Archive

Tag Archives: statuary

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

Click any photo to enlarge.

NDP horiz with seine

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

A machine is always more beautiful when it is running.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Addendum: The martyrdom of St. Denis

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

luxembourg garden horizLuxembourg Gardens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carole’s response:

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

For as often as we’ve been to France, we still have never been to the Eiffel Tower. We’ve walked past it — and were nearly hustled by a team of pickpockets. The first, meant to distract us, walked quickly past us from behind, leaned over to pick up a shiny object from the sidewalk in front of us, and asked “Is this yours?” Meanwhile, his confederates, leaning against a wall to our left began to stir and move toward us. We had been warned of this scam, so I pointed at the youth meant to distract us and said, “Voleur.” He didn’t object or even react, but simply turned quickly to find another mark. But we’ve been to many places normal tourists don’t find: out-of-the-way streets, the guignol puppet show on the Champs de Mars, and the parenthetical “forests” — the Bois de Boulogne and the Bois de Vincennes, one on the east and one on the west of the city. And we’ve eaten our way across the town, trying everything from Indian food to Chinese to a McDonalds (just to see the difference).

Click on any picture to enlarge

paris sign at bois
Saturday, March 30

Paris is a city of heads.

doorhead 1It seems over every door, or at the corner of every cornice is a head. Sometimes a Pan head, sometimes a kingly head, sometimes, as at the Opera, the Palais Garnier, it is the head of every mediocrity who ever composed an opera: Halevy, Spontini, Adam, and a dozen others. Yes, they have Beethoven and Mozart, too, but they seem to be there only to provide caché for the hacks.

We took the metro up to the opera because I thought I might be able to find the street and hotel I stayed at in 1965. But it was futile. Nothing looked right. Perhaps I stayed near some other opera house. Or maybe it was a railway station. It’s hard to tell the difference here: All the official windowhead femalearchitecture is monumental and any of it built before Francois Mitterand seems to be Baroque or Beaux Arts, and covered with rocaille, stone wreaths, volutes, acanthus and — most of all — heads.

Just walking down the street, apartment buildings have volutes supporting the cornices of their doorways, and often a medallion just above the lintel with the head of a grotesque or a muse.

And it isn’t only heads. There are caryatids and bas-reliefs, usually with some mythological import. Ovid seems so much more alive here than you would ever know in America. At home, no one under the age of 50 knows what the Metamorphoses is, or who its author was, but in Paris, when you go to the grocery store, there is Daphne or Syrinx staring at you from above the door.

Further, when it isn’t a definable character — a muse or an Olympian — it is one of those ever-repeating European stereotypes: the satyr, the putto, the nymph.

The Classical world cannot be easily forgotten in Paris, with so much architecture to keep it alive.door carving elephant

In America, we are used to statues only on New England town squares, opposite the white-steepled church, or scattered through Washington, D.C., or at Civil War battlegrounds. Statues are not part of the everyday experience of most of us. But in Paris, they are everywhere. Every park is full of classical Neptunes or Junos or Napoleonic generals. There are fountains with water nymphs and curlicue fish spouting water from their mouths.opera pigeon

It means, among other things, that art is not just something you go to the museum to see, but rather, a way to give directions: “Turn left at the statue of Leon Blum.” The statuary means that the ordinary Parisian (as if there were such a thing) lives in a world in which antiquity is not only still alive, it is the visual language of everyday. If the American eye is trained on commercial signage and corporate logos, the French eye is trained on the muscles of Theseus, the helmet of Ulysses, the straight nose of Artemis, the bust of Venus. There are putti galore, and wistful angels, of both genders, and flaming swords of St. Michael. It is all a great stew of history, art, religion and tradition.vincennes 1

Bois de Vincennes

We took the RER to the Bois de Vincennes, but the day, which had been gloriously overcast, broke out in dappling sunlight and ruined any possibility I had of photographing the trees. There was the Parc Floral, though, and it was filled with blossoms, even at this early point in the year.vincennes mille fleur

Carole noticed — and she is certainly correct — that the lawns are filled with little flowers in exactly the same way that the tapestries are filled in their millefleur designs. One place, in particular, was a slope, reducing the effect of perspective, so that the flowers, spotted evenly across the grass, was even more like the textiles. It was uncanny, and reminds us once again, how naturalistic — in their way — were the Gothic designers and artists.

I had trouble reading a legend on our subway map and Carole hailed a passing woman for help. Her name turned out to be Marie Ifrah and she might as well be a lifelong friend now.

She is Spanish, living in Paris and couldn’t have been more friendly and open. I mentioned that everyone we had met in Paris has been “tres amical,” but was surprised, because she says that Parisians are not always to open to outsiders.

vincennes astersWe talked for nearly an hour, in a macaronic melange of English, French and Spanish. Oddly, when we couldn’t understand a word, or she couldn’t remember one, Spanish became our lingua franca, and I was surprised to discover how comfortable I felt in Spanish. French is still a trial for me, though I’m getting better — speaking it, that is; understanding it is tough. But Spanish almost felt like a home tongue.

We agreed that Americans are naive as a people, but disagreed about whether that is a good thing. She felt it is, that it is America’s naivete that is its salvation.

At any rate, she couldn’t help us with the map, but we became fast friends, in a macaronic way, and planned to phone each other “sometime” to arrange a trip in her car to Montmartre, which she tells us is wonderful.

“Where all the peinteurs are, not the good ones, but the ones selling souvenir to the tourists.”

She also pointed out that the French are steeped in culture. That the opera, the theater and such, are as bread and butter. Not like the Americans, she said. She didn’t want to insult us, so she pussyfooted around the issue, but America is all cuisine rapide, she hinted, and bang-bang movies.

Les Americaines lack the discipline, she said. There are things she disapproves of in the French, but she admires their discipline.cafe with author in corner

We didn’t expect the chateau at Vincennes; we came for woods. The palace was a surprise. But it is extensive and old. We walked through the grounds, but didn’t get into any of the buildings. Many are closed for restoration, and others were only open for tour groups and at hours that were inconvenient for us.vincennes chapel and wall

But the Sainte-Chapelle there was a delight of Gothique flamboyant, with a huge Rose window, all out of proportion to its width.

Because we had to walk all the way around the chateau grounds — and they are extensive — we had a late dejeuner, but it was worth it. We tried a little Italian restaurant in Vincennes, and had le menu, with an entree, plat and dessert.

I had the mortadella, which Carole called “the world’s best bologna,” but she had several bites and seemed to enjoy it. Her own entree was the oeufes mayonnaise.

We both had the lasagne boulognese, and it was rich with cheese.big billboard

Carole called the maitre d’ over and said, in halting French with a North Carolina accent, “This is the best lasagne I’ve ever had, in my entire life.”

He seemed pleased.

It only got better with the chocolate mousse that was so dusky you could have parked a truck on it.

It is 11 p.m. as I write this and lunch is still with us, but in a good way.
It feels silly writing about our food every day, but it is truly a highlight. Paris is a city where your lunchtime conversation is likely to be about where you will eat dinner.

In the evening, I took a walk around the neighborhood to snap out of a drowse fit. Took beaucoup photos and stopped at the supermarket for a loaf of bread and some confiture so Carole wouldn’t have to take her medicine on an empty stomach.

Carole’s bests:

vincennes castle entranceSo enlightening and thrilling to look at the grass and wildflowers and see that the millefleurs are real, truthful expressions of the ground here. The flowers I saw that are precisely the ones in the tapestries are the little daisies, violets, and a little plant I call rabbit plant, but I think it’s plantain, and a little pink flower I recognized. I loved seeing the castle because it was like the white castles in the books of hours I’ve seen before. And I loved walking in the woods in the places where the horses feet fell when the king went hunting. I found a flint arrowhead and wonder if it is one and is from the stone age. In the courtyard at the palace, it was easy to picture all the royalty there coming in on horses or in carriages. Seeing all these ACTUAL places and scenes that were only conceptual to me before; now they seem real human. Also, I’d like to know why the church was so important to the king that he had such a huge and fancy chapel there at the palace. The lasagne was incredible, with bechamel sauce in it. The chocolate mousse was actually a religious experience. The wonderful lady we met, Marie. The poissonerie, with all the fish.  I am surprised that the women here do not have coiffures; they all seem to have medium short hair pulled back with a rubber band or clasp. But even so, they look chic, and almost every woman is wearing a dress-length fitted black coat. But no curls.

And today, I got a rose.

Richard’s picks:

night scene 5It was a quiet day in Lake Woebegone, which leaves lunch as the high point of the day, with the mortadella entree, tres riches lasagne and the chocolate mousse. For the second day, we didn’t eat supper because the lunch was so overwhelming. The Bois de Vincennes was disappointing because the sun was out, making too many shadows for good photography, but the flowers were ecstatic. Walking around the neighborhood after dark was good, too.