sits in the center of the town with a small by handsome parvis, or plaza, at its front. Three portals punctuate the western facade, which is covered with statues of saints and biblical figures. The north tower is slightly taller than the south, and because the building sits on a slight incline, there are more steps to climb at the north end of the facade than in the south.

Inside is brightly lit. Like the cathedral at Rouen, most of its stained glass is gone and the clear or frosted glass lets sunlight stream in.

The odd effect of the church’s regularity, its brightness and its isolation from other buildings nearby, Amiens doesn’t seem as big as it is, with ceiling 138 feet above the floor, and encompassing 260,000 cubic yards of air inside — three times the volume of Notre Dame of Paris. It is, however, the perfect model of the Gothic cathedral and the one I would suggest be the first to see, so as to gauge all the other you find in the northern half of the hexagon that is France.

There are a whole series of such cathedrals and basilicas in northern France, usually not more than 50 miles between each, and in 2006, my wife and I took a trip through the area, visiting 11 of these monuments. From Paris, we took the train to Rouen, where we rented a car and drove to Amiens and Beauvais. Then to Noyon, Laon, Reims, Vezelay, Chartres and back to Paris and Sainte-Chapelle, ending at the earliest Gothic architecture at St. Denis.

Of all of them, Amiens is perhaps the most classical, the ur-cathedral, and certainly the most unified, having been built rather quickly, by Medieval standards, from 1220 to 1260, with additions made in following centuries. Where some other churches are still rather grimy from the exhaust of the Industrial Revolution, Amiens has been cleaned up and is bright and presentable.

If anything is true of these prodigies of architecture, it is that there is no such thing as a Gothic cathedral — at least no such thing as a “pure” Gothic cathedral. Each has been built over decades, even centuries, and each has add-ons in different styles, rebuilds made more “modern,” and restorations by well-meaning finaglers such as the 19th-century Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, who replaced damaged statuary, added grotesques and redesigned finials and gargoyles according to his Victorian sense of what Gothic style should be.

Viollet-le-Duc was put in charge of restoring Amiens in the late 19th century, and he added a whole new line of statues at the top of the west facade, called the “Galerie des Sonneurs,” or “Gallery of Bell Ringers,” a passageway arcade between the two towers. He redid a good deal of the statuary and had the cathedral floor redone to smooth out the cobbling of centuries of foot traffic. Modern standards for restoration were not part of his procedure. “To restore an edifice”, he observed in his Dictionnaire raisonné, “is not to maintain it, repair or rebuild it, but to re-establish it in a complete state that may never have existed at a particular moment.” In other words, as he might imagine it

But such rejiggering is hardly unusual for these cathedrals.

Amiens was originally built in what is called “high Gothic” style, but all kinds of stylistic incongruities have been patched on. Although the building was essentially complete by 1280, in the 16th century, the mayor of  the city of Amiens decided it should have a spiffy new rose window in the then-current “flamboyant” style, highly sinuous and curvy, so the front window of Amiens doesn’t match the rest of the facade.

Not that one can complain. Inside, there are altars added in the Renaissance and the Baroque eras, so completely out of sympathy with the more rigorous taste of the Gothic. In some cathedrals, there are even Modernist stained glass windows.

It is the genius of the Gothic style that it can absorb almost anything and still seem perfectly harmonious. Some historical styles that strive for unity require any additions to be matched stylistically or the new parts seem like carbuncles grown where they are least desired. (Can  you imagine an addition to London’s Saint Paul’s Cathedral designed by, say, Louis Kahn?) But Gothic is an accepting style. There is not much you can do to it and not have it welcomed into the family.

The 19th century gave us a pervasive sense of the Middle Ages. Whether it was Victor Hugo in his hunchback novel, or Sir Walter Scott in his Waverly novels, Alfred Tennyson in his Idylls of the King, or Mark Twain (who tried to take the whole thing down a peg or two) in his Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, there are knights in shining armor, kings and their courtiers, castles and cathedrals. Those artists and authors gave us an era of dour religion and grey stone monuments. And when we look at the front of Amiens, with its ranks of saints standing like an army between the portals, we tend to have a purist vision of the stern asceticism of that era. Yet, we now know, from recent restoration work, that those grey statues guarding the church were originally brightly colored with paint. Traces of that paint is found in the stone, and in recent years, a fancy computer program has managed to create a light show that projects the original colors back onto the neutral stone. We can see what the front of the cathedral was meant to look like. It comes as a shock. One is reminded of certain Arab sheikhs painting the statues in their gaudy Los Angeles mansions.

 

There are ranks of small bas reliefs at eye-height along the front of the cathedral that depict the zodiac signs, the works of the seasons, and the stories of local saints. They are now monochrome, but inside, you can find similar quatrefoil reliefs that are still painted.

The past as we imagine it is always a shaky construct. History is always being revised, and those scholars who do the work are initially derided as “revisionist,” when, of course, that is their job. To quote the revered Firesign Theatre, “Everything you know is wrong.”

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Beauvais

Some 35 miles from Amiens, the cathedral at Beauvais is a testament to overreach. One cannot avoid thinking of the Tower of Babel, where cultural hubris outstrips engineering acumen and it all comes tumbling down.

The central metaphor of all these Gothic cathedrals is altitude, the sense inside them, that they reach to the heavens — or rather, to heaven. Their naves and choirs get taller and taller as the years move along, and when you are inside, it is nearly impossible not to be drawn upward, craning your neck into the vast space above your head. The light in a Gothic church also comes from above, reinforcing the metaphor: Above your head is divine.

This spiritual metaphor exists alongside the more earthly desire of city fathers to brag that they have the biggest and best, and so, a kind of competition existed in the 13th and 14th centuries to see who could build the most vertiginous vaulting. The winner of this inter-city battle was Beauvais, although its victory was Pyrrhic.

In AD 1225, the city authorities decided to replace an older church with one in the new Gothic style. The ambitions of the church and the local barons coincided in a plan to make this church the tallest and best in the world. The barons were in in  struggle with the French throne of Louis VIII and wished to assert their supremacy with the building, and the bishop wanted to assert his own primacy in this grand construction.

They finished the choir of the new church in 1272, with a ceiling vault that was 157 feet above the floor. An empty space the size of a 15 story building.

A Gothic church is usually built with a floorplan in the shape of a cross. The top part is called the choir, at the east end nearest the sunrise, the cross pieces are called the transept and the long side of the cross is the nave. Such churches were usually constructed with the choir made first, because that is where the Mass is celebrated and where the altar is located. (Amiens was unusual, in that the nave was built first and the whole constructed from west to east). So, in Beauvais, the choir was up and church services begun before the whole was finished.’’

It makers were proud, certainly, not only of the tallest church, but the finest, slenderest flying buttresses supporting the roof. But 12 years after it was finished, the roof collapsed. It seems to modern engineering studies, that a gale wind off the English Channel caused sympathetic vibrations in the structure and it shook apart. They rebuilt.

But the collapse, which caused concern about the engineering, and trouble fund raising to complete the whole left the church with only the choir and transept. At some point, it was decided that instead of using the money they had to finish the nave, they would use it to top the whole with a giant spire, which was finished in 1569 and left the church — at 502 feet high — the tallest building in the world at the time.

“We will construct a spire so high that once finished those who see it will think that we were crazy.”

Perhaps they were. Unfortunately, on April 30, 1573, it, too, came crashing down, along with three levels of the bell tower.

As described by author Elise Whitlock Rose, “On the eve of Ascension Day, 1573, a few small stones began to fall from its heights. The next morning, a mason, who had been sent to test it, cried out in alarm; the bearers of the reliquaries, about to join the Procession of the people and the clergy who were waiting outside, fled; — there was a violent cracking, — and in an instant, the vault crashed amidst a storm of dust and wind. Then, before the eyes of the terrified worshippers, the triple stories of the lantern sank, the needle fell, and a shower of stones rained into the church and on the roofs.”

The choir was rebuilt once more, but without the spire. But the nave (except for one bay) was never completed, leaving Beauvais as the trunk of a cathedral, a mutilated fragment.

The shakiness of its construction continues to threaten the building even today. The inside, meant to be an awe inspiring sublime holy space, is filled with trusses and braces, attempting to keep the whole from final catastrophe.

“I can remember Beauvais, because it didn’t have figurative sculpture on the outside and it didn’t have a nave” wrote Carole in our journal, “and inside I was frightened because so much of it was supported by wooden beams and screws. I wondered if it could fall.”

The lack of nave makes another point about the architecture: Despite Beauvais having the highest vaulting, its spiritual effect is diminished by the lack of nave. When you first enter Notre Dame de Paris, or Amiens, through the west portal, the view down the long stretch of nave gives you perspective on the height, making it all the more effective. You can see the height because of the length. At Beauvais, despite the height, there is something of a claustrophobic feel to it, squeezed into the heights instead of expanding to them.

Next: Noyons and Reims

rouen-facade-sunny

Visiting the churches, basilicas and cathedrals of Gothic northern Europe can be an intoxicating experience, and one can find oneself drugged into excessive panegyric. One recalls the excessive gushing of early 19th century writers and artists over the Romantic Middle Ages, with their knights in shining armor, courteous chivalry, and ladies in distress: Strawberry Hill, La Belle Dame sans Merci, Ivanhoe, et al.

rouen-chandelier

Certainly, a visit to Chartres or Sainte-Chapelle leaves one almost breathless in the sublimity of the interior space, the vaulting of heaven, the light through the stained glass. It is easy to become drunk with love for such buildings. But you should be careful not to fall into idolatry. They were, after all, built by human beings, and like their makers, can be imperfect.

Rouen Cathedral as seen from Gros HorlogeThe antidote to such architectural genuflection can be a visit to a Gothic cathedral that fails to rise completely to such admiration. For me, that moment came on seeing the monster at the heart of Rouen in Normandy. Rouen cathedral bullies the town, dominating the city with its giant spire, so out of proportion.

There is a perfectly good cathedral in the middle of it all, but it is buttressed on both shoulders by giant towers so out of scale as to seem like prison guards hectoring the poor dwarf between them, and then topped with a Victorian-era cast-iron steeple that is twice the height of the church itself. It is this Gothic designed taffy-pulled into parody.

Inside, the cathedral is spare. It was badly damaged by bombs during World War II, and most of the stained glass has been replaced by clear frosted glass. This makes the interior brighter than in most cathedrals, but also makes it look, as Rick Steves says, “like the largest mens’ room ever.”

rouen-nave-toward-apse

It is hard to recognize just what the Victorian critic John Ruskin was thinking when he wrote of Rouen, “It is the most exquisite piece of pure Flamboyant work existing. There is not one cusp, one finial, that is useless, not a stroke of the chisel is in vain; the grace and luxuriance of it all are visible — sensible, rather, even to the un-inquiring eye; and all its minuteness does not diminish the majesty, while it increases the mystery of the noble and unbroken vault.” Ruskin may have been smoking something.

That is the kind of gushing I believe a modern visitor to Rouen will find quelled by simply looking at what is in front of him. Ruskin, it seems, was still blotto on the overkill of breathy Victorian enthusiasm.

rouen-angled-facade

Historians like to divide the Gothic idea into subsets, early, high, rayonnant and flamboyant styles. Rouen, as it exists now, is primarily the last, gauded up with all kinds of filigree and tracery. Its west facade (aka, its front), is so detailed as to make it impossible to take it all in as a single entity. This is made worse by the twin towers muscling the central building into a cowering detainee. The older tower, the Tour St. Romain, sits to the left (to the south), and rises on decaying brick and stone. The newer one, the so-called Butter Tower, was added much later to balance the earlier one, and re-establish symmetry. The result is that the building’s footprint is wider than it is tall (not counting the spire, but just the actual nave and aisles huddled below) and therefore negating the whole upthrusting heavenward leap most characteristic of Gothic church architecture. Instead of reaching for the heavens, it seems as wide as a warehouse.

Most of the Medieval churches were constructed piecemeal over centuries, and in almost every case, styles changed over that time, and so Gothic architecture is an especially heterogeneous one: unity out of difference. Rouen takes that idea and runs with it. It was begun in 1035 on the ruins of a previous Romanesque site that had burnt down. Since then, the history of Rouen is one of calamity and rebuild. This constant reboot has made it a less harmonious jumble than one finds elsewhere, of ad hoc fixes, misguided redesigns and megalomaniac civic striving.

spire-destroyed-by-fire-in-1822It is the Peter Abelard of cathedrals, and a book could be written on the history of its misfortunes. The previous cathedral was struck by lightning in 1110, and construction began on the current building. The new one burnt again in 1200, destroying all but the nave arcades, the Saint-Romain tower and the left portal, with work ending in 1250. It was struck again by lightning in 1284, was partially taken down and rebuilt in 1302, the spire was blown down in a wind storm in 1353. The construction of the Butter Tower in the 16th century led to disturbances in the facade, which had to be reinforced (finished 1530). The original Gothic spire had burned down in 1514 and was finally replaced by a wooden spire covered in gold-plated lead in 1580, paid for, in part, by the selling of indulgences. In 1562, it was damaged by rebelling Calvinists  during the Wars of Religion, when much of the statuary and windows were destroyed. The cathedral was struck again by lightning in 1625 and 1642, damaged by a hurricane in 1683. The choir burnt in 1727 and a bell broke in 1786. During the French Revolution, the church, like many in France, was deconsecrated and turned into a civic building and metal parts of the church were melted down to make cannons and cannonballs. The spire was again blasted by lightning in 1822 and a new one made from cast iron added in 1876 (making it the tallest building in the world until displaced from atop the list four years later by the cathedral at Cologne. (Then to the Eiffel Tower in 1889).

rouen-wwii-2The misfortunes continued. In 1940, a fire damaged the building’s structure and burned that part of the city from the church to the Seine river, and later during World War II, the cathedral was bombed twice, first by the British, then by the Americans, just before D-Day. Parts of the south aisle were destroyed and the south tower burned. Much of the remaining stained glass was blown out, leading to the current situation with frosted glass in many of the windows.

Then, in 1999, a cyclone named Lothar destroyed one of the four wooden turrets surrounding the central lantern tower was blasted and fell crashing into the choir. The history of Rouen’s cathedral is one of constant upkeep and rebuilding, like trying to sustain a sand castle against the tide.

Yet, if the building seems a disappointment after Notre Dame de Paris, after Chartres or St. Denis, perhaps I am being too hard on it. It still has many redeeming details, and some very ancient survivors, like the north portal, or St. John the Baptist Portal. In its tympanum one sees the story of the prophet, Salome’s dance (more an gymnastics exhibition), the beheading of John and the presentation of his head on a platter. It was created in the 12th century and has survived fire, storm and the ravages of war.

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Then, there is the Booksellers’ Stairway (Escalier de la Librairie), which once led to the archives of the chapter, begun in 1479 and completed in 1788. And also on the north side is the only rose window that retains its stained glass, over the Portail des Libraires, created in the late 14th century by the artist Guillaume Nouel. The rose is partially blocked, but still can be seen. (The opposite rose window, above the Calende Portal in the south transept, is clear glass).

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There are some delightful tapestries hanging in the arcade between nave and aisle.

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Also, there is the Lady Chapel, growing out of the apse, like an elongated caterpillar, are some excellent windows and a huge 17th century altarpiece dedicated to the Virgin. The Lady Chapel (that is Our Lady — the Virgin Mary) was built in rayonnant style beginning in 1302 to replace an earlier, smaller chapel.

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And rising from the crossing of the transept is the opening in the ceiling that leads upward to the spire. While the vaulting is impressive enough, it is ever more striking to see the empty space defined by the interior of the nave opened up even higher, as if the incense and prayers could escape heavenward through it, like smoke through a chimney hole in Medieval dwelling. The vast spire tower and the godawful cast-iron spire are supported by four grand pillars marking the crossing of nave and transept, but even with those giant supports, the ceiling and the hole in it inspire an exceptional sense of what you could call “spiritual uplift,” as if the chimney had an efficient updraft.

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Nowadays, the parvis (plaza in front of the cathedral) is notably commercial, with an underwear store across from the triple portals —

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the western exterior of the church has nevertheless inspired one of the great painting series of the Impressionist era. Claude Monet painted that cathedral front something like 30 times, in sun, shade, rain, moonlight and in morning, afternoon, and night. The paintings are now spread around the world in various museums.

The painter would set up his easel — sometimes easels — across from the church and paint on one canvas in the morning to catch the first glow of light, then switch to another canvas later on to paint the afternoon light. He might switch canvases many times, over days and weeks, to catch the various effects.

I couldn’t do that in my short visit to Rouen, but I did photograph the cathedral throughout the day to make my own mini-Monet spread.

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Click on any image to enlarge

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Some years ago, we knew we wanted to see Europe. But we weren’t sure where we wanted to go. This was at the beginning of our new century. Friends had just visited Rome and brought back exciting video, photographs, watercolors they had made, and most of all, stories. It whetted our appetite.

But once we made the decision to go to Europe, we stopped to wonder if Rome was our only option. Perhaps we should think carefully if there might be some other destination that might call us.

We thought of Prague, Paris, London, Florence, Budapest.

London we ruled out because we wanted the experience of being somewhere that doesn’t speak English. We agonized for some months, fantasizing this place or that. We finally narrowed it down to Paris or Rome.

Rome — Baroque palaces, Classical ruins. Paris — Gothic cathedrals.  Do we want the classical experience, or the Medieval?

Yes, that’s what it came down to. Ultimately, the gray stone of the 11th century was more appealing to us than the sunnier marble of the Mediterranean.

nd-fruiting-branch-sculptureWe decided on Paris, with the plan to avoid all standard tourist fare and attempt to feel what it might be like to live in the city. We would eat in the neighborhood, shop in the neighborhood and walk up and down its streets. In addition, we would try to see as many Gothic churches as possible. In each subsequent visit to France, we managed to add to our life list of important architectural sites, and we developed a growing appreciation for both their beauty and their ability to inspire a profound inward-looking sense of the infinite.

I hope the reason for all this will be clear as I write about them. We kept a journal of our visits, over the years, and alternated portions written by me and often more personal portions written by my wife, Carole. There is an immediacy to these journals that cannot be recaptured in a more finished ready-for-print version and I hope you can enjoy them.

Over the years I have visited Notre Dame de Paris maybe a dozen times — multiple occasions each time we ventured to France. It was a lodestone that drew us back over and over for that glimpse into eternity that only an 800-year-old empty space can provide. The first time I went, was in 1964 and I was a teen ager, barely able to grasp what I had seen. It was before the cathedral was cleaned, and was a giant sooty briquette on the Île de la Cité. The second time was our first trip together in 2002, which was covered in an earlier series of blog entries (see: Paris 2002 Part 1). That included accidentally participating in an Easter Mass; we did not realize it was Easter. (See: Paris 2002 Part 5).

This new series of entries begins two years later when we went back. The photographs for each of these entries were taken at the time we wrote the journals.

Here is our return to Notre Dame in 2004, first my entry, then Carole’s (she puts me to shame).

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Richard’s entry:

We walked to the river and down the quai to the cathedral.

“This is why we came here,” said Carole.

And we walked in and the building did not disappoint us: The space remains magic. The rose windows remain the most beautiful art I have ever seen.

“Most buildings are constructed to contain something,” she said. “Most contain furniture, or people, or warehouses that contain lumber or dry goods. This building is constructed to contain the space itself.”

nd-vaulting-diagonalShe is certainly right about that. The space itself, the negative, if it were turned positive, is the shape of — what — infinity. The shape of the interior of our “souls.” The shape of the inner dome of our skulls projected out into space.

It was early in the morning and the rising sun poured directly in through the apse windows. A small mass was being said in the choir and the light shone down on them.

I went around making photographs, mostly of the sculpture at the west portals. Carole sat still inside and soaked up the ambiance.

We stayed most of the morning. We will go back.

Notre Dame is the reason we visit: There is nothing in the U.S. that gives quite this same spiritual sense. One begins to understand the appeal of Christianity to the Medieval mind. There is something mythological rather than ethical to the religion engendered by such a building, something theatrical rather than pious.

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Carole’s entry:

Oh. Notre Dame was just the place, just the room, just the building.

nd-chandelier-2This time, I spent most of my time looking at the windows from the center of the cathedral. And I especially loved the trees around Notre Dame, because they have grown in a special environment. They haven’t been treated like ordinary trees and they’re just a short distance from trees of their same species, but they’ve been treated like sacred statues because they’re part of Notre Dame.

Something else I loved, was the wood in Notre Dame. It reminded very much of the logs in Aunt Donie’s house in Wilkes County (North Carolina). Aunt Donie’s cabin was very old and there is something about the wood in both places that is the same.

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This time, the part of Notre Dame that became very real for me is the empty space above my head and it was like the empty space around a still life that I drew a long time ago on the day I realized that the empty space was not empty.

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Today I thought the most beautiful window was the one at floor level behind the altar because the sun was coming in and the leading in that window looked like a tree with branches and it gave me the very human feeling of sun behind trees in the evening.

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Oh, the sculpture outside Notre Dame is a different color now and it is so smooth it looks like modeled clay.

I think maybe Notre Dame is the most important art that I’ve ever seen. I wanted to sit so I could line up the top of my head with the part of the ceiling that had a curve most like the top of my head.

I truly felt in a human attitude that I share with people who lived centuries ago, or maybe thousands of years ago. I was frustrated by knowing anything that I do know about architecture or art or history or Christianity and I kept trying to clear my mind so that I could put myself in the right relationship with the room that I was in and the same with the outside of the building.

nd-scenes-of-hellI almost got to the point where the demons on the outside of the cathedral were comprehended by me on a completely visual level. I wanted very much to have the experience of an ordinary person who was seeing Notre Dame for the very first time centuries ago and would have been able to read the building visually. Today the cathedral worked on me profoundly in a visual and spacial way, but I regret that I am not one of those who participated with that architecture with innocence and terror and devotion.

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And all of that is the part of today I don’t ever want to forget.

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I feel like I don’t understand the windows yet, even though I did sit there and look, not at the side windows, but the three rose windows and they were beautiful, but I couldn’t make them work on me the way the window behind the altar began to work. I want that kind of thing to happen with the rose windows. But I do understand the rose windows at a level now that is not just intellectual and I think they’re very mysterious and that they must work but that I haven’t been able to get them turned on yet.

The sculptures of the actual humans and the idealized humans — the saints and the kings — and the symbolic humans suffering in hell, and the other worldly figures of angels and little grinning devils affect me in a way that is really beyond language except that if I try to describe it it would be like going on one of our trips out West and seeing really massive places of stone that nature had created naturally, and seeing how it was made completely by the mighty forces of time and weight and heat and wind and water, but especially time, and that those big outcroppings of rock, faces of rock, are completely indifferent to being perceived by any kind of intelligence, but are profound and affecting faces of rock and the statues affect me in almost the very same way, amazing and profound to me, and because they have been affected through time, they seem mighty to me.

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Not just that they show the evidence of time, but most of all that they testify to the mystery that is inside our minds. I love the silence of Notre Dame, the silence of the architecture.

When we go to sleep at night here knowing that Notre Dame is there, it is a lot like going to sleep in the Blue Ridge knowing the mountains are there.

Click on any picture to enlarge

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I have avoided writing about current politics for several reasons. Firstly, because the situation so quickly changes, nothing you write today may hold for tomorrow. Secondly, because it is so touchy a subject, you risk alienating your reader for minor offenses that can be taken as index markers for major disagreements. Thirdly, because politics is such a minor part of what makes a difference in our individual lives; so many other things are more important and more interesting.

Nevertheless, the chaos of the current American situation calls for some small clarification. Arguments muddy when thinking is unclear.

To begin, there is the issue of Donald Trump, which is a great squirt of squid juice, obscuring more lasting problems. It is easy to make fun of the Great Pumpkin, he practically satirizes himself. While he has fervent supporters, it is hard to know exactly what he stands for, because his words are so vague in application, no matter how blunt in expression. It is always possible to assume he is your ally, because you only listen to those words that honk your horn. Is he conservative? Conservatives value free trade. Is he pro-business? Business has told him they need an immigrant workforce. What does he stand for besides ignorance?

He is an obfuscation on the surface, a chaos beyond that because, of course, he has no ideology, other than Trumpism. It is not his supposed conservatism that I object to; there have been many thoughtful conservatives. Trump is not one of them; he isn’t even a conservative at all. What scares the bejeezus out of me about him is that he is so clearly unbalanced mentally. The word Andrew Sullivan has used is “bonkers,” and that can hardly be improved for accuracy. The constant wheezing about his vote count, poll numbers, inauguration crowd, all spouted against obvious and visual evidence, is a clear indication that he is unmoored from reality.

Then, there are the speeches, barely in English. They are really just sentence fragments thrown together with unattached adjectives. Yuge, sad, unbelievable, disgusting. They, as Philip Roth has counted them, are constructed from a vocabulary of a mere 77 words, reused and rearranged ad hoc. They jump around from topic to topic with little or no segue. And then, they are filled with things that are demonstrably untrue. One watches over an over when Trump says he never said this or that, followed by the videotape of him saying exactly what he now says he never said. Does he not know that his words have been recorded?

It cannot be easily said that Trump is a liar, because a liar knows what he is saying is untrue. Others manipulate statistics to make their arguments; Trump just pulls stuff out of his ass. Evidence is irrelevant.

Further, he uses these exanus pronouncements to support his chaotic policy pronouncements, which tend to be simple-minded in the extreme. Problems are usually complex and systemic; his solutions are simple-minded and blunt as a cudgel. He shows contempt for subtlety. If the problem is illegal immigration, his solution is not to consider the cause of the immigration, but to build a wall, despite the fact that the majority of the illegal immigration does not cross the desert border, but flies into our airports. My favorite joke about the wall: “Wall — cost: $12 billion; ladder — cost: $35.”

But this is not meant to be a jab at Trump, who is clearly unhinged, not very bright, not at all subtle, and basically a bully at heart. It is too easy to target him; he is a joke. A dangerous joke, who may very well destroy the world at the push of a button, but a joke nonetheless.

No, what I want to point out is that there is, beyond Trump, a basic misunderstanding of the political divisions in the country.

The divisions are very real. Between urban and rural, between liberal and conservative, between Republican and Democrat. But I want to point out that these may overlap, like Venn diagrams, the dipoles are not identical. We too often confuse conservative with Republican and liberal with Democrat. There may be overlap, but more important, their goals are different.

There is a clear difference between liberal and conservative. As they are defined nowadays (very different from when they originated and when conservatism favored a strong central government), the conservative now seeks a smaller central government and the liberal, an activist government working for the betterment of its citizens. The one favors the individual, the other, the community. The one is exclusionary, the other inclusive. And it is clear that as the political scene is currently deployed, Republicans tend to favor conservatism and Democrats tend to the liberal, although Republicans are more extremely weighted to the far-end of conservatism than the Democrats are to the left wing.

But, such thoughts of political philosophy are largely irrelevant to the actualities of politics. One should never conflate Republican with conservative, nor Democrat with liberal. The aims of ideology are to promote a world view and an action plan to enforce that world view. But that is not the aim of the Republican party. Certainly, it will use conservative ideas to further its ends when it can, but its primary driving aim is the accrual and preservation of power. This is central and should never be forgotten: Republicans will do whatever they need to to gain and keep power. Democrats have a similar, but weaker drive. Many Democrats join the party because they think they can make the world a better place. Some Republicans do that, too, but the aim of the party on the whole is not the improvement of society, but the exercise of power. It is King of the Hill on a hemispheric playing field.

This is not to say that most Republicans don’t believe, by and large, that conservative policies would help the nation, but that whether or not they do is secondary to the accretion of political power. Hence, the contorted, serpentine Congressional districts, gerrymandered into silliness in order to ensure Republican supremacy. (Yes, Democrats have done the same — in fact, they invented the procedure in the 19th century — but they were pikers compared to the modern attempt to engineer a “permanent Republican majority.”) Hence, the bald-faced hypocrisy of choosing sides on an issue solely on the basis of whether a Republican or Democrat is offering it for a vote (as with the Republican-designed Affordable Care Act, which became an unswallowable “disaster” when recycled by the Obama administration. Hence, the use of arcane Senate or House rules, or the threat of the “nuclear option,” when it favors them, and outrage when used against them.

And it is why Republicans were gulled into supporting Trump when it looked like he might win the White House back for the party, despite the problem of Trump espousing ideas contrary to longstanding Republican policies. Trump is, after all, not a Republican, except in name, and not a conservative, as it is usually defined. He is sui generis, a propounder of Trump now, Trump tomorrow, Trump forever.

One area in which Trump and Republican world views agree is that the primary lens through which to view policy is economic. Money is the gravity that holds that world together. Whether it’s tax cuts, deregulation or fear of unions and a raise in minimum wage, the heart and soul of the conservative world view is money. The very idea of “running government like a business” is a consequence of this Weltanschauung. But across the world, this idea is changing. Governments are not businesses.

There is a historical storyline here. In the feudal past, with the king at the top of the pile, government was essentially a protection racket, with each level of vassalage “wetting its beak” in the next level down, and everyone feeding on the peasants. The general welfare of the populace was not even an empty platitude. As nation states developed from the Medieval sense of monarchal real estate, the idea of decent governance took hold. Since the New Deal in the U.S., and post-war in the better part of the rest of the world, governments have assumed the duty of protecting the welfare of its populace. All through Europe, governments guarantee health care, safety, minimum living wages, shorter work weeks and longer vacations. The U.S. has resisted such things. For Republicans (distinct from conservatives, who also have many social issues) and Trump see the world through dollar-tinted glasses. It is a reversion to the Medieval model, where all wealth floats upward like a bubble in the champagne. And it is power that guarantees the income. The goal of the Republican party is not so much the institution of conservative ideas, rather it is the use of conservative ideas to protect and increase individual wealth.

The problem is, that while money can make life easier to navigate, money cannot make life worth living. For that, you need the other aspects of life that Democrats — and most of the rest of the world — embrace. Freedom from oppression, sufficient means for living, cooperative communities, aid for the less fortunate, an even playing field for all. Among the things that make life worth living are family, love, art, religion, good health, and shared interests and shared mythology.

For Trump and the Republican party both, the world they see is transactional. It is also a zero-sum game, and the winning is all. We need to recall that when we let ourselves be gulled into arguing over conservative and liberal. Those labels are merely the masks worn in the more brutal fight over who will be the alpha dog.

fellini-3I was watching Fellini’s 8½ the other night and found myself weeping uncontrollably at the end. The last 20 minutes of the film make little or no literal sense, and works on purely emotional level — I wanted to say symbolic, but it isn’t really symbol that works here; rather it is a dreamlike series of images that cannot be rationally explicated. They simply add up. One can see the final dance as a riposte to the end of Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal, where there is a line of dancers following death silhouetted on the hillside; in Fellini, it is rather a circus dance of life, to the rhythm of Nino Rota’s music, which somehow manages to mix sadness with ebullience. In Bergman, the queue is linear and headed to oblivion; in Fellini, it is circular and continuous.

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But what was important wasn’t meaning but effect. There I was with hot wet cheeks and full heart, profoundly moved, although I could not explain exactly why. In some ways, the finale of the movie is silly, even childish. Somehow, though, it hit some resonant note. I was a wet rag, drained and filled at the same time.

I bring it up because so often our response to art is too little; we are trained — especially if we are professional critics, as I was — to make notes, consider intellectual points, compare and contrast, bring context and place the experience in a historical moment. Yet, if I were to say truly, none of that really matters; what matters is whether I am moved. Art, whether literature, movie, music, architecture or painting, needs to do more than divert us, to entertain or tickle our pleasure centers. It should change our lives. This is not easy; this is rare.

emily-dickinson-daguerreotypeI remember reading a quote by Emily Dickinson, in a letter she wrote to her patron Thomas Wentworth Higginson: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”

When I was younger, this struck me as schoolgirl hyperbole. Now I am an old man, and I am poorly satisfied with anything that doesn’t take the top of my head off. Through a lifetime of concerts, theater and galleries, I must report that very little displayed therein reaches that bar. Most of the time, art gives us pleasure enough — we enjoy the tunes or the colors — but it does not rip us up, tear us apart and reassemble us in new ways. To justify art in terms of its prettiness diminishes the importance it plays in life and in culture. We must consider it in terms of how it changes us, leaves us weeping and hollowed out.

I have attended hundreds, perhaps thousands of concerts in my life. I have enjoyed most of them, and even in those that have been disastrous, there is almost always some moment of pleasure. (I remember a concert of amateurs attempting to play some Dvorak; they were godawful, out of tune, out of rhythm, unbalanced, a horrendous squawk — but they played with such obvious gusto and enthusiasm, and were enjoying themselves so much, I found I considered myself truly lucky to have heard them). But I can also count a few score times in seven decades, the number of times I was actually transported by a performance. Yet, those few times bring me back over and over in hopes of once again entering that heaven to hear those angels.

I heard the Philadelphia Orchestra under Wolfgang Sawallisch blow the hell out of Richard Strauss’ Don Juan, with a chorus of eight horns sounding the great heroic horn call. There was a physicality to that blast that cannot be captured in a recording. I felt the music through the seat of my pants as much as through my ears. It made me believe.

Early in my career, in 1964, I heard Emil Gilels at the Brooklyn Academy of Music play the Liszt B-minor sonata. I can still remember it, even to the seat where I was sitting and the angle I viewed the pianist from.

Twice, I have heard Yo-Yo Ma play the Bach Unaccompanied Suites for cello, and twice I have visited Elysium. He has recorded those suites three times in the course of his career, and none of them captures the lightning of the live performance. Not even close.

apollo-1It isn’t just music, though. I can read and reread Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode and every time, I break down and weep. I have stood beneath the north rose window at Chartres and each time I have done so, I have been transfixed, even transfigured. It is the most beautiful manmade thing I have ever seen — a lens to focus a vision of paradise directly into my hypothalamus. I had a similar reaction the first time (and each time) I saw George Balanchine’s Apollo. It is pure sorcery, magic, unalloyed beauty. Not beauty so much as reason-to-live.

I could go on, making a list. But that would be futile, and also misleading. Because the fact I was transported to some ring of heaven beyond the seventh by the Cezannes at the National Gallery in Washington DC, that does nothing to guarantee you will have the same experience. Making a list of the “great works of art” is pointless, because what matters is not the “objective” quality of a piece of art, but rather its resonance in the psyche and like any physical object, we resonate at different frequencies. What opens the floodgates in one set of eyes can leave the next pair unmoved. Chaucer’s short poem, Trouthe, has been a touchstone for me. For others, it may be a jumble of archaic vocabulary. You may melt to a puddle at Musetta’s waltz from La Boheme, and I might think it a catchy tune. De gustibus.

king-learWhat matters, however, is that we find in whatever art that moves us, some special shattering of the veil of everydayness, a bursting out into the glory, the recognition that the night sky is infinite, that there is some web, some complex knot of emotional string that ties us together as human beings. It may be Michelangelo’s Pieta, Picasso’s Guernica, Brahms’ German Requiem, that moment at the end of King Lear when he carries the dead Cordelia back on stage and we realize his splintered ignorance and madness is our own —  it gives lie to all the feel-good rah-rah about “the arts,” and the chamber-of-commerce support for cultural institutions. It isn’t that the arts are some charming little ornament to our civic lives, but that when that spark ignites in the rare cases it happens, our entire beings are set on fire. There is nothing “nice” about it. It is disruptive, challenging, destructive in the way destruction can lead to new birth. I never want to be subjected to pleasant art. I want to be battered by it (pace John Donne).

What makes it all more frustrating, however, is that it can never be just the piece of art. If I was profoundly moved by Balanchine’s Prodigal Son the first time I saw it, that is no guarantee that I will have the same experience the next time, and not because of a variability in performance, but because the art can seep in and work its power on us only when we are receptive. I may have had a overcooked pork chop before heading to the concert hall, or a disturbing letter in the mail, and cannot receive the gift of the performance. I may just not be in the mood for Sam Beckett that night; or the memory of one conductor’s Beethoven may deafen me to the new one being offered. A thousand distractions block the missive from the gods.

There is also our age: What moves us at 20 may not at 65. We find new depths in things we were once blind to, and outgrow early enthusiasms. This is natural and if it didn’t happen, something would be wrong.

So, we should be all the more grateful when we can open our chests to the lash of what is being gifted us.