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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Next: Vezelay

It’s easy to think of Gothic cathedrals as a single thing. The way we think of high-rise office buildings all being glass and steel towers, totally interchangeable. But each Gothic church is distinct. As you visit them, you find something completely outside the generic “plan.”

The cathedral at Laon, for instance, is sometimes called a “barn cathedral.” That seems insulting, at first, but when you visit, you realize what is meant.

The “standard” Gothic church is built on a floorplan based on the Christian cross, with the long part of the cross stretching to the west, with a main entrance in the western facade. There is a cross-piece, called the transept, which cuts across the primary axis at 90 degrees, and at the eastern end, a shorter part of the cross: the choir, ending in a rounded apse. The choir and apse together are known as the chevet.

You also expect a great round rose window cut into the western wall, and perhaps two other roses in the north and south ends of the transept.

The central corridor of the axis is called a nave, and it is usually paralleled to either side by an aisle. Above the aisles is a second story gallery known as the triforium, and above that a row of windows called the clerestory.

The nave is tall and narrow and topped with a series of ribbed vaults, holding up the ceiling.

Outside, the west facade is usually bounded by two towers, one to the north and one to the south.

The problem is, that no single example follows all these descriptions. Each church is unique. This one has tall spires instead of blunt towers; that one has apsidiol (rounded) transepts instead of flat-ended transepts; another has two aisles on each side of the nave; yet another (like Rouen) has a tower above the crossing of the transept — that point where the nave and choir transect the transept. (Is all that confusing enough, and enough specialized vocabulary to bog things down?)

Laon is a town built on a mesa in northern France. In some ways it is reminiscent of the Hopi mesas in Arizona. At the top of the mesa the cathedral rises above the surrounding plain. Like the Hopi mesas, the oldest part of the city is on the summit, and the more modern parts below in the shadow of the mesa. You can see the cathedral from many miles away as you approach.

If you drive to the top of the mesa, the streets are narrow and convoluted; parking is at a premium, and while most other cathedrals have a broad parvis, or plaza, in front of them, the parvis at Laon is a shrunken little wide spot in the narrow road not much bigger than a Burger King parking lot. It makes getting a suitable photo of the cathedral facade nearly impossible; you simply cannot get back far enough to get it all in, unless you use an extremely wide-angle lens, in which case, the perspective goes all askew. The central tower allows for a great open lantern at the heart of the cathedral, which thrusts upward beyond the vaulting, adding an extra level of windows, making the highest part of the church the brightest.

The first idiosyncrasy you notice (after the parvis) is that the church has five towers instead of two. There are the usual towers at the north and south edges of the west facade, but there is a single tower at the face of each of the transepts and a fifth tower over the crossing, in the center of the church. That’s a lot of towers for a church — you hardly know which to pay the most attention to. The western towers are the traditional high points, but at Laon, the transept towers are much taller. (The central tower is a dwarf, truncated and hardly to account).

Then, there is the interior elevation. Instead of a nave arcade on the ground floor, a triforium and clerestory above that, there is a fourth layer in the cake: a blind arcade above the triforium. The triforium itself is distinctive, because it has windows behind its arches, helping to light up the interior of the building.

But what makes Laon a barn, if you want to use that word for something so spiritually uplifting, is that at the far end of the nave, the eastern end of the cathedral, you do not have the usual curved, graceful apse, but rather a squared off butt end, graced with an extra rose window.

The nave is wide and the effect is to give the sensation of a large warehouse or barn, rather than the more usual gracefulness of curves and lancet stained glass you find elsewhere.

With its barn-end long-stretch, Laon manages four rose windows instead of the usual three. The one in the north, like the western rose at Chartres, is simple and heavy with stone.

The western rose, while glorious as far you can see it, is mostly blocked by the church organ.

The southern rose is mostly clear glass, with simple radial stonework tracery.

Leaving the east rose as the prize. It is mostly replacement glass, but with some original glass in it. With three lancets, it makes a stunning bit of stained glass as you look past the altar into the choir.

Laon also had towers on the sides of each of the transepts — towers that were actually taller than the west facade towers, giving the whole a rather different proportion than any cathedral we had seen before.

And there was a giant rhinoceros on the facade, with a man under him holding a noose around its neck. Actually, it was a flying rhinoceros, because it had wings.

But also on the front of the cathedral was a giant hippopotamus, also with wings, and with a man under it poking it with a sword.

We thought this singularly odd. When we asked, we got a reply in French pidgin English that implied — although we aren’t confident we understood properly — that one of each was “sacrificed” at the opening of the cathedral.

This seemed odd enough, but when we got to Rheims, it had a rhino, too, between the north and central portals, and a bull’s head between the central and south portals.

There are lots of animals on the cathedrals. They are one of the surest joys of cathedral going. But Laon was special. It’s two western towers were ringed, two-thirds of the way up, with pairs of giant animals at the corners — eight animals per tower, in pairs of four. Two unicorns, two horses, two bulls (or cows), two goats, all giant enough to be the villains in 1950s Hollywood sci-fi monster films.

Yet, what most people probably remember most from Laon are the oxen. Strange as it may seem, it looks as if the cathedral is dedicated to cattle. The two west towers are filled with animal sculpture, it is a stone menagerie, a carved zoo.

“When we looked up high at Laon at the stone animals and identified them together, I had the feeling, yes, this is the world I live in,” wrote Carole in her diary. “There is a goat, there is a horse, here’s an angel, devil, saint, monster, son of god. But here is a donkey, and a bear. This is about my world.

“And these little animals were elevated to the towers of the cathedral where they looked out on all the countryside. I know ancient children really loved those animals. And probably tried to make them out of clay.”

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Next: Reims

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

rouen-facade-sunny

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.

rouen-chandelier

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.”

rouen-nave-toward-apse

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.

rouen-angled-facade

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.

rouen-tympanum

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).

rouen-booksellers-rose-window-pair

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.

rouen-chapel

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.

rouen-poster-2

 

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.

nd-nave-and-clerestory-2

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

NDP under bridge

Notre Dame: round 3
Saturday, April 6

With only two days to go before leaving Paris, we have begun to feel a little frantic. We don’t want to go home. We want to stay here.

Meryon, Le StrygeBut even granted we have to go home, there is too much we haven’t gotten to do. So this morning was given over to making up some of the most important oversights — particularly, climbing the towers of Notre Dame de Paris to see the many carvings along the ramparts, including the most famous one, the Stryga, a grotesque with a garish nose, two horns, wings and the ears of Prince Charles, resting his chin in his hands looking out over Paris below him. He is a kind of ensignia for the cathedral, most famously in a 19th century photograph by Charles Negre, and an etching by Charles Meryon. If anything is the mascot of the church, it is the Stryga.

But he has a lot of company at the tops of the towers. Some have buzzard heads, some have wolves heads. One is eating the carrion of another, tearing long raw chunks from its side, like Goya’s painting of Cronus eating his children.NDP Gargoyle 6 hungry

We got to the cathedral by 9:30 a.m., when they open the tower, but there was already a long line. Weekends are busy for Notre Dame, with an invasion of tour busses parked under its apse and lines of tour groups flooding the parvis in front of the cathedral.

And the line for the tower proved to be even more infuriating, because they only let 20 people in at a time, and when you finally get inside, out of the blowing wind, you find yourself on another queue, just to pay your admission. You wait and wait, and finally, they let you through. The wait must have been a half hour.

The climb is at least as strenuous as the one at Chartres, but I’m in better shape after all the walking we’ve done, so although I got winded, my legs held up.NDP roof

The first stop is a large vaulted room with a gift shop. They don’t miss a trick on this tour. But you continue up till you get to the level just above the row of kings and pass around the north tower, where the Stryga holds court. As you pass between the towers, you get a look at the cathedral’s lead roof underneath you, and all the stone carvings that hide up in this stratosphere. And when you circle around the front of the south tower, you come upon a traffic cop who prevents you from climbing up to the very top of the south tower — at least until the previous 20 people have descended. They you get your turn, and are told you have only 5 minutes at the top.NDP Gargoyle 2

It is a heady view from on high, with the Eiffel tower in one direction, and the Pantheon in another. But you don’t get to see as much architecture as you do from the lower level, so when I climbed back down, I tried to reenter the chimeras gallery. The traffic copy stopped me and motioned for me to go down to the exit.

“But I am studying the architecture,” I told him. “I’m not just a tourist.”

He looked a little disgusted with me, in that particular French way, but let me pass and reenter the gallery, where I took another infinite number of photographs before finally descending the stairs to the bottom of the south Tower.NDP Stryga and friends

There were by actual count 3 billion people in the parvis waiting to enter the cathedral. There was a line just to get through the door. I’ll never find Carole in all this, I thought, but when I got in, I walked down the center of the nave, and there she way, sitting quietly, an unmoving point at the center of all the hubbub. She is always easy to find.la voie lactee vertical

On the way back to the hotel, we walked along the quai, did some last minute gift shopping and lunch at the Turkish restaurant around the corner from the hotel, the Voie Lactae. You can’t get a bad meal in Paris.

Later in the afternoon, we went for a longer walk down to the river, where we ran into a large angry protest parade along the quai, chanting for Israel to get out of Palestine. Carole was worried that they might do violence to Americans, but I plunged on ahead, walked across the parade and up the street. The walk along the quai beside the Curie Institute was a pleasant promenade, with flowers on one side and water on the other. We walked all the way past the Jardins des Plantes and up the streets past that, looking for a place to have supper. At 7 p.m. we came across a nice looking tiny Basque restaurant and thought it was just the ticket. We were the only customers at this early hour.prix pratiques

Until, that is, an invasion of American high school kids on a vacation tour of the Continent. With 13 instant new mouths to feed, the kitchen couldn’t keep up, and our meals took forever to get to our places.

The Piperade — a kind of scrambled egg with ratatouille in it, topped with a slice of Basque ham (think American Country Ham) — was magnificent, and a huge serving, so we hardly needed our plat. But we waited — and waited — and waited — while the chef and his one poor helpmate, a young woman, tried to trot out lots of snails and shrimp to the students. Meanwhile, more and more people started pouring into the restaurant. It was grand central station.street scene 1

It took so long, that after we finally got our plats, we declined the desserts — god knows how long it would take to get them — and paid our bill and got the heck out of that madhouse.

“We don’t want to go home,” we keep repeating. “We want to live in Paris.”

Carole’s recollections:

The pink petals from flowering trees were drifting in the air today and gathered in drifts in the gutters. I was frightened by a big white German shepherd looking dog on the loose.

There was a big demonstration in the streets with people carrying French flags and shouting “Quite Palestine,” and we stood around and R. kept leading us down into la monde arabe. But we came out on the other side and had a wonderful walk along the river and saw houseboats and cafe boats and one cafe boat also had a magic show.NDP Upper story with roofline

And when we went to Notre Dame this morning, while R. climbed the tower, I sat in the nave and looked at the windows for a very long time, and the ceiling of the cathedral gradually became rosy and a little bird, like a sparrow, flew up from the center of the nave to the top of the cathedral and sat on a ledge at the very peak of the arch of the central stained glass window. I spent a lot of time in the cathedral looking at the carved stone irises on the capitals of the piers, and outside, I compared the sculpture on the portals with the sculptures at St. Denis and I think the portals at St. Denis are more effective.

Supper at the Basque restaurant was wonderful and terrible: We had country ham on an omelet with ratatouille and it was glorious. But I ordered veal kidneys for my plat, and that is what they tasted like. We had wonderful wine and drank half a bottle.

At the fruit stands, I found three French apples — a big round ruddy apple; a smaller reddish one; and a little soft yellow one that looks wild.NDP gargoyle over street

Richard’s turn:

Climbing the tower at Notre Dame de Paris left me winded, but the treasures I found at the top took my breath away. The gremlins and gargoyles — mostly created by Eugene Viollet le Duc as replacements for the originals — were stunning, and like something created just for Victor Hugo. Most particular was the familiar Stryga, the grotesque resting his head in his hand surveying the city of Paris from the top of the tower.

NDP spire statues both sidesI spent more than my time up at the top, in the icy wind of this April day when the weather turned chill once more. Carole waited down in the church while I sauntered along the parapets taking pictures of every grotesque, chimera, every rain spout and quatrefoil. This visit finally completes the work of cataloguing the cathedral that we began three visits ago. Above all things, the Notre Dame de Paris has been the top of the list of things on our vacation, especially with the Easter service and the organ music. But the cathedral itself, above even Chartres or St. Denis, has been the revelation of this trip.NDP Gargoyle 1

Second to that has been the food, which is just as much a religious experience. After those two items, everything else is further down the list.

 

 

constant roux 1

Addendum, 2016:

For some reason, I didn’t mention in my notes the Institut de Paleontologie Humaine, which we passed on the Boulevard Saint-Marcel on our roundabout walk after dinner. I can’t imagine why I neglected it: It is a hoot. And a half. Constant Roux

The sculptor Constant Roux (1865-1942) designed a ribbon of sculpture around the building depicting “Primitive Man.” And it is an impressive display of invention and design. It is also a reminder of the pernicious racial ideas prevalent in anthropology then current. Roux has divided primitive peoples into racial groups, African, Asian, American Indian, Oceanic and Caucasian. For the Caucasians, “primitive” meant prehistoric, so his Caucasian examples are so-called “cave men.” For the others, his primitive peoples are contemporary, or at least existed within the past 100 years — like the Indians he sculpts stalking their prey in the skins of animals.Institut de paleontologie humaine Paris

Yet, if on the whole, it is hard to get past the inherent racism of his depictions, there is also something there to admire: He attempts to give a certain dignity to his idea of primitive peoples, and some individuality to his subjects. One feel apologetic for liking these friezes, but taking out the bias (admittedly hard — or even impossible to do), one can appreciate the  genuine life in them.

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And more, the variety of design, the variety of pose, and the ingenuity of making those designs in the restrictive space he has to work with, the thin band that circles the building. Each is broken into a nearly Cinemascope widescreen, and populated  with two, three or six individuals performing a task deemed characteristic for that ethnic group.

constant roux 10

Still, the problem is summed up most egregiously in one panel: A group of African women and a gorilla, or chimpanzee (it’s hard to tell exactly what is meant — it is a generalized ape). You sense the same root from which sprung King Kong in 1933. One of the women is tickling the ape with a flower. The women are naked with the same matter-of-fact prurience that used to fill the National Geographic magazine.

constant roux 3

We all grow up in a Zeitgeist, a common world view: Within it come wide variations. When Thomas Jefferson dithered over the morality of slavery, there were some few who recognized the enormity of it and rather more who accepted slavery as a given, even God ordained. But we look back at the founding fathers now with an uncomfortable eye. We find it easy to judge those earlier people by our contemporary standards. If we are to truly understand them, we need to have a second sight that judges them by what we know now, but also forgives them for what they didn’t comprehend.  We all accept things now that our progeny will condemn us for.

constant roux 5

Roux had a long career and his work is found all over: A journeyman sculptor, he chiseled out whatever was required for building design, cenotaph or memorial, and was at the very least, enormously talented.

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Born the year our Civil War ended, he died during World War II, and his style, formed in the Belle Epoque, never really caught up to the modern art that was being made all around him, yet, with commissions like the Institute for Human Paleontology, he was up to date with the now out-of-date science of his time. One has to feel a twinge of sympathy for a man of undoubted talent, but without individuality or genius, who struggles to use his gifts as best he can in a world that has shifted around him. While Roux was still making busts of Achilles or statues for the “gloire de la patrie,” Picasso was making Cubist portraits, Matisse was painting Dance, Kandinsky was theorizing the symbology of color, Egon Schiele was stretching bones and skin into contortions of angst. Modern art was exploding all around him, but Roux kept faith with his small art. One wonders if he was even aware of a world headed into two world wars and a culture turned topsy-turvy.

constant roux 9

I have been back to the Institute, and have photographed the panels again. These images are from the first day, and only from one side of the building. I wish I had them all catalogued.

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You will not find Roux in your Jansen, or taught in your art history classes. One feels a need occasionally, to appreciate the many excellent working artists who will never make a dent in the progress of culture, but merely do what they do well.

“You’re not going there, are you?” we heard, over and over, when we said we planned to go to St. Denis.
“It’s dangerous,” they said. The reputation of the Paris suburb, six miles north of the Ile de la Cite, couldn’t be worse. The crime rate was double that of France overall. It is a working-class suburb, with high unemployment, rampant poverty and a population that was one-third immigrant, largely from the Maghreb. It is where the Islamist attacks on Paris began on Nov. 13, 2015, when three suicide bombers tried to blow themselves up at the soccer stadium. St. Denis slum apartment
But, it is also where nearly all the kings of France were buried, and where the oldest Gothic church stands. The Basilica of St. Denis is one of the most beautiful, and most historically important icons of Gothic architecture.
“What, another Gothic church?” you say. I apologize, but the chance to visit a string of such churches was the primary reason we chose to visit France rather than Italy or Greece. There is something about the dark, old, art that drew both of us. The cloudy, rainy, cool-blooded Romantic north attracts us more than the sunny, warm, Classical Mediterranean south. For me, perhaps, it is my Scandinavian DNA.

Sunlight on the floor

                     Sunlight on the floor

The Abbot Suger ordered the rebuilding of the church in St. Denis in the 12th century and its choir was completed in AD 1144. Suger was a Neoplatonist and saw in light — sunlight, daylight, any light — a metaphor of Deity. Churches built in the earlier Romanesque style were heavy, stone-ridden and with tiny windows, leaving their interiors dark and dank. Suger wanted to throw open the drapes and let the light in. The Gothic style, which he innovated, eliminated the heavy stone walls and replaced them with pillars and columns to hold up the roof, leaving the area in between to be filled with glass. As in Genesis 1: Let there be light, and there was light. A great C-major chord is sounded and a new vision of worship is begun.
Much of the basilica of St. Denis has been altered, and most of what is there now post-dates Suger, but the choir (that area at the east end of the church where the altar and apse are located) is his, and shows the Gothic plan of three stories: a ground floor, a triforium and above that the glorious clerestory windows, all color and light. SD nave wallThe experiment was so successful, that for the next four hundred hears, it was the template for church construction. Churches under construction throughout Europe that had been begun in the Romanesque style were finished in the Gothic. Relics of the style remain even in churches built to this day: Somehow, like King James English becoming the sound and vocabulary for clerical language, Gothic has become the accepted ecclesiastical “look” for Christianity.
Entering St. Denis — like Chartres, or Rheims, or Notre Dame de Paris — you see the metaphor working: The light illuminates the darkness the way the moon and stars light up the night, or the burning embers of a hearthfire glow in the cracks of the dark ash. The building becomes an expansion of the human soul, spread upward and outward: The vaulting becomes the inside of your skull and the rose windows are its eyes.
The imagery is so successful that even a lumpen atheist can feel the emotional wallop: You can call it spiritual, if you want. The vocabulary is unimportant. The experience is genuine.

Again, click on any picture to enlarge

SD from ambulatory to crossing

St. Denis
Thursday April 4

Gothic architecture began at St. Denis and we were there to see it.

SD effigies in the naveAnother Gothic church? You may well ask, but the fact is, each experience has been singular and distinct. The Basilica of St. Denis, with its odd mixture of Romanesque and Gothic, is very different from Chartres, which seemed chaste in comparison, or from Paris, which seems even more baroque.

St. Denis is also the burial place of French kings, and their funeral effigies lie like so many tanning salon patrons in the transepts. The effigies are of a much later date and not at all Gothic (with a few exceptions), but they didn’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.SD front view

The west facade is rather blocky, with only one tower on the south side, leaving the north side truncated. There is the hint of a rose window in the center of the facade, but it doesn’t show inside, where a giant set of organ pipes takes pride of place at the west end of the nave.

Unlike Chartres, St. Denis is brilliant inside, which was the idea of its deviser, Abbot Suger in the 12th century, who had a rather neoPlatonic idea of divinity, with light being its metaphor. His design for St. Denis opened the way for the Gothic revolution in northern Europe.

The stone of St. Denis doesn’t seem as worn as that of Chartres. Certainly much of the sculpture is later restoration work, but even the oldest stonework seems a little crisper than its counterpart in Chartres. The basilica is also smaller than the cathedral, perhaps two thirds the size, or maybe a little smaller.

Yet, the proportion of the clerestory is greater and the nave arcade lower, making more room for glass — one of the things that makes the basilica so much more brilliant inside.SD clerestory horiz

On the west face, the tripartite portal is black with soot. Carole first thought it was made of black stone, but you can see through nicks and chips that the stone is the typical limestone-sandstone grey. Paris has dumped a load of grime on St. Denis.SD central portal detail

The windows are also easier to read, with larger imagery in proportion to the size of the glass. Again, the windows are not as old as the oldest windows at Chartres, but they are old enough, and they are less obscure.

There are only two large rose windows, at the ends of the transepts, but they are particularly brilliant and colorful, with a deep purple blue and a bright stopsign red. And, like Notre Dame de Paris, they are large enough to fill the pediments they occupy.

Its setting favors Chartres, which looms high on a hill above its village, and can be seen for miles around, the highest and most impressive point. St. Denis is stuck in a streetcorner in a lower class neighborhood in a suburb of Paris, surrounded with low rent apartments, tobacco stores and a shopping center.SD rose window 2

We spent most of the day at St. Denis, soaking it in, walking around the crypt, the raised ambulatory, the nave. Sitting and meditating on the rose windows, feeling the weight and lift of the stone, the intensity of the sculpture.SD apse at angle

I wound up making about 500 photos of the basilica and its surroundings. I got most of the sculpture and a good number of windows.

We have not tired of the Gothic, but each taste, like the food of Paris, only makes us want more.

chocolate bars

Carole’s notes of the day:

A veritable pyramid of chocolate exquisiteness, poire ganache with fluted shell on the outside and inside, the top layer, chocolate ganache flavored with pear liquore and the bottom half tasted like black walnuts and reminded me of wet black walnut shells on the ground in the rain in the wintertime at home.

In the morning, I had a wonderful time at the packing and mailing shop, because the couple running the establishment were so kind and intelligent. And the stationery products were so cool. I had fun picking out stuff for friends back home.

We had such a good time there, it put R in a happy mood, too.

Butcher, tree pruner, winemakers

                                           Butcher, tree pruner, winemakers

Then, I loved the sculpture on the entrance of St. Denis. It was black and smooth and looked like soapstone to me. And my favorite band in the arches was a passage of angels praying as they flew. And, stepping inside St. Denis made me gasp on the second step because of the ceiling and the light inside the basilica and the proportion of glass to stone. All of the sculpture on the outside of the basilica of workmen and farmers felt very fresh and took me back in history. There were lots of sculptures and carvings of musical instruments and musicians outside and inside, too.SD crypt 5

The experience of going down in the crypt was something I have always wanted and it also felt like going back in time. I enjoyed talking with the French black teenagers on the lawn who wanted to practice their English. They were so much like my old students at Lindley Jr. High, where I taught in Greensboro, NC, in the 1970s.

I met an English couple outside the basilica and chatted with them for an hour. They told me about all of their vacation travels in America, out West. They haven’t been east of the Mississippi. Richard has taken me many times to every place they mentioned and so we were able to have a good conversation. We got along very well and laughed almost the whole time. They had studied the basilica and had attended a lecture about it and they showed me where the building had been greatly damaged during the French Revolution and where Napoleon had had it repaired and they were very upset with the poor quality of the repairs. It really was sickening to see all the heads missing from the statues.

They asked me if we thought South Dakota was a bit barren, and I replied, “Oh, yeah.” They did not know there was any food available in America besides hamburgers and iceberg lettuce salads. They thought American milk was strangely sweet. They were amazed at the long distances between cities and points of interest in America.

Richard’s faves:

Greatest salad in the worldObviously, the basilica of St. Denis was the high point of the day. It was everything Chartres wasn’t: bright, colorful, richly adorned, well proportioned.

But I want to put in a word for the salad we had at lunch. Yes, the food again comes near the top of the list. The salad at Le Table Ronde in St. Denis, just across the square from the basilica was one of the best salads I’ve ever eaten. It was a “salad with ham and poached egg.” It had mixed greens, fried baconlike ham in shoestrings, artichoke hearts, black olives, pommes frites, tomatoes, a poached egg sitting on a slice of baguette, shoepeg corn, all lightly coated with a dressing of oil and vinegar mixed with mustard, salt and pepper. It was heaven.

Beside that, it hardly seem worth mentioning the pizza marguerite we had for supper. “Take that, Domino’s,” said Carole.