At the climax of Fritz Lang’s 1925 classic, Metropolis, the mad scientist villain kidnaps the heroine and climbs to the top of the city’s cathedral, dangling precipitously over the narrow walkway at the edge of the roof. From the first time I saw the movie, I wanted to join him.
Not, obviously, as a kidnapper, but rather to experience the hidden acroscape of the cathedral — the skin over the vast interior space that defines such a cathedral. It is akin to the thrill of walking along the catwalks above a stage, among the ropes and dropscenes. You have the charge of being somewhere illicit, somewhere ordinary mortals never get to see.
If you are willing to climb the stony steps inside the northern tower of Chartres cathedral in France, you can break out into the air high above the town and look down not only at the houses but on the gargoyles arrayed below you. You have something of the point of view of the angels Cassiel and Damiel from Wim Wenders’ film, Wings of Desire. It is almost like flying.
It is a long way up and a lot of stairs narrow inside a tube of rock and no one with serious claustrophobia should attempt it. But you can climb to the bell tower rooms and then to the roof of the cathedral and walk on the narrow stone walkway, with the low stone balustrade preventing you from a headlong five-second, wind-rushed appointment with your inevitable end.
You look down at the flying buttresses and notice architectural details you cannot see from the ground. You see the moss and lichen that has been slowly eating at the stone for centuries. You see the vivid green of the roof and beyond that, the distant round horizon.
What is more, and perhaps the most surprising, is the incredible amount of ornamental detail put into the structure at a level that no normal human would ever get a chance to see. There are finials and floral scrollwork, there is tracery and statuary, all placed there, as far as anyone can tell, for the sole amusement of gods and angels — for who else will get to appreciate the work put in to such places that have no public access, no meaningful purpose for the clergy or staff, no liturgical function. The old stone carvers who made such beasts must have had a grand time unlocking the cage doors of their ids.
Indeed, much of the carving along the roofline of Chartres seems positively pagan rather than Christian. There are demons and lizards, chimeras and gargoyles. The building is positively animated with this menagerie of odd animalia.
And up this high, you can see the gargoyles from above, and see the grooves down their backs and the holes through the skulls that guide the rainwater out into the streets, away from the foundations of the church. Gargoyles are drainspouts; the others are chimera — the odd animals that decorate corners, niches and summits. In the Middle Ages, they were all called “babewyn,” which was Italian for “baboon.”
It is one of the touchstones of Gothic thinking that a building should match the fecundity and variety of the world. We who have grown up in the age of Mies van der Rohe have come to think that the hallmark of elegance is simplicity, that “less is more.” But the Medieval artist looked around him and saw oak leaves and irises, chipmunks and rooks, gullies and precipices, and all in an abundance of color and shape — and he strived to match that earthly brilliance with a corresponding abundance in his work.
Cultural history shows us a constant pendulum swing between epochs in which unity and simplicity were elevated, and those eras in which complexity and extravagance were valued. The Romanesque that preceded the Gothic, and the Renaissance that followed both were times of constricted unity. A few shapes served as template for an entire building.
Ernest Hemingway characterized the contrasting impulses when he said there were “putter-inners and taker-outers” among writers — he being the ultimate taker-outer. The Gothic age in history is the key putter-inner. Everything is dumped into the esthetic hopper and the plenitude is gloried in.
Take for example the great neo-classic St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, which is a marvel of studied simplicity and symmetry. Each column and capital is uniform in design, each window matches for an overall sense of unity and simplicity. Then take Chartres and realize that each column is different, each capital a unique design. And because the cathedrals were built over such a long time scale, the style at the beginning of the build may vary greatly with that at the completion. At Chartres, the west facade is nearly Romanesque in its austerity, while the north porch is extravagant in its Gothicism.
You can see this tendency not only in the columns (often called pillars when discussing Gothic cathedrals) and capitals, but in the column bases. Just in the north porch alone, I photographed a series of them. Here are six.
They vary from foliage to flowers, to star shapes and scrollwork. And even when they depict the same variety of leaf, they are designed differently. You can enjoy the image of the world in seeing them, just as one patch of ivy in a garden mimics but still varies another patch.
Unity or diversity, it is still a tension we feel these days, as the gravitational pull of unified Modernism gives way to the stunning diversity and lack of unity in the Postmodern world. Throw it all in together and see what happens.
The elders among us, brought up in the orthodoxy of the 20th century sees this trend as a decline, but in reality, it is really just another pendulum swing, back to a moment when motion, complexity, diversity, light and shade can triumph once again over stasis, simplicity, coherence and uniformity.
You walk around Chartres and you can see the glory in such a world view, such a vivifying afflatus, a joy in living, and in the world we inhabit; and less of a mechanized drive to control and regularize our lives.
As William Blake wrote, “Energy is eternal delight.”
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Next: The chimera of Paris