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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. 

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

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

The beheading of St. Denis

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

St. Denis at Notre Dame de Paris

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

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

Abbe Suger

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

Basilica of St. Denis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Next: Chartres

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Some years ago, we knew we wanted to see Europe. But we weren’t sure where we wanted to go. This was at the beginning of our new century. Friends had just visited Rome and brought back exciting video, photographs, watercolors they had made, and most of all, stories. It whetted our appetite.

But once we made the decision to go to Europe, we stopped to wonder if Rome was our only option. Perhaps we should think carefully if there might be some other destination that might call us.

We thought of Prague, Paris, London, Florence, Budapest.

London we ruled out because we wanted the experience of being somewhere that doesn’t speak English. We agonized for some months, fantasizing this place or that. We finally narrowed it down to Paris or Rome.

Rome — Baroque palaces, Classical ruins. Paris — Gothic cathedrals.  Do we want the classical experience, or the Medieval?

Yes, that’s what it came down to. Ultimately, the gray stone of the 11th century was more appealing to us than the sunnier marble of the Mediterranean.

nd-fruiting-branch-sculptureWe decided on Paris, with the plan to avoid all standard tourist fare and attempt to feel what it might be like to live in the city. We would eat in the neighborhood, shop in the neighborhood and walk up and down its streets. In addition, we would try to see as many Gothic churches as possible. In each subsequent visit to France, we managed to add to our life list of important architectural sites, and we developed a growing appreciation for both their beauty and their ability to inspire a profound inward-looking sense of the infinite.

I hope the reason for all this will be clear as I write about them. We kept a journal of our visits, over the years, and alternated portions written by me and often more personal portions written by my wife, Carole. There is an immediacy to these journals that cannot be recaptured in a more finished ready-for-print version and I hope you can enjoy them.

Over the years I have visited Notre Dame de Paris maybe a dozen times — multiple occasions each time we ventured to France. It was a lodestone that drew us back over and over for that glimpse into eternity that only an 800-year-old empty space can provide. The first time I went, was in 1964 and I was a teen ager, barely able to grasp what I had seen. It was before the cathedral was cleaned, and was a giant sooty briquette on the Île de la Cité. The second time was our first trip together in 2002, which was covered in an earlier series of blog entries (see: Paris 2002 Part 1). That included accidentally participating in an Easter Mass; we did not realize it was Easter. (See: Paris 2002 Part 5).

This new series of entries begins two years later when we went back. The photographs for each of these entries were taken at the time we wrote the journals.

Here is our return to Notre Dame in 2004, first my entry, then Carole’s (she puts me to shame).

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Richard’s entry:

We walked to the river and down the quai to the cathedral.

“This is why we came here,” said Carole.

And we walked in and the building did not disappoint us: The space remains magic. The rose windows remain the most beautiful art I have ever seen.

“Most buildings are constructed to contain something,” she said. “Most contain furniture, or people, or warehouses that contain lumber or dry goods. This building is constructed to contain the space itself.”

nd-vaulting-diagonalShe is certainly right about that. The space itself, the negative, if it were turned positive, is the shape of — what — infinity. The shape of the interior of our “souls.” The shape of the inner dome of our skulls projected out into space.

It was early in the morning and the rising sun poured directly in through the apse windows. A small mass was being said in the choir and the light shone down on them.

I went around making photographs, mostly of the sculpture at the west portals. Carole sat still inside and soaked up the ambiance.

We stayed most of the morning. We will go back.

Notre Dame is the reason we visit: There is nothing in the U.S. that gives quite this same spiritual sense. One begins to understand the appeal of Christianity to the Medieval mind. There is something mythological rather than ethical to the religion engendered by such a building, something theatrical rather than pious.

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Carole’s entry:

Oh. Notre Dame was just the place, just the room, just the building.

nd-chandelier-2This time, I spent most of my time looking at the windows from the center of the cathedral. And I especially loved the trees around Notre Dame, because they have grown in a special environment. They haven’t been treated like ordinary trees and they’re just a short distance from trees of their same species, but they’ve been treated like sacred statues because they’re part of Notre Dame.

Something else I loved, was the wood in Notre Dame. It reminded very much of the logs in Aunt Donie’s house in Wilkes County (North Carolina). Aunt Donie’s cabin was very old and there is something about the wood in both places that is the same.

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This time, the part of Notre Dame that became very real for me is the empty space above my head and it was like the empty space around a still life that I drew a long time ago on the day I realized that the empty space was not empty.

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Today I thought the most beautiful window was the one at floor level behind the altar because the sun was coming in and the leading in that window looked like a tree with branches and it gave me the very human feeling of sun behind trees in the evening.

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Oh, the sculpture outside Notre Dame is a different color now and it is so smooth it looks like modeled clay.

I think maybe Notre Dame is the most important art that I’ve ever seen. I wanted to sit so I could line up the top of my head with the part of the ceiling that had a curve most like the top of my head.

I truly felt in a human attitude that I share with people who lived centuries ago, or maybe thousands of years ago. I was frustrated by knowing anything that I do know about architecture or art or history or Christianity and I kept trying to clear my mind so that I could put myself in the right relationship with the room that I was in and the same with the outside of the building.

nd-scenes-of-hellI almost got to the point where the demons on the outside of the cathedral were comprehended by me on a completely visual level. I wanted very much to have the experience of an ordinary person who was seeing Notre Dame for the very first time centuries ago and would have been able to read the building visually. Today the cathedral worked on me profoundly in a visual and spacial way, but I regret that I am not one of those who participated with that architecture with innocence and terror and devotion.

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

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I feel like I don’t understand the windows yet, even though I did sit there and look, not at the side windows, but the three rose windows and they were beautiful, but I couldn’t make them work on me the way the window behind the altar began to work. I want that kind of thing to happen with the rose windows. But I do understand the rose windows at a level now that is not just intellectual and I think they’re very mysterious and that they must work but that I haven’t been able to get them turned on yet.

The sculptures of the actual humans and the idealized humans — the saints and the kings — and the symbolic humans suffering in hell, and the other worldly figures of angels and little grinning devils affect me in a way that is really beyond language except that if I try to describe it it would be like going on one of our trips out West and seeing really massive places of stone that nature had created naturally, and seeing how it was made completely by the mighty forces of time and weight and heat and wind and water, but especially time, and that those big outcroppings of rock, faces of rock, are completely indifferent to being perceived by any kind of intelligence, but are profound and affecting faces of rock and the statues affect me in almost the very same way, amazing and profound to me, and because they have been affected through time, they seem mighty to me.

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Not just that they show the evidence of time, but most of all that they testify to the mystery that is inside our minds. I love the silence of Notre Dame, the silence of the architecture.

When we go to sleep at night here knowing that Notre Dame is there, it is a lot like going to sleep in the Blue Ridge knowing the mountains are there.

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When we visited Paris for the first time in 2002, we felt like yokels: Everything was new and we gawked. Now that we have been there often enough to feel at home on its boulevards, and have visited its most familiar sites enough times that the Musee d’Orsay can feel “old hat,” these initial  notes, written at the end of each day on that trip, can still bring back that feeling, that sense of excitement at seeing the world through a different culture, and with a wholly different sense of history. These notes and photos are from that virgin trip. Click any photo to enlarge. 

Thursday March 28

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Sainte Chapelle

There is no denying the beauty of Sainte Chapelle, with its two floors of chapel: a lower floor for the servants and the brilliantly lit upper floor for the king. But one can see a creeping French classicism overtaking the richness of the earlier Gothic. At Notre Dame de Paris, every pier is different, every capital, every boss in the vaulting. At Ste. Chapelle, there is greater unity: only two styles of pier, alternating along the nave walls. The bosses are uniform. The fleur-de-lis motif crops up everywhere, further unifying the decor of the building.ste chapelle exterior from street

Even in the 13th century, you can see Poussin coming, and Racine. There is a fecundity to the earlier Gothic. Metaphorically, the buildings mimic the variety of nature. One senses in Notre Dame, for instance, a connection with the earth, the seasons, the stars, the animals. At Ste. Chapelle, nature has become an ensignia for royal power and wealth.

No one at Ste. Chapelle, you feel, has ever shoveled manure.

The difference, as Carole stated it, is that Notre Dame feels like a machine meant to take you somewhere, like a traveling machine for the universe, or a time machine. You know, in Notre Dame, that something is happening to you.ste chapelle interior

At Ste. Chapelle, you admire the decor, recognize the royal taste — the gout royale — and it something you observe, look at, admire, rather than participate in. That doesn’t mean it isn’t astonishingly beautiful.

Ste. Chapelle, of course, is late Gothic, le style flamboyant, with neither aisles nor triforium. The windows hang like banners down the walls from just above head level to the top, at over 50 feet. Ste. Chapelle is filled with light in a way Notre Dame isn’t. There is nothing murky about Ste. Chapelle. It is brilliant.

There are two stories, in both senses of the word. Upstairs is reserved for royalty.

The first floor is a low chapel for servants and burgers. Its ceiling is blue and gold, and anyone using it must have felt privileged indeed, with all that gold leaf and those gilt vaults. (Granted, they are 19th century restorations and only approximate what must originally have been there.)ste chapelle downstairs

There is a tiny circular stone staircase that leads up to the main event on the second floor. Because of its two tier nature, Ste. Chapelle looks oddly gangly and tall. Because its foundation is hid from the street, the chapel looks as if it is built on a small hill, above the surrounding buildings. But there is no hill on the Ile de la Cite. The church is just jacked up a full story on its servant chapel, leaving the King’s chapel floating in the stratosphere.ste chapelle rose window, stained glass, ceiling

ste chapelle downstairs ceilingWhen the sun breaks out, as it doesn’t often do in Paris, the stained glass projects color on the floor, in blues, reds and a little yellow.

We spent a couple of hours in St. Chapelle, trying to see everything and absorb it. Every inch of the place is either gilt or painted or sculpted. There is little resting place for the eye. Perhaps that contributes to the sense that Ste. Chapelle doesn’t function as Notre Dame does.

It is something that allows Louis IX to show off, nearly 800 years after his death. He would have liked that, I’m sure.

Cluny winemaking taperstry

Musee de Moyen Age, Cluny

At the Musee Cluny, we began to wear down. We saw the first dozen rooms just fine, and had time to linger over the many tapestries, but eventually, our muscles and bones — to say nothing of our fried brains — made the last part of the museum a mad dash to get through. Which is a shame, because there is so much to enjoy.Musee Cluny exterior

The Middle Ages speaks to me in a deep and profound way: I am simpatico with its sense of multiplicity, and its sense of particularity.
“To generalize is to be an idiot,” said William Blake, and with that, he dismissed all of English neoclassicism.millefleur

But I feel as he does: Every flower, every tree on the mille fleur tapestries is identifiable. There is a daisy, there an iris. It might as well be a Peterson guide.

For me, the Gothic evidences a genuine love for the things of the world. The various classicisms that follow seem infatuated with ideas rather than things.

But you cannot rub an idea between your fingers, hold it to your nose and smell the camphor, as you can in an herb in a garden.Cluny column leaves

Yes, I admire the rigor of the classicisms. Poussin is no slouch: You have to respect the intellectual energy expended in regularizing the universe.

But in my heart of hearts, it seems like a kind of avoidance. The real world, with its real textures, real smells, real colors, real tactility, real sounds — seem so much more satisfying than the concepts that underlie classicism.

So, the Gothic world dug its arms up to the elbows in the soil, sniffing the moisture in the loam. You see it in the illuminated manuscripts, with their love of the seasons; you see it in the architecture, with its leafy pier capitals; you see it in the tapestries, with their mille fleur horror vacuii.Cluny stainded glass angel with flower tondo

The classical worlds that followed — and in France, even the Baroque is classical — it is all turned into ideas. Even French Romanticism seems wordy and literary.

So, you have to go back past the 13th century, to the early Medieval world, before you find such quiddity in French culture.

Adam Gopnik, in his book, talks about the French love of “theory.” Theory to them, is paramount: Without a solid logic in your theory, your conclusions are suspect.

But theory can be a dread evil. It is just such ideas that, twisted and mangled, turn into fascism, Stalinism, Maoism. No room for goats in such worlds.

When we finally got back to the hotel, we were destroyed. Could barely move. Slept for several hours before supper.

But then, we walked down the street to a little glass-fronted brasserie for some onion soup and apple tart. Quel marvelleuse!Cluny animal ivory tiles

ste chapelle floor lionsCarole’s favorites, day three:

Windows at Ste. Chapelle; Cafe au lait while walking to subway, and the pain au chocolat; learning about Ste. Chapelle from Richard as my own private teacher; I liked the servants’ chapel very much. Really really enjoyed was the cut on the fold animal patterns inlaid on floor at Ste. Chapelle; there were hounds, boars, vultures, wolves; At Cluny, saw some little metal pots that were children’s play dishes; saw some little metal whistles in the form of animal heads that were children’s whistles. I thought the combs were very interesting. The second most wonderful thing, after Ste. Chapelle stained glass, was Medieval garden at Musee Cluny. Saw some blue violets blooming.

Cluny gold rose 2Richard’s favorites, day three:

The Omelette Emental for lunch, which was heaven. The stained glass at Ste. Chapelle, although it was too overwhelming to see in detail. The fleur-de-lis stars on the vaulting of the lower level of St. Chapelle. The tapestries, in general, at Musee Cluny. There was a gold rose there, too.