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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

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

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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

carnac-alignment

We went to see the stones. They stretched for miles, each stone like an  upright soldier in a formation. They are called “menhirs,” and they populate the area around the seaside town of Carnac in Brittany.

When we drove up to the first formation, the sun was low in the sky and shadows stretching long. We stopped by a field filled with menhir and dolmen, the ancient stones erected some 7,000 years ago for god knows what purpose. Thousands of the stones in stripes across fields, and made of a type of granite that is not local. No one knows how they were made nor why. Carole was especially worried about why.

“Maybe they were religious,” she said. That is the most common supposition. But that didn’t really satisfy her.

“I know,” she said, “they must have been used for some sport. If something was important enough for men to exert this much communal effort to transport tons of stones over miles and miles, there must be a stick and a ball involved.”

We’d drive for a few more miles and she’d pop out with, “Or maybe they were the foundation for some kind of building,” and then, after not saying anything for a long while, “Maybe they were meant to line up like soldiers; maybe they scared off an enemy.” She seemed obsessed with the stones.

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Click on any photo to enlarge

 

The next day, we went out to explore. Some 4,000 menhirs, or upright granite stones, from about three feet high to almost 20 feet, are striped across the landscape in three or four major “alignments,” as they are called.

Erected some 5 thousand years ago, or maybe 7 thousand — it all seems lost in the haze of prehistory — the Celtic forebears of the Bretons hauled these logs of granite from their origin, miles away, and lined them up over the rolling meadows just north of town.

No one knows that they were erected for. The usual theories of religious meaning are trotted out, but no one really knows. Carole persists for a while that they must have been used for some sort of sport or game, going on the theory that only a Superbowl or the Olympics can bring that much commitment out of a guy, let alone a lot of guys.

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We talked about it at lunch, in Locmariaquer, the site of some other megaliths.

Over the oysters, I said, “I think that it is just as likely that someone in the old days went crazy, heard voices in his head telling him to to this, and he then, through the intensity of his insanity, persuaded the community to erect the menhirs. Like a sachem in an Indian tribe. ”

Carole dislike the idea that this might reflect badly on shamans. She maintains there is a difference between visions and psychosis. She has her own reasons for holding this distinction.

“That’s not quite what I mean,” I said. “I mean that someone genuinely nutso hears voices, like Son of Sam — ‘My dog told me to do it’ — and because to ordinary people a shaman and a nutjob are very hard to tell apart, they might have signed on to follow him, the way the Germans signed on to follow Hitler to Valhalla.”

“But the shaman’s vision is always one to help the people, never to harm them,” Carole said.

“Well, Hitler certainly thought he was helping Germany, but we’re getting off on a tangent,” I said. “I just mean that, well, like Moses in the desert, perhaps touched by the sun and heat, came up with a lot of crazy ideas, maybe some prehistoric Celt went off the deep end and the voices in his head told him they needed to build a field of giant upright granite stones.

“It makes as much sense as any of the other ideas,” I said.

Of course, we’ll never know. Carole is obsessed with them right now, wanting to have an answer.

“Don’t you want to know?” She asked.

“But I can’t know.”

“But doesn’t it eat at you?”

“No, I can’t say so,” I said.

“It’s driving me nuts,” she said.

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Later, in the evening, after supper, sitting in the hotel room, she started up once more.

“I thought they might be made as a display to the stars, or a sighting device to line up with stars or the sun or the moon seasonally,” she said. She sat for a moment and then began a litany of possible explanations.

“Maybe people stood on them and covered their bodies and the rocks with some sort of long garment that made them look like thousands of extremely tall and powerful people.

“Maybe they were set up to baffle a stampeding herd of animals.

“Maybe they were set up to make it difficult for an enemy to advance.”

I imagined them like some prefiguration of pachinko, used as a military tactic. Ingenious, I thought.

“Maybe,” she went on, “they were put in the ground so that if one were far, far from home, one could climb up into the mountains and look down and find these stones as a marker for home.”

The only problem with that: No mountains here.

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“Maybe they were part of corrals and used for the beginning domestication of animals.

“Maybe they were racetrack lanes for racing animals.

“Maybe they used to be part of another kind of a structure that included wood and animal hides.

“Maybe they were part of ancient stalls filled with trade goods.

“Maybe they were an arduous maze a person had to thread through like the meditation mazes in cathedrals.

“Maybe they had something to do with cognitive development — a step between concrete thinking and abstract thinking. Maybe they used them to learn to count from one to a thousand.”

After worrying about this for two days, she continued as we drove out of town, on to Concarneau.

“I need to know what they were for,” she said. “I still think my best guess is that they were for some sort of ball game. You know men are fascinated by a combination of sticks and balls and counting. The counting is important.”

menhir-7

A woman we met, who was from Great Britain, said that she read that the rocks at Stonehenge were transported from far away, also, and that there is a theory that they came from a site powerfully effective in healing.

“But I don’t think that is what these stones were for,” Carole said after we drove on. “They must have been for something massive, because there were thousands of them. They must have been very important for the people who arranged them, because the second group we looked at were actually stone paths, completely straight, leading toward the horizon for many many many miles. So I thought maybe this part of the stone arrangement is a runway for souls. Souls taking off to their journey to the afterlife on foot, that is.

“Maybe they were foundation stones upon which wooden logs were placed for some type of a floor and another structure made of wood came up higher. If they were used as foundation, the equidistant placing of them makes sense, because they are about as far apart as an ordinary tree trunk.

“Or maybe creatures with immense strength arrived from outer space and used some sort of anti-gravity device to pick the rocks up and put them down again in this part of France.

“Maybe they are thousands of monoliths like the black rectangle in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

“Maybe they were a huge dentist office and each person had his own stone to come to and bang his head against until he was senseless and no longer could feel the toothache.”

She was beginning to get a little punchy.

“I also think my first impression of them might be worth something —  that was that they were the earth’s teeth.”

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Part 2

I am a reasonable man and my goals are reasonable. Some burn for the challenge of climbing great peaks; my more modest goals involve the less famous ones. They can have their Everest, their K-2, their Matterhorn or Aconcagua. I have Tucker Mountain.

It sits in Hancock County, on the coast of Maine, north of where any tourists go. From its summit, there is a great view to the south and Cadillac Mountain and Mt. Desert Isle. Its summit, by the way, tops out at 394 feet above sea level. More my style. Still, in places, it is a rugged enough hike.

My friend Alexander wanted to show me the view, and we walked through the mossy woods up past rocky outcrops and on to the goal. Along the way, we kept passing cairns — piles of rock set up by hikers. Some were simply rock-piles, but others showed more ambition, and could easily have passed for sculpture in any trendy art gallery. The more of them we passed, the more it seemed as if something cultural were going on — that there must be some compulsion to make these stony reminders that Kilroy was here.

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I photographed them as we walked, and by the end of the day, I had something like 50 or 60 images of them, and that counts having given up on cataloging every single instance; I did not photograph many of the more mundane piles.

I don’t know if such things litter the tops of all the local mountains. I don’t remember seeing so many cairns when Alexander and I climbed the summit of the more daunting Schoodic Mountain nearby (summit: 1,069 feet). Perhaps the cairns on Tucker Mountain (I should call it Tucker Hill) are the work of a single artist, or a single obsessive personality, or a small group of people wanting to make a statement. Usually cairns are left either to mark the trail, or to commemorate some important event. These seemed to exist for their own sake.

But they certainly brought to mind the dolmens, cromlechs and menhirs of Celtic Europe. They don’t have the permanence of those menhirs, which have survived thousands of years; these cairns are just rock set on rock, so the first hard frost could topple them. But I had to wonder if the impulse might have been the same: Make my mark — the X on the dotted line — the proof that someone was here.

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There is a resistance to cairns; many dedicated hikers despise them for being unnatural, and for being the equivalent of vandalism. I can’t join their ranks. The best of these cairns are genuine works of art and should be appreciated for such. Their artifice can hardly be a valid source of complaint when the hikers are marching along equally artificial trails through the woods, marked with paint blazes or diamond-shaped route markers stapled to tree trunks.

The cairn-makers may well think of themselves as being clever, postmodern, or snarky, but the bottom line, on which their “X” resides, is that the cairns are the universal cry of the one among the many, like the opening wail of the newborn baby: I am here.