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Le Stryge

It seems obvious that the present moment is the product of all the time that went before; what is not so obvious is that the past is also a product of the present. That is, we always see the past through the eyes of the present; the present has need of a version of the past that validates the way we see ourselves now.

History is uncontrollably large and what we consider the history, which we consolidate in books and Ken Burns documentaries, is a tiny fraction of what actually occurred, and each generation gets to pick the bits it wants or needs to justify itself.

All of which makes history not a fixed and certain thing, but a constantly flowing eddy of revisions and reconsiderations. And each age sees itself reflected in the mirror of its historiography.

Notre Dame de Paris 1841

The Enlightenment, for instance, saw the so-called Middle Ages as a time of irrationality and superstition. That age saw its ideals in classical Rome. But the 19th century, given in to Romanticism, idealized the very things the previous century had dismissed. So, in the 19th century (yes, beginning in the late 18th century — these things are not governed by calendar dates), you had a Gothic revival, a raft of novels set in castles, the knights of Sir Walter Scott, the cornball folly of Strawberry Hill and Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame.

And you found, in France, a renewed interest in the monuments left over from those discarded days. And discarded is the proper word: The cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, for instance, was a crumbling shambles, stripped of most of its sculpture and left to be a ruin on the island in the middle of the Seine River. In addition to the ravages of time and 500 years, there had been various “updates” to the building, and then, before, during and just after the French Revolution, the sculpture on the door jambs had been removed and the Gallery of Kings above the western portals had been junked in a frenzy of anti-monarchical and anti-clerical sentiment.

Before restoration and now

But in an ironic stroke of luck, the central government appropriated church property in 1789, and thus became responsible for the administration and upkeep of churches, including the cathedral (know then as the Métropole), which had for a time been turned from a Roman Catholic cathedral into a “temple of reason” and then into a food warehouse.

Under the auspices of the state, a few clumsy attempts were made to restore the cathedral, but those attempts did more damage than good.

Then, in 1831, Victor Hugo published his novel, Notre Dame de Paris (better known in English as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”), and began a personal crusade to repair and renovate the crumbling monument. He and others worked for a decade persuading public opinion and so, in 1841, a committee was established in Paris to consider the matter, and a year later, architect Jean-Jacques Arveuf was asked to submit a plan for the refurbishment of the cathedral. Several others decided to submit plans, also, and eventually it was the team of Jean-Baptiste Lassus and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc who were chosen to mastermind the restoration. Lassus had already spearheaded the restoration of Sainte-Chapelle, and Viollet-le-Duc had been in charge of the work at Vezelay. They were the two most qualified restorers of the age (and although Lassus died in 1857 before the completion of the work in Paris, Viollet-le-Duc went on to work on several more of the cathedrals and basilicas of northern France).

During restoration, mid-1850s

The project began in 1845 and didn’t finish until 1864. It was a huge project. Walls needed rebuilding, statues were carved and put back on the door jambs, all the gargoyle waterspouts that had been replaced over the centuries by lead pipes were redesigned and recarved. (The hideous lead pipes had caused the cathedral in the previous century to be compared to a hedgehog, with all the points spiking out from its walls). The windows were reworked, the doors remade, a new spire added to the roof above the crossing, and perhaps most remarkable — a series of 54 grotesques — “chimères,” or “chimerae,” as Viollet-le-Duc called them — were added to the gallery along the roof line.

This is where history and its progeny enter the picture. For most people, little says Paris and the Middle Ages more than the monster animals that stare down from the summit of Notre Dame de Paris. The most famous chimera — Le Stryge, or “The Vampire” — is perhaps the second symbol of Paris (after the Eiffel Tower). It seems to tell us more about the Middle Ages than any number of scholarly tomes. It is hard to imagine Notre Dame without its guardian spirits, yet they are completely the invention of Viollet-le-Duc. They are the 19th century imagining the Middle Ages.

It is true that Viollet-le-Duc justified his invention of them by claiming he had noticed in some old engravings the remnants of what he took to be the original chimerae, the remains of some broken birds’ feet left carved on the balustrade of the upper stories.

“On every corner of the balustrade,” he wrote, “birds have come to perch, demons and monsters have come to squat. These picturesque figures have just been reestablished; the originals exist no more, but some of them, in falling, have left their claws attached to the stone.”

And there is recorded evidence that such things were once part of many Gothic churches. In the 12th century, St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote a rant against them as being unsuitable for a Christian church:

“What are these fantastic monsters doing in the cloisters before the eyes of the brothers as they read? What is the meaning of these unclean monkeys, these strange savage lions, and monsters? To what purpose are here placed these creatures, half beast, half man, or these spotted tigers? I see several bodies with one head and several heads with one body. … Surely if we do not blush for such absurdities, we should at least regret what we have spent on them.”

But what these “savage lions” and “unclean monkeys” were looked like, and whether Notre Dame de Paris had ever featured them, are not known. But for Viollet-le-Duc, they were an essential part of what made the cathedral genuinely Gothic.

At any rate, Viollet-le-Duc designed and sculptor Victor Pyanet carved the 54 monsters. Each is of a piece with the portion of the balustrade atop which it sits, monster and fence a single piece of stone.

Viollet-le-Duc also designed the more-than-a-hundred actual gargoyles that stick out from the walls and buttresses of the cathedral, replacing the ugly lead that had defaced the architecture.

(We tend to use the term “gargoyle” for all the mythical beasts on a Gothic church, but a true gargoyle is a rainspout, the word coming for the Medieval French word for “gullet.” The other figures are usually called grotesques or chimerae.)

Viollet-le-Duc and his partners sat at the crux of a change in restoration theory — at midpoint between the older ideas of just replacing worn-out parts with modern equivalents and the more recent concept of saving everything original as best as can be done. Viollet-le-Duc’s idea was not to put Notre Dame back to any historically accurate version of the building, which had changed over the centuries with add-ons and updates, but rather to create a vision of the “perfect completed ideal” of what the building would have looked like, if it had ever been completed according to a single plan.

Viollet-le-Duc wrote that, for him, restoration should be a “means to re-establish [a building] to a finished state, which may in fact never have actually existed at any given time.”

So, Notre Dame as we see it today, is a fiction, a 19th century overlay upon the remains of a 13th century building in an attempt to recapture what the Romantic 19th century believed to be the soul of the Medieval era.

What we see now is the past through the lens of Viollet-le-Duc’s imagination, an imagination formed by the epoch of Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, Prosper Mérimée, Hector Berlioz and Eugène Delacroix.

Now that lens is more than 150 years old itself, and we who are perpetually modern use our own lens to judge the motives and achievements of Lassus and Viollet-le-Duc and their colleagues.

Viollet-le-Duc

But we should not be too harsh on them. Viollet-le-Duc was an astonishing person, the best-informed restorer of his time, who published the standard encyclopedia of Medieval architecture and design. His energy and commitment were legendary, and although he had his critics, there was no one else in the central years of the 19th century better placed to give us the Middle Ages.

And without him, the cathedrals of northern France would today be more like the ruins of Ancient Greece than like the awe-inspiring churches in which the Mass has been celebrated for 800 years.

The fact is, there is no “original” and “authentic” Gothic building to which we can point. All such churches were constructed over centuries, with changing styles, and continuous updates and remodelings. The Gothic cathedral is less a thing than a process, and Viollet-le-Duc should be seen as simply part of that continuing process.

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Next: Sainte-Chapelle

At the climax of Fritz Lang’s 1925 classic, Metropolis, the mad scientist villain kidnaps the heroine and climbs to the top of the city’s cathedral, dangling precipitously over the narrow walkway at the edge of the roof. From the first time I saw the movie, I wanted to join him.

Not, obviously, as a kidnapper, but rather to experience the hidden acroscape of the cathedral — the skin over the vast interior space that defines such a cathedral. It is akin to the thrill of walking along the catwalks above a stage, among the ropes and dropscenes. You have the charge of being somewhere illicit, somewhere ordinary mortals never get to see.

If you are willing to climb the stony steps inside the northern tower of Chartres cathedral in France, you can break out into the air high above the town and look down not only at the houses but on the gargoyles arrayed below you. You have something of the point of view of the angels Cassiel and Damiel from Wim Wenders’ film, Wings of Desire. It is almost like flying.

It is a long way up and a lot of stairs narrow inside a tube of rock and no one with serious claustrophobia should attempt it. But you can climb to the bell tower rooms and then to the roof of the cathedral and walk on the narrow stone walkway, with the low stone balustrade preventing you from a headlong five-second, wind-rushed appointment with your inevitable end.

You look down at the flying buttresses and notice architectural details you cannot see from the ground. You see the moss and lichen that has been slowly eating at the stone for centuries. You see the vivid green of the roof and beyond that, the distant round horizon.

What is more, and perhaps the most surprising, is the incredible amount of ornamental detail put into the structure at a level that no normal human would ever get a chance to see. There are finials and floral scrollwork, there is tracery and statuary, all placed there, as far as anyone can tell, for the sole amusement of gods and angels — for who else will get to appreciate the work put in to such places that have no public access, no meaningful purpose for the clergy or staff, no liturgical function. The old stone carvers who made such beasts must have had a grand time unlocking the cage doors of their ids.

Indeed, much of the carving along the roofline of Chartres seems positively pagan rather than Christian. There are demons and lizards, chimeras and gargoyles. The building is positively animated with this menagerie of odd animalia.

And up this high, you can see the gargoyles from above, and see the grooves down their backs and the holes through the skulls that guide the rainwater out into the streets, away from the foundations of the church. Gargoyles are drainspouts; the others are chimera — the odd animals that decorate corners, niches and summits. In the Middle Ages, they were all called “babewyn,” which was Italian for “baboon.”

It is one of the touchstones of Gothic thinking that a building should match the fecundity and variety of the world. We who have grown up in the age of Mies van der Rohe have come to think that the hallmark of elegance is simplicity, that “less is more.” But the Medieval artist looked around him and saw oak leaves and irises, chipmunks and rooks, gullies and precipices, and all in an abundance of color and shape — and he strived to match that earthly brilliance with a corresponding abundance in his work.

Cultural history shows us a constant pendulum swing between epochs in which unity and simplicity were elevated, and those eras in which complexity and extravagance were valued. The Romanesque that preceded the Gothic, and the Renaissance that followed both were times of constricted unity. A few shapes served as template for an entire building.

Ernest Hemingway characterized the contrasting impulses when he said there were “putter-inners and taker-outers” among writers — he being the ultimate taker-outer. The Gothic age in history is the key putter-inner. Everything is dumped into the esthetic hopper and the plenitude is gloried in.

Take for example the great neo-classic St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, which is a marvel of studied simplicity and symmetry. Each column and capital is uniform in design, each window matches for an overall sense of unity and simplicity. Then take Chartres and realize that each column is different, each capital a unique design. And because the cathedrals were built over such a long time scale, the style at the beginning of the build may vary greatly with that at the completion. At Chartres, the west facade is nearly Romanesque in its austerity, while the north porch is extravagant in its Gothicism.

You can see this tendency not only in the columns (often called pillars when discussing Gothic cathedrals) and capitals, but in the column bases. Just in the north porch alone, I photographed a series of them. Here are six.

They vary from foliage to flowers, to star shapes and scrollwork. And even when they depict the same variety of leaf, they are designed differently. You can enjoy the image of the world in seeing them, just as one patch of ivy in a garden mimics but still varies another patch.

Unity or diversity, it is still a tension we feel these days, as the gravitational pull of unified Modernism gives way to the stunning diversity and lack of unity in the Postmodern world. Throw it all in together and see what happens.

The elders among us, brought up in the orthodoxy of the 20th century sees this trend as a decline, but in reality, it is really just another pendulum swing, back to a moment when motion, complexity, diversity, light and shade can triumph once again over stasis, simplicity, coherence and uniformity.

You walk around Chartres and you can see the glory in such a world view, such a vivifying afflatus, a joy in living, and in the world we inhabit; and less of a mechanized drive to control and regularize our lives.

As William Blake wrote, “Energy is eternal delight.”

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Next: The chimera of Paris