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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.

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

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.

Click on any image to enlarge

Next: Sainte-Chapelle

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Next: Vezelay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Next: Reims

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

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Size matters, at least in the case of Medieval churches vying with each other for bragging rights. The two tallest Gothic cathedrals in France are only a few miles apart, but they tell very different stories.

In the high Middle Ages, towns built churches the way American cities build sports stadiums, striving for the biggest, best and most impressive. They also advertised the best saintly relics, to draw pilgrims and their money to town. Some 70 miles north of Paris is the city of Amiens, which has the cathedral with the highest vaulted ceiling of any completed church and some 30 miles from that is the incomplete Beauvais, with a ceiling even higher, but an unfinished nave, leaving the church truncated and mutilated.

Amiens is a nearly perfect relict of the architecture of those years (and I shorthand the city’s name for the cathedral, otherwise I must write Notre Dame d’Amiens — or more precisely “The cathedral basilica of Our Lady of Amiens” to give it its official name — and almost all of these churches, cathedrals and basilicas are called Notre Dame or “Our Lady,” after the Marian cult that figured so prominently in Roman Catholicism in the area and at that time) It is the largest by volume and the tallest from floor to ceiling (save only the unfinished Beauvais, about which more later) with 13 stories of emptiness above the visitor.

It sits in the center of the town with a small by handsome parvis, or plaza, at its front. Three portals punctuate the western facade, which is covered with statues of saints and biblical figures. The north tower is slightly taller than the south, and because the building sits on a slight incline, there are more steps to climb at the north end of the facade than in the south.

Inside is brightly lit. Like the cathedral at Rouen, most of its stained glass is gone and the clear or frosted glass lets sunlight stream in.

The odd effect of the church’s regularity, its brightness and its isolation from other buildings nearby, Amiens doesn’t seem as big as it is, with ceiling 138 feet above the floor, and encompassing 260,000 cubic yards of air inside — three times the volume of Notre Dame of Paris. It is, however, the perfect model of the Gothic cathedral and the one I would suggest be the first to see, so as to gauge all the other you find in the northern half of the hexagon that is France.

There are a whole series of such cathedrals and basilicas in northern France, usually not more than 50 miles between each, and in 2006, my wife and I took a trip through the area, visiting 11 of these monuments. From Paris, we took the train to Rouen, where we rented a car and drove to Amiens and Beauvais. Then to Noyon, Laon, Reims, Vezelay, Chartres and back to Paris and Sainte-Chapelle, ending at the earliest Gothic architecture at St. Denis.

Of all of them, Amiens is perhaps the most classical, the ur-cathedral, and certainly the most unified, having been built rather quickly, by Medieval standards, from 1220 to 1260, with additions made in following centuries. Where some other churches are still rather grimy from the exhaust of the Industrial Revolution, Amiens has been cleaned up and is bright and presentable.

If anything is true of these prodigies of architecture, it is that there is no such thing as a Gothic cathedral — at least no such thing as a “pure” Gothic cathedral. Each has been built over decades, even centuries, and each has add-ons in different styles, rebuilds made more “modern,” and restorations by well-meaning finaglers such as the 19th-century Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, who replaced damaged statuary, added grotesques and redesigned finials and gargoyles according to his Victorian sense of what Gothic style should be.

Viollet-le-Duc was put in charge of restoring Amiens in the late 19th century, and he added a whole new line of statues at the top of the west facade, called the “Galerie des Sonneurs,” or “Gallery of Bell Ringers,” a passageway arcade between the two towers. He redid a good deal of the statuary and had the cathedral floor redone to smooth out the cobbling of centuries of foot traffic. Modern standards for restoration were not part of his procedure. “To restore an edifice”, he observed in his Dictionnaire raisonné, “is not to maintain it, repair or rebuild it, but to re-establish it in a complete state that may never have existed at a particular moment.” In other words, as he might imagine it

But such rejiggering is hardly unusual for these cathedrals.

Amiens was originally built in what is called “high Gothic” style, but all kinds of stylistic incongruities have been patched on. Although the building was essentially complete by 1280, in the 16th century, the mayor of  the city of Amiens decided it should have a spiffy new rose window in the then-current “flamboyant” style, highly sinuous and curvy, so the front window of Amiens doesn’t match the rest of the facade.

Not that one can complain. Inside, there are altars added in the Renaissance and the Baroque eras, so completely out of sympathy with the more rigorous taste of the Gothic. In some cathedrals, there are even Modernist stained glass windows.

It is the genius of the Gothic style that it can absorb almost anything and still seem perfectly harmonious. Some historical styles that strive for unity require any additions to be matched stylistically or the new parts seem like carbuncles grown where they are least desired. (Can  you imagine an addition to London’s Saint Paul’s Cathedral designed by, say, Louis Kahn?) But Gothic is an accepting style. There is not much you can do to it and not have it welcomed into the family.

The 19th century gave us a pervasive sense of the Middle Ages. Whether it was Victor Hugo in his hunchback novel, or Sir Walter Scott in his Waverly novels, Alfred Tennyson in his Idylls of the King, or Mark Twain (who tried to take the whole thing down a peg or two) in his Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, there are knights in shining armor, kings and their courtiers, castles and cathedrals. Those artists and authors gave us an era of dour religion and grey stone monuments. And when we look at the front of Amiens, with its ranks of saints standing like an army between the portals, we tend to have a purist vision of the stern asceticism of that era. Yet, we now know, from recent restoration work, that those grey statues guarding the church were originally brightly colored with paint. Traces of that paint is found in the stone, and in recent years, a fancy computer program has managed to create a light show that projects the original colors back onto the neutral stone. We can see what the front of the cathedral was meant to look like. It comes as a shock. One is reminded of certain Arab sheikhs painting the statues in their gaudy Los Angeles mansions.

 

There are ranks of small bas reliefs at eye-height along the front of the cathedral that depict the zodiac signs, the works of the seasons, and the stories of local saints. They are now monochrome, but inside, you can find similar quatrefoil reliefs that are still painted.

The past as we imagine it is always a shaky construct. History is always being revised, and those scholars who do the work are initially derided as “revisionist,” when, of course, that is their job. To quote the revered Firesign Theatre, “Everything you know is wrong.”

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Beauvais

Some 35 miles from Amiens, the cathedral at Beauvais is a testament to overreach. One cannot avoid thinking of the Tower of Babel, where cultural hubris outstrips engineering acumen and it all comes tumbling down.

The central metaphor of all these Gothic cathedrals is altitude, the sense inside them, that they reach to the heavens — or rather, to heaven. Their naves and choirs get taller and taller as the years move along, and when you are inside, it is nearly impossible not to be drawn upward, craning your neck into the vast space above your head. The light in a Gothic church also comes from above, reinforcing the metaphor: Above your head is divine.

This spiritual metaphor exists alongside the more earthly desire of city fathers to brag that they have the biggest and best, and so, a kind of competition existed in the 13th and 14th centuries to see who could build the most vertiginous vaulting. The winner of this inter-city battle was Beauvais, although its victory was Pyrrhic.

In AD 1225, the city authorities decided to replace an older church with one in the new Gothic style. The ambitions of the church and the local barons coincided in a plan to make this church the tallest and best in the world. The barons were in in  struggle with the French throne of Louis VIII and wished to assert their supremacy with the building, and the bishop wanted to assert his own primacy in this grand construction.

They finished the choir of the new church in 1272, with a ceiling vault that was 157 feet above the floor. An empty space the size of a 15 story building.

A Gothic church is usually built with a floorplan in the shape of a cross. The top part is called the choir, at the east end nearest the sunrise, the cross pieces are called the transept and the long side of the cross is the nave. Such churches were usually constructed with the choir made first, because that is where the Mass is celebrated and where the altar is located. (Amiens was unusual, in that the nave was built first and the whole constructed from west to east). So, in Beauvais, the choir was up and church services begun before the whole was finished.’’

It makers were proud, certainly, not only of the tallest church, but the finest, slenderest flying buttresses supporting the roof. But 12 years after it was finished, the roof collapsed. It seems to modern engineering studies, that a gale wind off the English Channel caused sympathetic vibrations in the structure and it shook apart. They rebuilt.

But the collapse, which caused concern about the engineering, and trouble fund raising to complete the whole left the church with only the choir and transept. At some point, it was decided that instead of using the money they had to finish the nave, they would use it to top the whole with a giant spire, which was finished in 1569 and left the church — at 502 feet high — the tallest building in the world at the time.

“We will construct a spire so high that once finished those who see it will think that we were crazy.”

Perhaps they were. Unfortunately, on April 30, 1573, it, too, came crashing down, along with three levels of the bell tower.

As described by author Elise Whitlock Rose, “On the eve of Ascension Day, 1573, a few small stones began to fall from its heights. The next morning, a mason, who had been sent to test it, cried out in alarm; the bearers of the reliquaries, about to join the Procession of the people and the clergy who were waiting outside, fled; — there was a violent cracking, — and in an instant, the vault crashed amidst a storm of dust and wind. Then, before the eyes of the terrified worshippers, the triple stories of the lantern sank, the needle fell, and a shower of stones rained into the church and on the roofs.”

The choir was rebuilt once more, but without the spire. But the nave (except for one bay) was never completed, leaving Beauvais as the trunk of a cathedral, a mutilated fragment.

The shakiness of its construction continues to threaten the building even today. The inside, meant to be an awe inspiring sublime holy space, is filled with trusses and braces, attempting to keep the whole from final catastrophe.

“I can remember Beauvais, because it didn’t have figurative sculpture on the outside and it didn’t have a nave” wrote Carole in our journal, “and inside I was frightened because so much of it was supported by wooden beams and screws. I wondered if it could fall.”

The lack of nave makes another point about the architecture: Despite Beauvais having the highest vaulting, its spiritual effect is diminished by the lack of nave. When you first enter Notre Dame de Paris, or Amiens, through the west portal, the view down the long stretch of nave gives you perspective on the height, making it all the more effective. You can see the height because of the length. At Beauvais, despite the height, there is something of a claustrophobic feel to it, squeezed into the heights instead of expanding to them.

Next: Noyons and Reims