Stories rise to climaxes, and our first trip to Paris reached that point on Sunday, when we accidentally stumbled into one of the most profound experiences of my life: seeing the Gothic cathedral in full tilt, with all its bells and whistles sounding. Later trips to France would be focused on the many cathedrals and churches built centuries ago across northern France.
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Notre Dame: 2nd round
Sunday, March 30: Easter
A machine is always more beautiful when it is running.
A cathedral, as Carole said, is a machine to take you someplace.
Today, we saw that machine with all its gears rotating and its cylinders pumping.
Not that we expected it when we left in the morning. We were just going to walk along the river, on the Ile St. Louis. We had a petit dejeuner at L’Etoile d’Or down the street, and wandered over the Pont de la Tournelle and along the Quai d’Orleans, to get a good photo of the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris on its island.
“Sunday,” I thought. Must bring out more tourists. They were everywhere.
We walked around the north side of the cathedral, to photograph details and gargoyles. But as we passed the transept portal, we noticed that, for the first time, the doors were open. Why not wander in and see.
Inside, the big Easter mass was being celebrated. The church was packed. Most of the visitors were celebrants, but a good number around the edges were just tourists.
But at the altar, spotlighted like a good stage, there were priests and a choir, which was chanting plainsong that echoed through the building like surf.
A priest was swinging a censer around the altar, spreading smoke through the crossing of the transept.
It took a while to get past the “gee whiz, what did we stumble into?” But soon we recognized the beauty and theater of the ceremony. It was intoxicating to hear the chant, melismatically floating like the censer smoke, under the brilliant blues and reds of the Rose Window, high above.
The vaulting, the lights, the stained glass, the church, spread out in its cruciform, that is also the diagrammatic shape of my body and your body, with the vast ceiling which is metaphorical of the inner dome of the skull — we could see how the priest at the crossing of the transept — the place that counts as the heart of the cruciform homunculus — was casting us out into the cosmos, out into the mystery, out into an intense beauty we only rarely let ourselves be aware of.
I was shaken. I believe Carole was, too. One listened to the choir, now taking on a later music, a descant from the 15th or 16th century, with the soprano floating her melos out over an altos lower harmony, and looked up, and on raising eyes, one sees the axis of the rose window, with all the light pouring through the interstices in the tracery, very like the angels dancing around the divine center of Dante’s mystical rose.
The vastness of the cathedral interior became the vastness of the universe, the singing became the music of the spheres.
The particular music split between soprano and alto was early enough that it did not participate in the tonic-dominant of classical music, but instead flowed endlessly in shifting concord, opening into landini cadences here and there to redirect the tonality.
And I heard in that melisma something completely separate from an esthetic event. It became the closest thing I have ever heard to the human equivalent of a bird’s song, a sound beautiful beyond its need to be beautiful, uttered out of instinct and joy. Shelley’s skylark, perhaps.
The doctrine simply didn’t matter. The metaphor behind the doctrine — the metaphor truer than the sometimes unknowing doctrine — took over.
We were privileged to witness the building doing what it was designed to do, like driving a Maserati across the countryside, or seeing the dynamos at Hoover Dam spin out electrical power.
We stepped out of the church after about a half hour. The bells were pealing all over town. Easter morning bells, not only from Notre Dame de Paris, but from every small church and chapel.
I continued making the photographs I had come to make, getting all the details of the West Facade, the sculptures and portals. While moving from point to point, I left Carole waiting in the crowded plaza so she wouldn’t have to keep up with me while I jumped around.
Then, I reentered the cathedral through the West door. I thought I’d see what the service was like looking down the spine of the nave. The choir was silent, but the organ was playing some Messaien. I could hardly believe it: The French composer was being taken seriously enough to play at an event as important as this. And the music was transformed by the place and event, too.
It was no longer an esthetic construct. Messaien is a joy, rich as pastry, if you have the ears to stand it. But Messaien didn’t write music — especially his organ music — so his listeners could get their jollies. No, he wrote it out of religious devotion to serve a function.
Bach organ music is great for a Lutheran service, but that deep, familiar tonic-dominant drive of the fugues and passacaglias would have seemed all out of place in the middle of Catholic mass. The Messaien is as powerful a music as Bach’s on the organ, but it is built on another schema, one that doesn’t give you an expectation and fulfills it. No, it is much more like the mystery, going into unexpected places and finding awe, finding sublimity.
To see the mass, hear the choir and the organ, on an Easter morning, in a 13th Century cathedral, Gothic to the core, with those windows, that color, that light, that theater: It is one of the highlights, not of this trip, but of my life. I was overwhelmed, which is the only appropriate response to the Great Mystery.
Addendum: The martyrdom of St. Denis
The exterior of Notre Dame de Paris is covered with the tall, attenuated statues of saints. Most of the sculpture there today is the work of Eugène Viollet-le Duc, who restored the worn, weathered and often insulted cathedral in the middle of the 19th century. (After the French Revolution, the deconsecrated structure was used as a barn to store grain.) His work on Notre Dame, like his work elsewhere, freshened the architecture and sculpture. No one knows for sure who each of the saints are. Some are obvious from the symbolism, others are obscure. But St. Denis (Dionysius) is clear as can be: The third century saint was beheaded during the persecutions of the Emperor Decius, and he stands at the cathedral in stone, holding his head in his hands. According to Butler’s Lives of the Saints, after he was decapitated, he picked up his head and walked six miles north from Montmartre, where he was executed, to what is now the banlieu of St. Denis, where the basilica bearing his name was later built, and where so many of the kings of France are entombed.
As profound as the cathedral is, the area around it in Paris is a tourist sewer. Even the bookstalls are geared to moving merchandise to a herd of passing tourists. The awful Rue de Huchette is clogged with places to separate you from your lucre, and sell you “naughty” French postcards or mass-produced “original” paintings of the cathedral or the Eiffel Tower.
But as we moved up the hill toward the Luxembourg Gardens, Paris reasserted itself and the tourists disappeared. We walked through the gardens, among the statues and horsechestnut trees and were in the middle, once more, of a living city. People all around were walking dogs, sitting under trees and reading, or cuddling or smoking. Teenagers rolled past on their inline skates and joggers puffed around corners. All I heard was French.
As we walked back from the gardens, we passed an older section of town (if that isn’t redundant in this ancient city) and had fun spotting all the sculptured apartment facades. There were not only the usual satyr faces and acanthus leaves, but giant elephant heads and lions. The Institute of Maritime Science had a great wrought iron octopus above its door.
Passing back around the Pantheon — an ungainly building — we came down the hill on Rue de Cardinal Lemoine and home territory. We stopped at l’Etoile d’Or again for a late lunch of Boeuf Bourgignon. Carole had a creme brulee and told the waiter that the crystalized caramelized sugar on the top of the custard was “like the glass in the windows of the cathedral.”
He laughed and appreciated the comment. Later we heard him telling the chef what she said, and the chef said simply, “Vrai.”
When we got back to the hotel, it rained a good clean rain.
I had the sensation of being pulled up and up and up. First my eyes and then my body and then my soul. And I don’t know how to say this, but it makes you want to be better. Being inside that building appeals to the best part of you. The incense really worked: It appealed to my sense of smell. I was “smelling in a sacred manner.” And when we left the cathedral I carried some of that incense in my hair for a long time. It smelled a little like cloves, but more like the resin of some wonderful tree. Outside, when we saw some of the members of the choir, they were really young, laughing and being lighthearted, and just a moment before they had been angels. It reminded me of Bergman’s Magic Flute, the way the characters are also regular people and also in the play.
I loved seeing the statue of Mary, and she was wearing a crown and holding the infant Jesus, but she didn’t seem sacred to me because she was the mother of God, she looked sacred to me because she was a sweet little mother with her baby.