Archive

Tag Archives: gothic church

The day after the fire that destroyed the roof of Notre Dame de Paris, more than a billion dollars have been pledged toward the reconstruction, and French President Macron has promised the work would be completed within five years.

But already, a backlash has begun, a rearguard action, to prevent any “modernization” of the building in its restoration. This reaction demonstrates a misunderstanding of what a Gothic church is, and its peculiar history.

Fires are not the exception, but the norm for these buildings. Hardly a one has survived from inception without at least one grand conflagration. Indeed, most catalog a history of fires and collapses, followed by rebuilding, and almost always in a newer and more modern style than the original. For the norm of the Gothic style is its constant change and adaption.

Now, I’m not suggesting that Notre Dame de Paris should be rebuilt in the style of Frank Gehry, but I am suggesting that it is a sentimentalism and a distortion to believe that any Gothic cathedral is “pure” and “historical.” They are all patchworks of styles and modernizations over the centuries. 

In fact, we would not now have Chartres Cathedral if the older building had not burned down in 1194 and wealthy donors had not given money to rebuild in a new style — the Gothic. 

There had been at least five cathedrals on the same hill in the town, each destroyed by fire or war. The first, destroyed in 858, the Carolingian replacement burned in 962, another in 1020 and another in 1134. In 1506, the north spire was destroyed by lightning and its replacement came in the newer “Flamboyant” style — making the two spires so unlike, which is the characteristic feature of Chartres. 

In 1836, the lead roof burned and was replaced by copper. The flammable wood braces were replaced with cast-iron ribs. 

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. 

The church considered the original Gothic cathedral, at St. Denis, north of Paris, was built by Abbot Suger and completed in 1144. But he kept a Romanesque Western facade, and filled in behind it in this newer style, with stained glass and a flood of light. 

When he died, the church had three parts: a Romanesque front, a Carolingian middle and a Gothic choir. In 1231, Abbot Odo Clement, Suger’s successor, updated the nave with a newer Gothic style and remade the triforium and clerestory of Suger’s choir and apse. As we see it today, the building is an architectural gryphon. 

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.

It 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).

The 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.

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

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.

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?) 

Burning of St. Paul’s 1666

St. Paul’s would not exist now, but for the burning down of the older Gothic cathedral in 1666, which had replaced one burned down, built after the Norman church burned in  1087. 

But Gothic is an accepting style. There is not much you can do to it and not have it welcomed into the family.

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.”

Take Beauvais, the tallest of all Gothic churches. 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.”

This could almost describe the fall of the spire on Notre Dame de Paris this week. 

The choir at Beauvais 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.

This stylistic hodge-podge is something 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 earlier 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.

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 a 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.”

Notre Dame de Paris before 19th C. restoration

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 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 attempt to make the Gothic church “pure,” or “as originally built” is a chimerical idea, only fancied beginning in the 19th century. 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.

But in an ironic stroke of luck, the central government appropriated and deconsecrated the 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 began his 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 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 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).

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.

Yes, that spire, so lamented in its collapse, was never Gothic, never original. It is a 19th century addition. 

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.

In other words, a fantasy of what the 19th century wanted to believe about the Gothic era. 

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, almost a “Disneyfication” 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.

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.

And we need to remember that when attempting to repair the newly burned and mourned Notre Dame de Paris. And not be too “precious” about how it will be rebuilt. 

Certainly, the “forest” of wooden beams and joists will be replaced with reinforced concrete or steel, and the toxic lead roof sheathing will become either copper or titanium, with a patina to mimic the dull lead. And it will be architects who oversee that modernization. 

I don’t see a Buck Jones futuristic spire replacing the 19th century one — in fact, if I had my way, there would be no spire at all. But I leave that to the architects and designer who know very well what they are doing. 

Gothic should continue to evolve: That is, after all, what it means to be Gothic. 

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

Noyon Cathedral is a shabby little church, in an obscure little town in northern France that almost no one has heard of. Yet, it holds a special place in my heart; it may be small, but I know it more intimately than most other Medieval churches from the time. I have crawled through its guts.

The town has about 13,000 inhabitants, making it roughly the size of Fergus Falls, Minnesota. Never heard of Fergus Falls? Well, that’s my point.

In the Middle Ages, it was the seat of a bishop, although the bishop left and moved to Beauvais in 1801 after the Concordat between Napoleon and Pope Pius VII. The town had had a bishop since AD 531, when the Bishop Medardus moved his seat to Noyon, choosing it over a rival city because he deemed the wine in Noyon superior.

A cathedral had been built on the spot since then, being the place where in AD 768 Charlemagne had been crowned co-king of the Franks, and later, in AD 987, Hugh Capet was crowned the first Capetian monarch. It’s hard to imagine that now, with Noyon being such a backwater.

That early church — or churches (there were probably a sequence of them) — burned down in 1131 and the current building was begun in the new Gothic style soon after. Like most such churches, it was constructed and renovated, rebuilt and added to over the centuries. But the major part of the church is in the early style, including some Romanesque holdovers.  Indeed, it looks rather plain compared with its compeers.

Noyon is notably smaller than Amien or Beauvais, and its cathedral is almost a miniature version of the familiar formula. Yet, it isn’t merely its style that explains its homeliness. The French Revolution had treated it miserably, knocking off pretty much all of its external sculpture. You can see the scars.

You approach the cathedral through some narrow streets and we could see it before us, plain-spoken, with no statuary on its facade. Two nearly identical towers framed the central portals, of worn and weathered wood. The West Facade also had two flying buttresses, something I had not seen before anywhere. They stuck out into the parvis.

When we got closer, we could see that there had once been sculpture on the exterior of the building, but it had been chiseled off. During the French Revolution, anticlerical feelings ran high and many of these old churches were defaced. Some, like Notre Dame in Paris had been restored in the 19th century, but poor Noyon had been left bereft.

During the Revolution, churches had been deconsecrated and repurposed as “Temples of Reason,” or had, like Notre Dame in Paris, turned into warehouses for grain storage.

Noyon was, apparently, too insignificant for thorough restoration.

Chapelle Episcopale Saint Nicolas

You can walk around the building. To the right you discover the ruins of the Chapelle Episcopale Saint Nicolas, an 11th century revenant, pass around the back and on the south side, the half-timber library. The larger stone edifice beyond that is the cloisters and refectory.

Library

Time to go through the portal.

The interior is in better shape than the exterior and provides some of the awe and reverence you require from a Gothic church, and is truly their raison d’etre. It severs off a section of the universe, a bit of space, and lets you contemplate it divorced from the commotion and concerns of the day-to-day. You feel the immensity of that captured space and its stillness and it reminds you what is truly important, truly permanent. It is caged eternity and we watch it the way we see a panther at the zoo.

I walked around inside, taking photos. And when I got to the ambulatory and got around to the far point of the apse, I stepped up to take a few pictures of the altar and nave, when an old, withered man walked up to me and spoke rapid French to me in a stutter. I was worried I had broken some taboo or regulation, and the man indicated I should follow him. I thought I was being taken to the principal, or at least the monsignor. He dragged me along the length of the north aisle till he got to a side door, officiously pulled out a key and unlocked the door, opened it with a creak, and motioned for me to follow him into the cloister and garden that take up the north side of the church exterior.

Then he unlocked another door, to the refectory, and motioned for me to enter. Then he began speaking again, but with such a stutter, I couldn’t make anything out. I kept telling him, “Je ne comprend pas Francais,” and he kept answering, “Oui.”

He was thin as a rail, with a day’s whiskers on his pointy chin, and gnarled hands twisted with arthritis.

Je ne parle Francais pas,” I repeated. And he said, “Oui, oui,” again. Then I said, “I get ma femme. She parle Francais.” And he said “Oui, oui,” and I walked out of the refectory, down the cloister, into the nave, found Carole, waved at her wildly to get her attention, brought her back to the refectory, where the old man began speaking wildly to her.

She answered like she understood what he was saying and they had a grand conversation. I’m not convinced either one had a clue what the other was saying or intended.

“A frail old man with a terrible stuttering problem and crippled hands seemed to earnestly and excitedly be trying to communicate something to Richard,” Carole wrote in her diary entry for the trip. “And when I caught up with Richard, he took me to the cloister to the man and I told him I spoke only a little bit of French and he began speaking French as fast as he could. But, I was in luck. He was a terrible stutterer, so I got five or six reinforcements of every syllable. And after each of his phrases, I asked him in French, that is, my French, was I correct in thinking he had said so and so and so and so, and each time he replied “Oui,” and continued.

“Then I would speak five and six sentences at a time. I was totally on a roll. I was understanding everything he said. He was assuring me he was understanding everything I was saying. I left the conversation walking tall, my chest swelling with pride. Hell. I was ready to light up a Gauloise. Let’s go do something French. Let’s go drink some vin ordinaire.

“Then, Richard mentioned that this may have been a crazy man, and since the man was holding a basket, I asked Richard for some money and dropped coins in the basket. Now my confidence is going limp. I am realizing this is like the time I played the piano drunk. I could tell most of the notes I was hitting were wrong, but somehow, I felt it was my finest performance.

“I think what the man was telling me, and he reassured me at the time that I was correct, was that a great battle was fought in Noyon in the First World War, and that many British soldiers died and that this cloister, where he had taken us, was the part of the cathedral that was used for special prayers for those British men, who died in Noyon.”

He finally left us alone, and we enjoyed the refectory and the cloister and the garden.

When we went back into the nave, Carole went off on her own and I walked back to finish what I had started at the apse end. When I noticed that there was a door open at the east end of the north transept, with a light on inside and a spiral stone staircase. I decided nothing ventured, nothing gained, and began climbing.

Where I got was the triforium around the apse, a second story ambulatory, covered in chunks of stone and mortar, with an uneven floor, loose electrical wiring and in places a floor that might as well be dirt. It looked as though in 800 years, it had never really been finished, but left roughed out, since it had no useful function other than to be looked at from the cathedral floor.

I walked to the far end of the apse, took some pictures of the nave, full length, and was ready to walk around the triforium to the transept to have a look when four more people came up the stairs.

Great, I thought. I’m OK. This must be part of the tour.

But no, one of the four scolded me and told me something in French that made it clear I was not supposed to be there.

I walked over to them, apologized, explained that the door was open, and I asked if they spoke English. The woman said “un peu.” and held up the thumb and index finger to indicate about three quarters of an inch.

I told her that I didn’t understand what the man had said to me. She told me that I was not permitted up here, that she was bringing these two journalists up for a tour, and the third man was the sexton, who had the keys.

The young sexton was grim and adamant, but when I explained that I was also a journalist, and that I was studying cathedrals and had been grateful for the chance to climb to the triforium, she smiled and said, “We are going to climb the tower now. If you would like, you can come with us.”

Merci, merci, plus merci,” I said, and tagged along.

We went to the south tower at a door on the south aisle. The sexton pulled out his handful of keys and opened the door very slowly, to reduce the squeal of old hinges. We mounted the stone spiral staircase and began climbing, me bringing up the rear.


Well, I’ve been up towers before, and they can be worse than lighthouses: We climbed and climbed, with no relief of window or landing, till we got to the first level of the tower. The bells were clanging; it was quite an impressive sound, not quite enough to deafen poor Quasimodo, but loud enough. The floor looked like a construction site; the kind with grout and cement spilled on the ground and left to dry to a powder. The floor was bumpy and uneven, and the walls were unfaced stone, left as raw as when it was cut from the quarry. If it doesn’t show, why spend the time and money to finish it.

We went up another level — killing my poor knees, by the way, and practically bringing rigor mortis to my leg muscles. I huffed and puffed, but mostly, I sweated, Niagaras of sweat into my sports jacket. My shirt was a bathmat.

The next level was much like the previous, but with slots to the outside, allowing a cool breeze to filter through.

Yet one more level up, and we were at the top. Only the wooden roof was above us. Each of these levels was perhaps 30 feet high from floor to ceiling, and all left rough and unfinished.

But we could look out at the city and see the paysage all around: Farm field and woods as far as the eye could see beyond the village.

At one level, we ventured in towards the body of the church, and I could see the strut-work keeping the peaked roof up. Crawling through the guts of the cathedral, I felt the thrill of Rotwang and Maria traipsing among the buttresses and gargoyles.

Noyon may be a forgotten relic of centuries past, but it is now the church I feel most intimate with. I have seen it backstage as well as front.

After we walked back down, the church was being used for a funeral, and we all tried to be as quiet as possible. I thanked the woman and sexton for their hospitality, and left the church looking for Carole.

She was outside, having sat through some of the funeral, but then having felt a bit intrusive, left the building to walk around outside.

Anyway, it proved to be one of the best cathedral visits ever, and though I was drenched with sweat and beginning to stink that blue-collar stink, I was elated.

Next: Laon

Click on any image to enlarge

nd-from-the-seine

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).

nd-transept-and-north-rose-window

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.

nd-carole-sitting-2

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.

nd-stained-glass-panel

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.

nd-saints

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.

nd-rood-screen-2

And all of that is the part of today I don’t ever want to forget.

nd-ambulatory-vaulting-2
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.

nd-rood-screen-slaughter-of-innocents-2

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

“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.

We have now been to Chartres three times, and I pray we may get back there yet again. There are a few places on this planet that impress themselves into your experience so profoundly they define the joints and hinges of your biography, just as a marriage, birth or death can. Among those for me have been seeing the cave paintings from 30,000 years ago in the Vézère valley of France, standing in the breeze-twisted grasses of the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, dawn at the Grand Canyon in Arizona — and Chartres Cathedral, some 60 miles southwest of Paris. looking into apse
 
Chartres is the archetype of northern Gothic cathedrals, and the one perhaps least touched by time and remodeling. Entering the cave feels like spelunking: it is a cave, huge, dark, cool, chthonic. On our first visit, in 2002, I was admittedly unprepared for it. As you will read in these notes, I was slightly underwhelmed; I must have been expecting something different. But in each subsequent visit, I have become more and more moved. For our first visit, the sky was a bit hazy, the temperature touching on the raw, and the interior of the cathedral was darker than it has been on our revisits. We made a trip in 2006 that made the rounds of the cathedrals in northern France, from Paris to St. Denis to Chartres to Amiens to Beauvais to Laon to Noyon to Rheims, and seeing them all has given Chartres pride of place. It is not just the architecture, not the sculpture or the stained glass — there is something singular about the site, as if it were the champion, having taken on all challengers and knows it has nothing left to prove. It was built by businessmen to advertise their market — the way cities now build NFL stadiums — but it has captured something sublime, something that speaks to the magnum misterium. If I were not an atheist, I might call it spiritual, but that word is so overused, it no longer has any real meaning. Suffice it to say, a day in Chartres cathedral lifts you out of the quotidian and places you among the stars. I am embarrassed that I was so thick-brained on first seeing it, that it could not penetrate.

The north rose window remains the single most beautiful man-made thing I have ever seen — ever experienced.

There will be more photos with this entry than normal; click on any of them to enlarge.

row of saints horiz
Chartres
Tuesday, April 2

As they say about football: That’s why they play the game.

west facade fullYou 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. royal portalBut 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.

We walked first around the building, from the facade to the south transept, around the apse and treasury, along the north transept and back to the front.nave

Yes, the portals of the transepts are splendid, rich with sculpture. But 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 Saint-Chapelle.

The proportions of the nave seem almost primitive. 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.worn floor maze

When they do, there is a good deal of wear to be seen. Not only is the stone floor worn wobbly, but the vaulting in places is peeled or exfoliated, showing some brickwork behind the stone.

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.west rose window exterior

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?north rose window

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.cathedral on the hill

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.statues 2

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.

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.north transept from roof

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 is glorious. 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.

If I sound disappointed, I don’t mean to. This was one of the true high points of our travels. We spent 12 hours from the time we left the hotel in the morning till the time we returned. With an hour each way on the train, and time out for breakfast and lunch, that left a good 9 hours spent 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.south fleche

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. gargoyle pairLiability laws must be quite different in France. In the U.S., they would never allow anyone to climb up grotesquethose stairs, let alone hang out over the precipitous drop, with its low balustrades and that steady breeze that must often become a wind.

Visiting Chartres was one of the highlights of our lives.

Now we have experienced it, have it in our blood. This is very different from ID-ing the photos in the art history textbook.

For lunch — because we have to mention such lowly things among the lofty ones of the cathedral — we had a pot au feu at the Cathedral Bistro, just across the courtyard from the south nave exterior. As we sat eating our boiled beef, potatoes and turnips, restaurant interior with tablewe could see the masonry through the plate glass window of the restaurant front.

And when we finally got back to Paris, we went down to L’Etoile d’Or and had a cassoulet with duck and sausage. C’est magnifique.

Carole’s highlights from Chartres:

I loved the ride on the train. I loved the white flowering trees by the train tracks, and loved watching the men come out and work in their little back yard gardens. The sculpture outside the cathedral and the windows inside. Inside the cathedral, in the chapels, one of those had a statue of Mary and draped on her was what looked lancetlike a very old white silk garment encrusted with pearls and there was a little group of people sitting there and there were five or six fresh floral arrangements, and every time I walked past it I could feel the heat of the candles on my face. I walked by five or six times just to feel the heat. That was very nice. While R. was photographing outside, I walked around and around the carved stone rood screen pretending I was there in the Middle Ages and I was reading the stories from the statues; and the statues worked great. There was this really remarkable carpet at the altar in the center of the cathedral and it was tapestry work and it was blue and red and as a carpet it was made in the form of a cross, so it draped down all four sets of steps of the altar. It had 8 large medallions and each was different. One had roses another had wheat. Oh, and one of the things I liked best was the floral arrangement at the altar. It was branches of those white flowering trees with birds of paradise and orange day lilies. I spent a lot of time looking for a spot on the floor that looked like nobody had ever stepped on it, but I couldn’t find even an inch in a corner that wasn’t worn. I loved knowing R was happy all day.

Richard’s greatest hits:

south rose window exterior detailThere is no way to break it down: It is the sum total of Chartres cathedral, including its architecture, stained glass, sculpture, setting, the town around it and the people in it. If there was one event that stood out, it was the climbing of the north tower. It was a trial, but there were several stops along the way that I had all to myself and could sit in the air above the roof of the cathedral, contemplating the whole thing. The train ride was also good, through forests and past villages with old stone houses covered in vines and lichen. When we finally got back to Paris, there was a cassoulet with my name on it at L’Etoile d’Or.

west facade 1west facade central portal tympanummary detailclerestory from navevaulting and organsouthside with treeroofroof and south transeptrood screen and ambulatorydreamer statue basebegger at the doorkids

Stories rise to climaxes, and our first trip to Paris reached that point on Sunday, when we accidentally stumbled into one of the most profound experiences of my life: seeing the Gothic cathedral in full tilt, with all its bells and whistles sounding. Later trips to France would be focused on the many cathedrals and churches built centuries ago across northern France.

Click any photo to enlarge.

NDP horiz with seine

Notre Dame: 2nd round
Sunday, March 30: Easter

A machine is always more beautiful when it is running.

A cathedral, as Carole said, is a machine to take you someplace.

Today, we saw that machine with all its gears rotating and its cylinders pumping.

Not that we expected it when we left in the morning. We were just going to walk along the river, on the Ile St. Louis. We had a petit dejeuner at L’Etoile d’Or down the street, and wandered over the Pont de la Tournelle and along the Quai d’Orleans, to get a good photo of the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris on its island.

NDP gargoylesAs we crossed over to Ile de la Cite, we noticed hordes of people, tour buses and commotion.

“Sunday,” I thought. Must bring out more tourists. They were everywhere.

We walked around the north side of the cathedral, to photograph details and gargoyles. But as we passed the transept portal, we noticed that, for the first time, the doors were open. Why not wander in and see.

Well, we should have realized, with the bells pealing all morning, that it was Easter. Not our religion, but still, we should have known.NDP Easter crowd

Inside, the big Easter mass was being celebrated. The church was packed. Most of the visitors were celebrants, but a good number around the edges were just tourists.

But at the altar, spotlighted like a good stage, there were priests and a choir, which was chanting plainsong that echoed through the building like surf.

A priest was swinging a censer around the altar, spreading smoke through the crossing of the transept.

It took a while to get past the “gee whiz, what did we stumble into?” But soon we recognized the beauty and theater of the ceremony. It was intoxicating to hear the chant, melismatically floating like the censer smoke, under the brilliant blues and reds of the Rose Window, high above.

NDP bishop presidingOne doesn’t have to be a believer to appreciate how the mass, spoken and sung in the space built for it, 700 years ago, addresses the magnum misterium. Both Carole and I were soon caught up in it.

The vaulting, the lights, the stained glass, the church, spread out in its cruciform, that is also the diagrammatic shape of my body and your body, with the vast ceiling which is metaphorical of the inner dome of the skull — we could see how the priest at the crossing of the transept — the place that counts as the heart of the cruciform homunculus — was casting us out into the cosmos, out into the mystery, out into an intense beauty we only rarely let ourselves be aware of.NDP priest swinging censer

I was shaken. I believe Carole was, too. One listened to the choir, now taking on a later music, a descant from the 15th or 16th century, with the soprano floating her melos out over an altos lower harmony, and looked up, and on raising eyes, one sees the axis of the rose window, with all the light pouring through the interstices in the tracery, very like the angels dancing around the divine center of Dante’s mystical rose.

The vastness of the cathedral interior became the vastness of the universe, the singing became the music of the spheres.

The particular music split between soprano and alto was early enough that it did not participate in the tonic-dominant of classical music, but instead flowed endlessly in shifting concord, opening into landini cadences here and there to redirect the tonality.

And I heard in that melisma something completely separate from an esthetic event. It became the closest thing I have ever heard to the human equivalent of a bird’s song, a sound beautiful beyond its need to be beautiful, uttered out of instinct and joy. Shelley’s skylark, perhaps.

I don’t want to trivialize the event with frivolous hyperbole. But I swelled inside, and tears broke onto my cheek.NDP doorpost temptation

The doctrine simply didn’t matter. The metaphor behind the doctrine — the metaphor truer than the sometimes unknowing doctrine — took over.

We were privileged to witness the building doing what it was designed to do, like driving a Maserati across the countryside, or seeing the dynamos at Hoover Dam spin out electrical power.

I’ve often talked about the “business end” of the cathedral — the choir and apse — in a kind of jocular way, but now I have experienced just what a meaningful business it is.NDP through tree lace horiz

We stepped out of the church after about a half hour. The bells were pealing all over town. Easter morning bells, not only from Notre Dame de Paris, but from every small church and chapel.

NDP north portalI continued making the photographs I had come to make, getting all the details of the West Facade, the sculptures and portals. While moving from point to point, I left Carole waiting in the crowded plaza so she wouldn’t have to keep up with me while I jumped around.

Then, I reentered the cathedral through the West door. I thought I’d see what the service was like looking down the spine of the nave. The choir was silent, but the organ was playing some Messaien. I could hardly believe it: The French composer was being taken seriously enough to play at an event as important as this. And the music was transformed by the place and event, too.

It was no longer an esthetic construct. Messaien is a joy, rich as pastry, if you have the ears to stand it. But Messaien didn’t write music — especially his organ music — so his listeners could get their jollies. No, he wrote it out of religious devotion to serve a function.

And it, like the cathedral itself, became a machine to take you somewhere. It couldn’t have been designed to be more perfect for its job.NDP church garden tondo

Bach organ music is great for a Lutheran service, but that deep, familiar tonic-dominant drive of the fugues and passacaglias would have seemed all out of place in the middle of Catholic mass. The Messaien is as powerful a music as Bach’s on the organ, but it is built on another schema, one that doesn’t give you an expectation and fulfills it. No, it is much more like the mystery, going into unexpected places and finding awe, finding sublimity.

To see the mass, hear the choir and the organ, on an Easter morning, in a 13th Century cathedral, Gothic to the core, with those windows, that color, that light, that theater: It is one of the highlights, not of this trip, but of my life. I was overwhelmed, which is the only appropriate response to the Great Mystery.

Addendum: The martyrdom of St. Denis

NDP st Denis with angelsThe exterior of Notre Dame de Paris is covered with the tall, attenuated statues of saints. Most of the sculpture there today is the work of Eugène Viollet-le Duc, who restored the worn, weathered and often insulted cathedral in the middle of the 19th century. (After the French Revolution, the deconsecrated structure was used as a barn to store grain.) His work on Notre Dame, like his work elsewhere, freshened the architecture and sculpture. No one knows for sure who each of the saints are. Some are obvious from the symbolism, others are obscure. But St. Denis (Dionysius) is clear as can be: The third century saint was beheaded during the persecutions of the Emperor Decius, and he stands at the cathedral in stone, holding his head in his hands. According to Butler’s Lives of the Saints, after he was decapitated, he picked up his head and walked six miles north from Montmartre, where he was executed, to what is now the banlieu of St. Denis, where the basilica bearing his name was later built, and where so many of the kings of France are entombed.

luxembourg garden horizLuxembourg Gardens

We wandered through the crowds along the river, gazing at the bookstalls, walked up Boulevard St. Michel to the Luxembourg Gardens.rue de huchette

As profound as the cathedral is, the area around it in Paris is a tourist sewer. Even the bookstalls are geared to moving merchandise to a herd of passing tourists. The awful Rue de Huchette is clogged with places to separate you from your lucre, and sell you “naughty” French postcards or mass-produced “original” paintings of the cathedral or the Eiffel Tower.

But as we moved up the hill toward the Luxembourg Gardens, Paris reasserted itself and the tourists disappeared. We walked through the gardens, among the statues and horsechestnut trees and were in the middle, once more, of a living city. People all around were walking dogs, sitting under trees and reading, or cuddling or smoking. Teenagers rolled past on their inline skates and joggers puffed around corners. All I heard was French.jardin de luxembourg horiz

As we walked back from the gardens, we passed an older section of town (if that isn’t redundant in this ancient city) and had fun spotting all the sculptured apartment facades. octopusThere were not only the usual satyr faces and acanthus leaves, but giant elephant heads and lions. The Institute of Maritime Science had a great wrought iron octopus above its door.

Passing back around the Pantheon — an ungainly building — we came down the hill on Rue de Cardinal Lemoine and home territory. We stopped at l’Etoile d’Or again for a late lunch of Boeuf Bourgignon. Carole had a creme brulee and told the waiter that the crystalized caramelized sugar on the top of the custard was “like the glass in the windows of the cathedral.”

He laughed and appreciated the comment. Later we heard him telling the chef what she said, and the chef said simply, “Vrai.”

When we got back to the hotel, it rained a good clean rain.

Carole’s response:

NDP mary doorpostI had the sensation of being pulled up and up and up. First my eyes and then my body and then my soul. And I don’t know how to say this, but it makes you want to be better. Being inside that building appeals to the best part of you. The incense really worked: It appealed to my sense of smell. I was “smelling in a sacred manner.” And when we left the cathedral I carried some of that incense in my hair for a long time. It smelled a little like cloves, but more like the resin of some wonderful tree. Outside, when we saw some of the members of the choir, they were really young, laughing and being lighthearted, and just a moment before they had been angels. It reminded me of Bergman’s Magic Flute, the way the characters are also regular people and also in the play.
I loved seeing the statue of Mary, and she was wearing a crown and holding the infant Jesus, but she didn’t seem sacred to me because she was the mother of God, she looked sacred to me because she was a sweet little mother with her baby.