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
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.
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.
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.)
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.
When 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Carole’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.
Richard’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.