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Some seven miles north of the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, and a short trip on the Paris Metro, is the abbey basilica of Saint Denis, which has the claim to fame of being considered the first completely thought-out expression of Gothic architecture.

Yet, its origin is bound up in myth and misunderstanding, of almost comic complexity, focusing on its eponymous bishop.

The beheading of St. Denis

The St. Denis for which it is named lived in the third century and was bishop of Paris at a time when the city was still primarily pagan. Under the repression of the emperor Decius, he was martyred, along with two of his fellow Christians. According to the legend, after Denis was beheaded, he calmly picked up his severed head and, holding it under his arm, walked the six miles from Montmartre, where he had been executed, to a place where the basilica now stands, preaching the whole way.

St. Denis at Notre Dame de Paris

(The phenomenon of cephalophorism — carrying your severed head — is surprisingly common in hagiography. You can find statues of these saints on many a Gothic cathedral. It raises an interesting problem of iconography, though. If you are a saint and you are beheaded, does your halo remain with your head or hover over the stump of your neck? This is a question of more than academic interest to the Medieval painters and sculptors of the patron saint of France. The jamb statue of St. Denis on the front of Notre Dame de Paris opts for the stump.)

A martyrium was built on the site where Denis finally died, a saint in  two parts. From that a church grew and it became a place of pilgrimage by the fifth and sixth centuries. An abbey was founded and it was this abbey that fell under the authority of the Abbot Suger in the 12th century.

Abbe Suger

Suger is one of the most remarkable personalities of the late Middle Ages. He was a priest, but also a politically powerful ally of kings Louis VI and VII, an ambassador to the Vatican, and ultimately regent of France during the absence of Louis VII during the Crusade. In addition, he was a prolific writer and wrote biographies of both kings.

Basilica of St. Denis

But he is best remembered today because he took on the task of rebuilding parts of the Carolingian abbey church, first with the west facade of the church, beginning in 1137. The old church front had a single door. Suger had a new facade designed, mimicking a Roman triumphal arch, with three doors. It also had the first known rose window built into it. It was completed in 1140, at which time, Suger took on rebuilding the east end of the church, leaving the Romanesque nave intact.

It is with the choir of the abbey of St. Denis that architectural history takes a great turn and opens up new worlds for the future. It is also where another major Medieval confusion enters the story.

It turns out that there were (at least) three people conflated into the Medieval understanding of who St. Denis was. In Latin, he was named Dionys, or sometimes Dionysius. There was a Dionysius named in the New Testament as a “The Areopagite,” who was converted by St. Paul (Acts of the Apostles 17:34). Despite being in different centuries and in different countries, few Medieval writers differentiated this biblical Dionysius from the French saint.

But more to the point, there was a fifth or sixth century writer, now known as the “Pseudo-Areopagite” who wrote a series of Neoplatonist tracts, who was thrown into the blender as well.  This three-headed St. Dionysius or St. Denis was the person Abbot Suger knew in 1137 when he began the refurbishing of the abbey church. (You might ask if such a three-headed beast might well have been able to spare one to the executioner’s blade and still survive to carry it six miles to the place where he finally dropped dead).

Suger was a confirmed Neoplatonist, and the aspect of this philosophy/theology that most concerns us is the identification of deity with light.

“Suger, one might almost say, was infatuated with light,” wrote art historian Otto Von Simson in his 1956 book, The Gothic Cathedral.

So, when Suger commissioned the design of the new choir to the old abbey church, he or his anonymous architect rounded up several new innovations in building construction — the pointed arch, the ribbed vault, the flying buttress, and stained glass — and created what is usually considered the first genuinely Gothic statement of church architecture. The point of it all was to open up the dark Romanesque interior of the church to the glorious radiance of divine illumination.

The new structure was completed in 1144 and became the rage, inspiring all the new church construction in northern France and later spreading to the rest of Europe.

The innovations were brilliant, in both senses of the word. The light admitted to the stony interior of the church was a revelation.

Yet, when Suger died, the church was a stylistic gryphon, with a Romanesque head, Carolingian body and a Gothic tail. In 1231, Suger’s successor, Abbot Odo Clement began to replace the nave with an updated Gothic middle, heavy on the glass. He also remade the upper stories of Suger’s choir and finally, made the nave the resting place for French kings.

In 1264, the bones of 16 former kings and queens were relocated to new tombs arranged around the crossing, eight Carolingian monarchs to the south and eight Capetians to the north. Since then, all but three French monarchs from before the Revolution have found their resting place at St. Denis.

Their funeral effigies lie like so many tanning salon patrons in the nave and transepts. most of the effigies are of a much later date and not at all Gothic (with a few exceptions), but they don’t seem out of place. Again, this is the peculiar magic of the Gothic style. Nothing seems out of place in it: It absorbs everything and makes it part of itself.

And more than at any other Gothic church, the sunlight streams through the stained glass and colors the floors and walls with great patches of glowing red, blue and yellow.  You look at the sarcophagus face of Cuthbert (or whatever his name was) and see it blue and red, covered in light like a disco dancer.

It is surprising to see how much vandalism had defaced the sculpture. The beautiful polished bosom of the angel in Philippe II’s tomb is covered with scratched initials and a few scurrilous obscenities. The faces of most of the kings and saints have been etched into with penknife or nail-point. You don’t notice it from a distance, but up close, you can read them. It doesn’t help that grit and grime have filled in the scribings, like ink in scrimshaw.

The tombs, the stained glass and the sculpture were all desecrated during the French Revolution, high as it was on anti-clericism, and were restored in the mid-19th century by Viollet-le-Duc and his colleagues.

By the 20th century, eons of soot had blackened the facade of St. Denis, and a thorough cleaning began, which only recently finished, unblackening the jamb statues and portals and tympanums.

St. Denis is oddly out of line: You may not notice it on first sight, but soon, you realize that the apse is not in line with the nave, and in fact, the nave itself has a kink in it. I don’t know if this was a mistake in execution, or because it happened over time, or did the master builder need to make slight adjustments based on bedrock or water table, or did they start from both ends and not quite meet up in the middle? No matter which, it helps give St. Denis an oddly organic feel, and gives it something of a Piranesi “carceri” kind of architectural idiosyncrasy.

I love the views through one set of piers on to a set of arches and behind that, a lineup of stained glass, layering on layering, or the odd cornering of a staircase against the well of the crypt doorway, with the deep penetration of the apse peeking in behind. The angles are complex and visually fascinating.

It is true that not much is left to be seen of Suger’s original design, but his intent is obvious: Outside of Sainte-Chapelle, no Gothic church we have visited is more brilliantly lit and colored by the streaming sunlight filtered through the stained glass, more fully committed to the principle that divinity is light, and the temple of the divine should glow and inspire.

Click any image to enlarge

 

How do you hold up a roof?

Seems like a simple question: Walls hold up a roof. And if your roof is heavy and two or three stories up? A stronger, thicker wall.

This is the problem faced by the builders of European churches in the 11th and 12th centuries. With those thicker, stronger walls, windows became a problem because they weakened the walls with holes, which meant that the churches had small windows and were rather dank and dark places to worship the Creator.

When we are taught about Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals in our art history classes, we are usually given a list of characteristics they have: round arches for Romanesque; pointed arches for Gothic: thick walls for Romanesque; flying buttresses for Gothic: barrel vaults for the Romanesque;  rib vaults for the Gothic — as if the shift from one to the other were merely a catalog of stylistic tics and the change from one to the other nothing but a change in fashion, as if giving up pegged trousers and taking on bell bottoms.

Why would it be important for art history students to spend this much time on something so old and arcane? Our professors always seemed to think this was such a profound change and worth a week of class time. We couldn’t wait to move on to Impressionism.

It was never made clear in class why it would be important for us students to know these things: buttresses, rose windows, naves and aisles, apses and choirs. These cathedrals were in Europe, not America.

But the change from Romanesque to Gothic should not be seen as merely a change in styles, but as a major innovation in architecture whose results led to the glass and steel skyscrapers that populate all our cities. The Seagram Building in New York is merely an extension of the ideas behind Chartres cathedral.

What happened was (for reasons I will get into in my next blog post) someone figured out you didn’t really need walls to keep a roof up. You could, like a picnic pavilion, support the roof with posts, leaving the space between the posts open. And, if you build a church this way, you can glaze the open spaces with colorful glass and let inspiring light into the interior of the church. Wow. In an instant, churches became lighter, both by weight and by illumination. What had been dour and forbidding became bright and inviting.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this is the small royal chapel built on the Ile de la Cite in Paris between 1238 and 1248. While it is tiny in comparison with the big cathedrals, such as Notre Dame or Reims, it is a glory of glass. Its walls are explosive with color and light.

If you were to stand in the middle of Ste.-Chapelle and gaze up at the ceiling, you would see that the ceiling and roof are supported by a cage of stone pillars, between which are cascading sheets of stained glass. When you realize that such roofs are made primarily of lead or slate, you realize how heavy it must be, and how brilliant was the engineer who figure out how to keep it up with only these spindly supports.

This is the genius of Gothic architecture. Follow its logic out to the 20th century and you understand that you can make a skyscraper with a cage, not of stone, but of steel, and glaze the open areas and let light into every one of the 40 or 50 stories of office space. In some sense, the International Style — all those glass-and-steel towers that define our urban architecture — are really just a further refinement of the Gothic breakthrough.

Ste.-Chapelle was built for King Louis IX, later known as St. Louis, as his private church on his palace grounds. It was meant to house a series of holy relics he had bought, including the supposed “crown of thorns” Jesus had worn upon his crucifixion, and a piece of the “one true cross,” of which there were a whole woodpile scattered across Europe. These relics were held in great esteem. Louis wanted a home for them that would honor their importance with great beauty and wealth, and Ste.-Chapelle is the result.

Louis spent 40,000 livres on the chapel, but nearly four times that in buying the relics from the cash-strapped Byzantine emperor, Baldwin II in 1239. The chapel was built to hold the relics and finished in record time.

Ste.-Chapelle is 118 feet long and 56 feet wide, but more importantly, 139 feet high. Above that a spire of cedar wood extends another 108 feet. (The current spire is a 19th century replica, designed after the 15th-century spire. It is unknown if the original chapel had a spire).

The church is a two-story affair, with the lower level once reserved for the royal staff and servants, while the upper level, with its grand windows, was for the king. He had an elevated walkway built between the palace and the chapel’s second floor so he never had to descend to ground level with the hoi-polloi. The palace is largely gone now, replaced with the bureaucratic buildings of the Paris metropolitan police force, but Ste.-Chapelle remains on the grounds, surrounded now by parking lot.


You can see how it once sat, in the illuminated manuscript of the Limbourg Brothers, made in 15th century and known as the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.

Today, there are lines waiting to get in to see Ste.-Chapelle. You walk through security and through the parking lot and into the ground floor chapel, where the fleur-de-lys seems to be painted everywhere in gold. It is a stunning space, even if its ceilings are low. The paint is bright and colorful. The staff wasn’t cheated; the lower chapel is plush and beautiful.

But then, you walk up the stone staircase to the main floor and it is as if the heavens open up above you. The glass, the color, the light: They stun.

In 1323, the French writer Jean de Jandun wrote of Ste.-Chapelle in his Tractatus de Laudibus Parisius, “The most excellent colors of the pictures, the precious gilding of the images, the beautiful transparency of the ruddy windows on all sides, the most beautiful cloths of the altars, the wondrous merits of the sanctuary, the figures of the reliquaries externally adorned with dazzling gems, bestow such a hyperbolic beauty on that house of prayer, that, in going into it (from) below, one understandably believes oneself, as if rapt to heaven, to enter one of the best chambers of Paradise.”

While it is true that Ste.-Chapelle was restored in the 19th century, its restorers attempted to be exceptionally faithful to the original. And while most of the paint is more recent, a full two-thirds of the windows are original 13th century glass. The remaining panels replace glass removed when the chapel was used as a government records archive after the French Revolution.

The glass in the nave tell primarily Old Testament stories, in the apse the glass covers New Testament stories. The 15 stained glass windows, each more than four stories high, depict 1,113 scenes from the Bible in 6,458 square feet of glass.

The great Rose window is a replacement from 1390 when the original window, in Rayonnant style (as seen in the Très Riches Heures), was updated into the then-current Flamboyant style, with its curlicues and circles.

The tympanum painting above the king’s doorway is a recreation, but in the style of the original.

The designs in the floor are wonderfully graphic.

The columns and walls are brightly painted.

All this color, light and throat-grabbing beauty is understandable on esthetic terms, but its purpose was more than to be pretty, or even awesome. The philosophical momentum behind the architectural advance will be discussed more thoroughly in the next blog, about the basilica of St. Denis.

Click on any image to enlarge

Next: St. Denis

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.”

Click any image to enlarge

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