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Le Stryge

It seems obvious that the present moment is the product of all the time that went before; what is not so obvious is that the past is also a product of the present. That is, we always see the past through the eyes of the present; the present has need of a version of the past that validates the way we see ourselves now.

History is uncontrollably large and what we consider the history, which we consolidate in books and Ken Burns documentaries, is a tiny fraction of what actually occurred, and each generation gets to pick the bits it wants or needs to justify itself.

All of which makes history not a fixed and certain thing, but a constantly flowing eddy of revisions and reconsiderations. And each age sees itself reflected in the mirror of its historiography.

Notre Dame de Paris 1841

The Enlightenment, for instance, saw the so-called Middle Ages as a time of irrationality and superstition. That age saw its ideals in classical Rome. But the 19th century, given in to Romanticism, idealized the very things the previous century had dismissed. So, in the 19th century (yes, beginning in the late 18th century — these things are not governed by calendar dates), you had a Gothic revival, a raft of novels set in castles, the knights of Sir Walter Scott, the cornball folly of Strawberry Hill and Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame.

And you found, in France, a renewed interest in the monuments left over from those discarded days. And discarded is the proper word: The cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, for instance, was a crumbling shambles, stripped of most of its sculpture and left to be a ruin on the island in the middle of the Seine River. In addition to the ravages of time and 500 years, there had been various “updates” to the building, and then, before, during and just after the French Revolution, the sculpture on the door jambs had been removed and the Gallery of Kings above the western portals had been junked in a frenzy of anti-monarchical and anti-clerical sentiment.

Before restoration and now

But in an ironic stroke of luck, the central government appropriated church property in 1789, and thus became responsible for the administration and upkeep of churches, including the cathedral (know then as the Métropole), which had for a time been turned from a Roman Catholic cathedral into a “temple of reason” and then into a food warehouse.

Under the auspices of the state, a few clumsy attempts were made to restore the cathedral, but those attempts did more damage than good.

Then, in 1831, Victor Hugo published his novel, Notre Dame de Paris (better known in English as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”), and began a personal crusade to repair and renovate the crumbling monument. He and others worked for a decade persuading public opinion and so, in 1841, a committee was established in Paris to consider the matter, and a year later, architect Jean-Jacques Arveuf was asked to submit a plan for the refurbishment of the cathedral. Several others decided to submit plans, also, and eventually it was the team of Jean-Baptiste Lassus and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc who were chosen to mastermind the restoration. Lassus had already spearheaded the restoration of Sainte-Chapelle, and Viollet-le-Duc had been in charge of the work at Vezelay. They were the two most qualified restorers of the age (and although Lassus died in 1857 before the completion of the work in Paris, Viollet-le-Duc went on to work on several more of the cathedrals and basilicas of northern France).

During restoration, mid-1850s

The project began in 1845 and didn’t finish until 1864. It was a huge project. Walls needed rebuilding, statues were carved and put back on the door jambs, all the gargoyle waterspouts that had been replaced over the centuries by lead pipes were redesigned and recarved. (The hideous lead pipes had caused the cathedral in the previous century to be compared to a hedgehog, with all the points spiking out from its walls). The windows were reworked, the doors remade, a new spire added to the roof above the crossing, and perhaps most remarkable — a series of 54 grotesques — “chimères,” or “chimerae,” as Viollet-le-Duc called them — were added to the gallery along the roof line.

This is where history and its progeny enter the picture. For most people, little says Paris and the Middle Ages more than the monster animals that stare down from the summit of Notre Dame de Paris. The most famous chimera — Le Stryge, or “The Vampire” — is perhaps the second symbol of Paris (after the Eiffel Tower). It seems to tell us more about the Middle Ages than any number of scholarly tomes. It is hard to imagine Notre Dame without its guardian spirits, yet they are completely the invention of Viollet-le-Duc. They are the 19th century imagining the Middle Ages.

It is true that Viollet-le-Duc justified his invention of them by claiming he had noticed in some old engravings the remnants of what he took to be the original chimerae, the remains of some broken birds’ feet left carved on the balustrade of the upper stories.

“On every corner of the balustrade,” he wrote, “birds have come to perch, demons and monsters have come to squat. These picturesque figures have just been reestablished; the originals exist no more, but some of them, in falling, have left their claws attached to the stone.”

And there is recorded evidence that such things were once part of many Gothic churches. In the 12th century, St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote a rant against them as being unsuitable for a Christian church:

“What are these fantastic monsters doing in the cloisters before the eyes of the brothers as they read? What is the meaning of these unclean monkeys, these strange savage lions, and monsters? To what purpose are here placed these creatures, half beast, half man, or these spotted tigers? I see several bodies with one head and several heads with one body. … Surely if we do not blush for such absurdities, we should at least regret what we have spent on them.”

But what these “savage lions” and “unclean monkeys” were looked like, and whether Notre Dame de Paris had ever featured them, are not known. But for Viollet-le-Duc, they were an essential part of what made the cathedral genuinely Gothic.

At any rate, Viollet-le-Duc designed and sculptor Victor Pyanet carved the 54 monsters. Each is of a piece with the portion of the balustrade atop which it sits, monster and fence a single piece of stone.

Viollet-le-Duc also designed the more-than-a-hundred actual gargoyles that stick out from the walls and buttresses of the cathedral, replacing the ugly lead that had defaced the architecture.

(We tend to use the term “gargoyle” for all the mythical beasts on a Gothic church, but a true gargoyle is a rainspout, the word coming for the Medieval French word for “gullet.” The other figures are usually called grotesques or chimerae.)

Viollet-le-Duc and his partners sat at the crux of a change in restoration theory — at midpoint between the older ideas of just replacing worn-out parts with modern equivalents and the more recent concept of saving everything original as best as can be done. Viollet-le-Duc’s idea was not to put Notre Dame back to any historically accurate version of the building, which had changed over the centuries with add-ons and updates, but rather to create a vision of the “perfect completed ideal” of what the building would have looked like, if it had ever been completed according to a single plan.

Viollet-le-Duc wrote that, for him, restoration should be a “means to re-establish [a building] to a finished state, which may in fact never have actually existed at any given time.”

So, Notre Dame as we see it today, is a fiction, a 19th century overlay upon the remains of a 13th century building in an attempt to recapture what the Romantic 19th century believed to be the soul of the Medieval era.

What we see now is the past through the lens of Viollet-le-Duc’s imagination, an imagination formed by the epoch of Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, Prosper Mérimée, Hector Berlioz and Eugène Delacroix.

Now that lens is more than 150 years old itself, and we who are perpetually modern use our own lens to judge the motives and achievements of Lassus and Viollet-le-Duc and their colleagues.

Viollet-le-Duc

But we should not be too harsh on them. Viollet-le-Duc was an astonishing person, the best-informed restorer of his time, who published the standard encyclopedia of Medieval architecture and design. His energy and commitment were legendary, and although he had his critics, there was no one else in the central years of the 19th century better placed to give us the Middle Ages.

And without him, the cathedrals of northern France would today be more like the ruins of Ancient Greece than like the awe-inspiring churches in which the Mass has been celebrated for 800 years.

The fact is, there is no “original” and “authentic” Gothic building to which we can point. All such churches were constructed over centuries, with changing styles, and continuous updates and remodelings. The Gothic cathedral is less a thing than a process, and Viollet-le-Duc should be seen as simply part of that continuing process.

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Next: Sainte-Chapelle

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

You can never know what an experience will be like until you have it. You can read about Chartres and see the photos. And you can visit other cathedrals, as we have on this trip. But you have to be there, at Chartres to see how it is different.

This is not a panegyric to Chartres. Others have written them. My reaction is a bit different. I was surprised to see how sparse the cathedral is. After Notre Dame de Paris, I was expecting something a little more crenelated, more decked out, more flamboyant.

After all, Notre Dame de Paris was an early example of Gothic architecture. Chartres is considered High Gothic. It was followed by Rayonnant and Flamboyant styles, each increasingly geegawed up.

But Chartres is a veritable Spartan of cathedrals. Her west facade, for instance, is spare in the extreme, with only a few decorations, not counting the portals and their sculpture. But those portals are rather small and restrained, unlike their cousins in Paris. You almost get the idea of a facade that isn’t finished, that is waiting for someone to come along and add the finials, Hebrew kings, garlands of trefoils and quatrefoils.

Instead, it almost looks like the Gothic cathedral equivalent of plywood.

Because this was our first acquaintance with Chartres, we took a rather methodical approach to the building. We walked first around the building, from the facade to the south porch, around the apse and treasury, along the north porch and back to the front, making the full circuit.

North porch

Yes, the portals of the transepts are splendid, rich with sculpture. The bulk of the statuary can be found on the transept porches, and some of it is extravagant. But otherwise, the walls of the building are generally plain.

And when we went inside, we were blinded by the dark. It is a dimly lit nave — again contrasting with the brightness of Paris, to say nothing of Sainte-Chapelle.

The proportions of the nave seem almost primitive. The classic Gothic nave walls consist of three layers: an arcade between the nave and the aisles on either side of it; a second-story, called the triforium, which is another arcade piled on top of the first; and finally a wall of windows, called the clerestory, which lets the light into the building. At Chartres, the proportions are different from in most of the other cathedrals we visited. The large aisle arcades take up almost half the height of the nave. The small triforium leaves room for a rather scaled down clerestory. The result of these odd proportions is that not much light drifts down to the nave floor. It takes quite a while for your eyes to adjust.

West rose window

When they do, there is a good deal of wear to be seen. Not only is the stone floor worn wobbly from centuries of traffic, but the vaulting in places is peeled or exfoliated, showing some brickwork behind the stone. In far corners, walking through Chartres feels almost like spelunking.

The rose windows are also smaller in proportion to their settings than those of Paris.

The west rose window, in particular, is at least half stone. The tracery is heavy and dense, leaving only small patches of glass to shine. Unlike the Paris rose windows, this one seems almost a crude, early attempt at constructing one.

The north and south rose windows are more elaborate, but even they are small in comparison with the space of the transept walls. They could easily have been made 20 percent or 30 percent larger without overwhelming their setting.

The interior almost gives you the feeling of an empty apartment, after someone has moved out. Where are the paintings, the furniture, the curtains? In Chartres, where are the windows, the interior carving, the elaborate bosses in the vaulting?

Of course, we didn’t see Chartres in operation, as we did Paris. Perhaps it has the same awe inspiring grandeur when a mass is being said.

And you cannot fault its setting, on the hill above the town. From miles around, you can see the twin towers looming. It was the first thing we could see from the train arriving in the morning: Those towers poking up out of the countryside.

I walked the eleventy-hundred stairs up the north tower and dangled acrophobically over the roof, the bell and the south tower, taking photos of gargoyles, tracery and stone foliage. Liability laws must be quite different in France. In the U.S., they would never allow anyone to climb up those stairs, let alone hang out over the precipitous drop, with its low balustrades and that steady breeze that must often become a wind.

One of the reasons Chartres is so highly prized is because so much of it is original. The statuary at Paris is cleaner and more neatly featured. But then, it is only 150 years old, having been restored by Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century. Viollet-le-Duc was a magnificent man, and his restoration work at Paris is convincingly original looking. You don’t sense much of the 19th century in it.

The damned

But it is still pristine. At Chartres, the statuary is weathered. You can see the lichen growing on the stone.

Even the walls of the cathedral sport tufts of daisies high up, in unlikely places, growing straight out of the masonry.

The limestone is mossy, lichened and eroded. Paris has only recently been sandblasted. Its stone seems newer — although there is plenty of erosion to go around there, too.

But Viollet-le-Duc’s restoration has made Paris look fresher than her matronly cousin in Chartres.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to pooh-pooh Chartres. It has its glories. And it is the very prototype of the high Gothic. But there was a certain musty odor in the nave; Paris smelled more urban, more used.

South porch

If I sound disappointed, I don’t mean to. We spent a good 9 hours with Our Lady of Chartres. We spent that time feverishly. I photographed every one of the main sculptures of the portals, and a good deal else beside.

If Chartres seemed dimmer than we had expected, the problem was with our expectations. Chartres has since drawn us back several times, and each time, it has revealed more and more of itself, and now I see it as the archetype of the cathedral, the mother building, the pure form. Other churches may be more tarted up, but there is a dignity at Chartres, a refusal to take on the shallow and transient, that makes it more classic. I have come to love Chartres, and especially its glorious rose windows, those burning embers glowing through the walls.

We have gone to Notre Dame de Paris more often — because it is in Paris, and therefore available each time we visit France — and we love the cathedral in Paris very dearly, but there is in me, at least, a special reverence for Chartres, that draws us back, no matter how far out of the way we must go as we drive around the hexagon that is France. From every corner of the country, we somehow are pulled by the gravity of Chartres back to absorb its special aura, power and spirit yet one more time. And I say that as a committed atheist.

I can remember the art history courses from college, and the long, boring lectures about the Romanesque and the Gothic, and taking it all in, looking at many fuzzy slides of Chartres projected on the screen at the front of the lecture hall. And the many photographs from books, including the great Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres by Henry Adams. Pictures in picture books are one thing. The palpable feeling on the skin of the humidity in the vast interior space of Chartres, the light hitting the floor, the smell of centuries of stone — the reality grabs you by the hair on the back of your neck and has not let go yet. Now we have experienced it, have it in our blood.

This is a panegyric to Chartres.

Next: Climbing Chartres

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There is a small hill about 140 miles southeast of Paris, surrounded by fields and forests. On its southwest slope is a small town, barely a village, population 480 people, with a hotel near the bottom and the basilica of St. Mary Magdalene at the top, an abbey church dating to the 10th century. On the slope to the opposite side of the town are simply more woods.

At this hill, in 1146, the renowned cleric, Bernard of Clairvaux, later Saint Bernard, called for a second crusade to the Holy Land. Now, it seems a remote spot to initiate such an epic enterprise, but on March 31 of that year, with King Louis VII present, the influential abbot preached to a crowd in a field. A platform was built just outside the town and Bernard called for the masses to “hasten to appease the anger of heaven,” in retribution for the losses suffered after the First Crusade.

“Hasten then to expiate your sins by victories over the Infidels, and let the deliverance of the holy places be the reward of your repentance,” he said. “Cursed be he who does not stain his sword with blood.”

Bernard wrote to the pope a few days later, “Cities and castles are now empty. There is not left one man to seven women, and everywhere there are widows to still-living husbands.”

The Second Crusade was eventually a bust, failing to achieve its goals, but as you stand now in Vezelay, where the call went out, you can feel both the weight of the endeavor, and the astonishment that such a sleepy community could ever have been the site of anything so momentous.

But back then, Vezelay was the center of a thriving abbey, and its church is now visited each year by many times the number of the village’s permanent inhabitants.

Compared to the famous cathedrals further north, Vezelay’s basilica is small and simple. But it is exceptionally beautiful.

It had rained all our way to Vezelay, and it was dusk when we got to the town and could see the tower of the church high on the hill through the mist, like something from a Hiroshige print.


In the morning, with the sun come out and the waters subsiding, we started up the hill toward the abbey church. At the hotel, a sign said, “Pas voiture; pietons seulement” — “no cars, pedestrians only.” So we walked, up the hill, rather higher and more difficult on foot than it appeared, past souvenir shops, brasseries, a book store, the mairie (or city hall), past home with bright flowers outside and past gated house with BMWs in the yard.

Huffing and puffing, we made the summit and the west facade of the church, looking quite Romanesque. Most of what we had seen had been Gothic, but the buildings constructed before the 12th century were designed to a different principle, one heavier with stone and parsimonious with windows.

Almost all of them, however, were begun in the earlier style and later added on to with the later style, often obliterating the Romanesque underneath or replacing it entirely. At Vezelay, you have a Romanesque facade and nave, but a Gothic choir and apse at the far end. Whether by design or accident, it makes a visit to the church a sacred metaphor, from the darker interior of the Romanesque to the illumination of the Gothic.



This metaphor is amplified by the unusual narthex of the church. In most cathedrals, the narthex is the junction between the west facade of the church and the beginning of the nave. It functions both as an architectural joint, and as a kind of foyer. In Vezelay, the narthex is blown out to fully three bays, with a second portal inside. This three-doored portal, with its own tympanums, used to be the exterior of the church, before the narthex was added, making the narthex a kind of overture to the main event. This first experience of the church interior is notably dark, with few windows.

Enter through the second set of portals and the nave is much more brightly lit. It is a long nave, 10 bays long, and with barrel vaults painted in striking dark and light checks.

The choir is Gothic, and so, brighter still. The path is from dark to light as you reach the “holier” end of the basilica.

The glory of the big churches and cathedrals can be found in the glass, with the rose windows and the lancets. The outside of the buildings are gaudy with Gothic statuary, tall, gaunt and and stately, but with distinct and individual faces. Vezelay has little glass to note, and its sculpture is Romanesque, not Gothic.

In ages past, the Romanesque style seemed primitive and childish, with large heads and hands, poor proportions and sometimes goggling eyes. But fresher, 21st century perspectives can see them through the abstraction and distortion of Modern Art and they seem not primitive at all, but profoundly expressive.

Alas, much of the sculpture is not original, but replaced in the original style by — guess who — Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century. Yet, many of the originals remain. You can sort out the difference between the more weathered look of the originals and the smooth surface of the replacements.

Looking at the many column heads in the nave of the abbey church at Vezelay, you can see the narrative drive of the Romanesque artists. Many tell Old Testament stories, such as David and Goliath, or the slaying of Absalom by Joab, or even the rather comical Noah and his wife.

One of the weirdest is the depiction of the sin of lust, a naked woman tearing at her distorted dug while, on the back side of the capital, a demon delights in the torment he causes her.

In another, Moses grinds the Old Testament through a flour mill to form the New Testament, received by St. Paul.

And on another, Ever receives the apple from the serpent in her right hand, while serving up the fruit to Adam with her left hand.

At so many other churches, you spend your time being absorbed up into the cosmos — into the great spaces defined by the nave and vaulting, almost being sucked up into the heavens. But in Romanesque churches, the heaviness of the stone cannot give you the escape velocity you need. Yet, replacing the marvel of the spaciousness, you find yourself standing before column after column, looking up to the top and gasping at the expressiveness of the sculpture.

We are often told that the Gothic cathedral was meant to be scripture in pictures for the illiterate public. But when you stand at the bottom of the well in such buildings, it is nearly impossible to read the imagery of the stained glass, so high above. Surely the mass of the population, either nearsighted or astigmatic, could never read the Bible stories there.

But in the smaller Romanesque, the stories told in the sculpture couldn’t be clearer. You can make out the stories very well.

Vezelay is a palate cleansing change of pace before moving on the the queen of Gothic cathedrals, Chartres.

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Next: Chartres

 

The names of the towns and cathedrals of northern France can be a challenge for American English speakers. They all seem to require vowels and consonants not only strange to American ears, but downright taunting.

 
We started this trip at Notre Dame de Paris. That “tre” in “Notre” is something not available in English, outside the clearing of one’s throat. We tend to just go with the name of the Indiana university and say “Noter Daim.” But to approximate the French, you have to give it a “Notra,” ending at the back of the soft palate and “Dom.”

Then we went to Rouen, which is easier, except for that non-rhotic “R” at the start, but we can get by with “Roo-on.”

The drive took us to Amiens, with is a little like saying “Onion,” but with an “M” instead of an “N.” Beauvais is the easiest one: “Bo-vay.”

It’s a little trickier at Noyon, which we might offer “Nwa-yone,” especially if you can say it while losing the “n” in “yone” somewhere in your nasal cavity.

After that, we climbed the hill to Laon, which looks easier than it is to say. Try “loud,” but without the “d” on the end, but with that nasal sound that the French like to use for an “n.” Or, give up and just say “Lao,” as if you were naming the “Seven Faces of Dr. Lao.”

Yet, none of these challenges the English speaker as much as the next cathedral town. In English, we spell its name Rheims, although in France, they spell it Reims. If you think that should be “Rems” in the mouth, well, foolish you. The closest you might get is to say “Rance,” as if it were a gunslinger in a Western movie. Why this should be? Well, if you want to give it the Gallic good-old-try, you might speak the initial “R” at the back of your throat, as if you were clearing it of phlegm, follow that with the “ei” spoken both through your mouth and your nose at the same time, and then attempt to elide into an “m” completely nasal, but more like an “n” than an “m.” Round it all off with a sibilance and you’re good to go. It should come out, perhaps a leaning a little toward “Rass,” as if it were attempting to clean out your sinuses at the same time.

All that aside, the cathedral in Reims is from central casting; it is the handsomest, most perfect, with good bone structure and a set of capped teeth to rival the glossiest Hollywood star. If you were to invent the perfect Gothic cathedral, you would have invented Reims.

Yet, something seems just a little off, like the Hollywood star you suspect of being hollow behind the glittering eyes.

Unlike the buildings in Amiens, Beauvais, Noyon or Laon, which seem too large for the towns or villages they dominate, the cathedral in Reims sits at the center of a sizable city. Traffic is congested and parking is hard to find. When you confront it, walking into the parvis, you see an edifice that shines large, the hub of a great urban wheel.

Also unlike the other cathedrals, it is symmetrical, with two identical towers on either side of the central three portals. Other cathedrals seem hotch-potch, assembled from spare parts, almost, Reims was put together from a kit straight out of the box, all parts included.

Which is all the more surprising, considering that it has been worked over and rebuilt, redesigned and rejiggered for some 800 years. If it looks all of a piece, that is because its many restorers and rebuilders made the conscious decision to keep the essential plan unchanged.

So, the first impression of Reims is of a sturdy, beautiful, archetypal Gothic church, three great arches on its western front lined with rings of sculpture, a great rose window in the center, a line of kings above that and the twin towers rising to the height of a 26-story skyscraper. It is jutting jaw and piercing eyes, all perfectly tanned.

I’m afraid I may be sounding a little too snarky about what is a very impressive bundle of awesome. If you had never seen Chartres or Paris or Amiens, then Reims would satisfy all your spiritual hunger for a Gothic cathedral.

The problem is one that you face in almost every Gothic survivor. One recalls the problem of Theseus’ ship, in which, over the years, every board, every nail, every rope has been replaced, one by one. And one asks, is this the same ship that carried Theseus home from Crete?

Or, more aptly, the Japanese temple, whose wood is replaced every 20 years. The grand shrine in the city of Ise has been replaced this way more than 60 times, yet is considered the same temple that was built in AD 692.

(It is widely believed — though not exactly true — that all the cells in a human body are replaced every seven years, yet we think of ourselves now as the same person we were when we popped out of the dark into this bright world.)

Reims has undergone something of the same constant renewal, like the goddess Aphrodite.

The modern cathedral was begun in about 1220 and was finally roofed in 1299, but work continued, adding details through the 14th century. A fire in 1481 required major reworking, finished in 1516, keeping to the Medieval style.

The continuous renewal of Reims began in 1610 with gussying up the central portal of the west facade. Nineteen statues of the central portal archivolts were replaced.

Later reworkings took place from 1727 to 1742 and from 1755 to 1760 to repair the deterioration caused by rain leakage and freezing. Many of the sculptures were repaired or replaced.

But the real overhauls began in the 19th century, as France began looking at its great cultural monuments and deciding to upgrade them. The Romantic movement in art and literature idealized the Middle Ages, and books such as Chateaubriand’s “The Spirit of Christianity,” and Victor Hugo’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” (to give it its popular title) revived interest in buildings that had been allowed to deteriorate or had been desecrated during the violently anti-clerical French Revolution.

In 1818, a catalog of “Romantic and Picturesque Sites of Ancient France was begun, not finished, in 20 volumes, until 1878. And in 1830, the government created an post of Inspector of Historical Monuments.

Hugo wrote a pamphlet called “War on Demolishers,” to “stop the hammer that is mutilating the face of the country” by destroying historic edifices. He denounced “ignoble speculators,” who “vandalized” the great monuments to build cheap get-rich-quick developments. He called for a national law to protect the old treasures.

He also explained “There are two things in an edifice: its use and its beauty. Its use belongs to its owner, its beauty to everyone. Thus, the owner exceeds his rights in destroying it.”

Between 1826 and 1837, the first major interventions of the 19th century were carried out, replacing sculptures on the western facade. One after another, from then on, a series of restorers and architects tried to bring Reims back to what they considered the authentic and original designs of the cathedral. First diocesan architect Arveuf, then Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, the restorer of Notre Dame of Paris, who undid the modifications of 1481-1516 and replaced them with his own design.

After Viollet-le-Duc, Eugene Millet did the same thing to the south side of the nave. From 1879 to 1886, Victor Ruprich-Robert did the same thing to the north side. After him, Denis Darcy jumped in, working to 1904. From 1904 to 1915, Paul Gout reworked the western facade and parts of the chevet. The work was not quite finished when World War I broke out. The war did not treat Reims kindly. It was bombed and a good portion left in rubble.

It took another 20 years to fix what the German artillery shells had broken. Restorer Henri Deneux, began in 1919, clearing away debris and cataloging the fragments and installing a temporary roof. The glass was a particular victim of the war. Deneux had the guide of drawings made of the stained glass made before the war and had many of the windows rebuilt, sometimes from the shards of the originals.

By 1938, most of the restoration was complete,  but World War II was in the offing. This time, the windows were removed for safe storage and reinstalled after the war.

The rose windows at Reims are beautiful and unusual. Each of the four roses has an “eyebrow,” an arc of stained glass over the oculus. There are roses on the transept facades and two, one large, one smaller, on the western facade. Outside the roses at Chartres and Paris, these are among the most stunning in Christendom.

The large window dates originally from 1240s, and was restored in 1872; because of war damage, it currently contains only about a quarter of its original glass. The rest, like the lower rose, dating from 1255, now has replacement glass from 1937.

The south rose was destroyed in a storm in 1580 and replaced a year later, then destroyed again in WWI and recreated in 1937; the north rose dates from before 1241, but now contains only a couple of original panes, also having been replaced after The Great War.

Finally, there are modern admixtures, like the great trio of lancet windows designed by artist Marc Chagall and installed in 1974.

So, like Theseus’ ship or the Shinto temple, the question of how much can the current cathedral be called Gothic is problematical.


Reims was clearly one of the big boys, as far as cathedrals go, but it is hard, sometimes to really appreciate how much restoration has gone on at these buildings. The older, plainer looking churches, such as Noyon, tend to be more authentic, however you want to define that. The better looking churches are usually the ones restored by Viollet-le-Duc or one of the other enthusiastic restorers of the 19th century. You have to choose between effectiveness or authenticity. Are you willing to accept the slightly “Disneyesque” interpretations of the restorers, to get a feeling for what the buildings must once have been like, or do you approach it with a scholar’s eye, and want to see nothing but the actual evidence of the era, uninterpreted by later centuries, no matter how well-meaning.

This is why Chartres is so well admired by those who know: Most of it is original, and most of it wasn’t destroyed during the Revolution. It is the best example of the style, without the admixture of good intentions. We will be visiting Chartres soon.

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Next: Vezelay

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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