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Gothic Pilgrimage, visiting the great French cathedrals.

                                Grandeur of composition, nobility of silhouette, perfection of proportion, wealth of detail, infinitely...

September 27, 2009

Gothic Pilgrimage, visiting the great French cathedrals.


Grandeur of composition, nobility of silhouette, perfection of proportion, wealth of detail, infinitely varied play of light and shade combine to raise this composition so majestic, so serene, to the place it has ever occupied in the heart of anyone endowed with the slightest feeling for the beautiful.

Evening was coming on when I arrived in Troyes.

“In this town,” said the woman at the hotel desk, “we live surrounded by churches. When they light up the facades, I like to go out and walk at night. It is like walking between borders of lace.” She took me up four flights of stairs to an attic room, pushed open windows, and stood back. She was offering me the rooftops of Troyes, a benediction of grey stone, towers and clocks, steeples and orange tiles with carrousels of pigeons circling above. Twilight, like the bloom on a grape, was thickening around us.

Medieval theory reduced the idea of beauty to that of perfection, proportion, and splendor. Three things, says St. Thomas, are required for beauty: first, integrity or perfection, because what is incomplete is ugly on that account; next true proportion or consonance; lastly, brightness, because we call beautiful whatever has a brilliant color. –JOHAN HUIZINGA, “The waning of the Middle Ages”

I have been driving in a great, irregular circle around northern France, looking at cathedrals. Three weeks ago I arrived in Coutances and had felt, rather than seen, the cathedral straining upwards in the afternoon sunlight of the town square. A pure, geometric statement, it rose from the soil of Normandy, lancing the sky with its twin spires, so sure in its statement of divinity, so terrible in its size and age.

Coutances, through war and revolution, has lost the humanizing details of its sculpture. Curiously alive, it seemed, unsleeping, omnipresent in the old town and built to more than human dimensions. Continuously through its skeleton runs the transfer of weight from vault to buttress to pier to the ground. There was never any doubt in the minds of its builders as to whether or not God existed nor as to whether or not He would be present in this great house which human sweat and love and error was going to erect for Him.

Art in those times was still wrapped up in life.…Life was encompassed and measured by the rich efflorescence of the liturgy….All the works and all the joys of life, whether dependent on religion, chivalry, trade or love, had their marked form. The task of art was to adorn all these concepts with charm and color. –JOHAN HUIZINGA, “The waning of the Middle Ages”

“It is reassuring,” said a young Frenchman I met over diner. “It has been there more than 600 years. It was repaired after WW II. When all the old quarter of Coutances was destroyed, the cathedral remained standing. It is not just history, it is continuity.” His words were like an echo of Ruskin: “It is well to have, not only what men have thought and felt but what their hands have handled, and their strength wrought, and their eyes beheld all the days of their life.”

There had been motives other than faith for the erection of cathedrals like Coutances. There were motives of competition with neighboring churches and for comfort in the place of worship, and pride and power entered into it. Nevertheless, the underlying motive was belief in and praise for God. Larger and larger churches were demanded. They rose, and often they fell. Stone collapsed under the weight of new and more daring architecture, earthquakes tore at the walls and fire melted the lead from the roofs and scorched the saints into a second martyrdom. The devil was usually only one clawmark behind the builders, with a whole horde of destructive fiends at his heels. Between 1170 and 1270-with some leeway-France, like the new Jerusalem, decked herself out in bridal clothes; more than 300 churches and 80 cathedrals. Normandy, land of rain-drenched fields where the apple harvest lies in piles before the cottage doors, raised the austere miracle at Coutances. On the coast, the marvel of Saint-Michel was climbing upwards on its granite islet, shimmering between wet sand and sky with the rough, salty pastures of the mainland spread in front of it like a tufted carpet.  The gentle, obstinate abbot of St. Denise on the outskirts of Paris had built a Gothic monument, which set all France talking. The pious dragged stones for it from Pontoise in the North. The ignorant said that the blue windows came from ground sapphires. Barons and bishops had torn the rings from their fingers and thrown them into the mortar when the first stone of the choir was laid. “Vanity of vanities,” cried St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Such churches were an incitement to human pride; the very beauty of them might lure the simpleminded from contemplation of God. The “vanities” continued to rise, books of stone and air and color where those who could not read could see before their eyes the stories and moral lessons of their Christian faith. No two were the same.

“All of us who fear the wrath of the Judge fly to the Judge’s mother,” wrote Pierre Abelard. The great cathedrals of Rheims, Chartres, Amiens, and Paris were dedicated to Notre-Dame. Some say that there is a particular time of the day for seeing each of them. Rheims is at its most spectacular in the evening when the restored west window distills the sunset into rose and amethyst. Chartes needs ample light to swell the rich colors of the glass. But Amiens, the supreme achievement of Picardy, stone dreamchild of the North, needs to be seen under a typically northern sky, best of all in winter when you can approach it from the South, over the mournful, denuded plain of the Somme, the land robbed of trees, rook crowding in the cold empty skies above the ploughed fields. The Somme this land of mists and ghosts. The giant harvesters which tear at the autumn crops of sugar beets and maize unearth shrapnel from the soil. Roses still grow in Pircardy, clinging dark and ragged to the stem well into October. I drove through one small village after another; not old villages of the sort that still exist in the Oise, but villages rebuilt after WW I and rebuilt with a touching loyalty to all their old remembered faults. The new roads curve maddeningly-because the old road did the same thing. Bone-white chalk among the soil and on the hills a white mirage of chalk-white crosses. The road to Amiens lies through the graveyard of the Somme.

“The Parthenon of Gothic,” is the phrase most often applied to the cathedral church. Viollet-le-Duc who restored it gave it the title. One great cathedral cannot be compared to another.

Coutances had been gracious and austere.

The choir at Beauvais with light running up the stupendous arches to the upper vaults of the choir are like a stone forest.

Rosy Strasbourg, stretching from the soil of Alsace, was to remain in my memory like an arrow transfixing the very gateway of heaven.

I have not often understood so well what spiritual power is concentrated in a church which is weighted by a whole past of prayers, and springs into life with the beauty of the vaults and windows. –TEILHARD DE CHARDIN, writing in the cathedral of Strasbourg after the liberation, 1918.

At Amiens, the choir stalls are not to be missed. They are carved in wood, stories from the Bible made tangible and visible. Ruskin described them in The Bible of Amiens. “Woodcarving was the Picard’s joy from his youth up,” he wrote, “and, so far as I know, there is nothing else so beautiful cut out of the goodly trees of the world. Sweet and young-grained wood it is: oak, trained and chosen for such work, sound now as four hundred years since.”

I proved the truth of another of Ruskin’s remarks. Every custodian likes his own church best. The old man at Amiens was happy to give up washing the choir steps to join me in admiring the carved stalls, pointing out his own particular favorite-the Wedding at Cana, with a little dog crouched under the banquet table gnawing on a bone.

Rouen and Rheims are two towns forever associated with Joan of Arc. “Ah Rouen, Rouen, must I die here?” she cried. It was less than two years since her gentil dauphin had been crowned in Rheims cathedral, the royal cathedral, built and rebuilt, where most all the kings of France had been or would be crowned.

In the eyes and on the lips of a few of the entranceway statues hovered a half-smile, a fleeting, rare expression which, long centuries before, the Greek sculptures preceding Phidias had achieved. Again, at the Renaissance, da Vinci was obsessed by the same expression, “born of a miracle, meant to gladden men’s souls forever.”  -ELIZABETH BOYLE O'REILLY, “How France Built Her Cathedrals.”

The Revolution left the cathedral almost untouched. The building must have inspired some combination of tenderness and reverence. WW I gave Rheims it martyrdom and, as for Joan, it was martyrdom by fire. Rheims was bombarded as if it were a citadel. The delicate chiseling of wings and robe, the gracious smiles of angels, saints and kings, the whole stone paean which the builders of the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries had lovingly raised up in honor of God and France burnt like a tremendous torch and all over the country people wept to hear it. Rheims like Joan, has been hallowed by fire.

“Good and dear friends, loyal Frenchman of the city of Rheims,” she wrote to them once, “ I affirm and promise that I will never leave you.” And wonderfully enough, through all the bombing and fire, the statue of Joan in front of the church remained unharmed.

It was from Rheims that I went to Troyes. To my room where the clocks spoke to each other all night.

The cathedral at Bourges, when I arrived, had its doors wide open. Glass surrounded me. I moved in a kaleidoscope of color. I was drowning in color, falling through torrents of blue, color that you could almost hold in your hands, dense, opaque; golds that dripped slowly through the air, rubies that burned darkly with sparks of fire at their center, greens that were like the promise of the French countryside, stirring like the first touch of spring. Mighty Bourges, massive grey stone and straddling buttresses, raises with all its strength a tremendous, silent, thunder-roll of glory. I am that I am.

Symbol of Faith, the cathedral was also a symbol of Love. …During more than two centuries every vital force in France collaborated on the cathedrals. From that comes the puissant life emanating from these eternal monuments. …Past and present were united in the same feeling of love. The cathedral was the very conscience, the very soul of the City. –EMILE MALE

One day later, and I was in Angers, a turning point in this circle which is more like an irregular square, and then heading north again through the region of the Loire.

The cathedral was perfected slowly and passionately. The Romans brought to it their force, their logic, their serenity. The Barbarians brought to it their naïve grace, their love of life, their dreamful imagination. From this unpremeditated collaboration sprang a work modeled by times and places.
–AUGUSTE RODIN, “Les Cathedrales de France”

I drove to Chartes, not really wanting to arrive, and then saw it, pale and youthful on the swelling of its hilltop.

The reverence in which Chartres is held goes back to pre-Christian times. On the rise which dominates the valley of the Eure, there was a well, and the subterranean spring was venerated, cures were attributed to it and a goddess mother was honored. A statue of her was placed near the water. Early on, Christians considered the image a prophetic representation of the Virgin, believing that some cult had existed to propound the belief that a virgin would give birth. It was a sacred place. Over the spot, with various mishaps, the present cathedral has risen. A copy of a copy of the original statue, no doubt greatly changed in many details, still stands in the crypt.

I had seen the famous glass at Chartres many times, and the grave, beautiful statues, but on this occasion I went down to into the crypt, the underground heart of the church with its Romanesque chapels, the well lit by a constantly burning rosy light, and into the chapel of the water goddess made virgin mother of God. The smoke from generations of candles and oil lamps has blackened the ceiling. This is a voyage beyond Christianity. Here, beside the living spring, a lump of wood was sanctified. It is a voyage back through the arteries of Chartres to a point before symbols had names or the church had laid its blessing on the original concept of holiness. And above this, with reverence and with the living stone, they raised the cathedral of Chartres.

Who built the cathedral of Chatres? An anonymous architect, stonemasons, laborers, quarry workers. The burghers gave their money, the peasants gave their grains and animals, and pious citizens offered their strength. “All our France is in our cathedrals. …” wrote Rodin. “Initiation into the beauty of Gothic is initiation into the truth of our race, of our sky, of our landscape. …Gothis art is the sensible, tangible soul of France.” Who built the cathedrals? Ruskin gave a somewhat wider answer. “God and man…The stars in their courses…”

These statues…possess a dignity and delicate charm. It is owning partly to real nobleness of feature, but chiefly to the grace, mingled with severity, of the falling lines of excessively thin drapery; as well as to a most studied finish in composition, every part of the ornamentation tenderly harmonizing with the rest. –JOHN RUSKIN “The Two Paths”

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Ms Edna said...

Dear Clive,
beautifully done.

Charles said...

Oh Clive,
you reached beyond the commonplace with this post. Wonderful.

David said...


C and C said...


Ms Capshaw said...

stunning body of work

Russ said...

congradulation, can't wait to read your paper.

DeDe (Washington D.C.) said...

You have grown beyond your old mentality.
I am very proud.

Xavier said...

Your writing (the mix of your French and Slavic temperament)
make a great combination.

Walter said...

man, you moved me. your soon to be endured roommate.

a confirmed atheist said...

I never thought I would never admit this, but I loved reading this text.

not often moved by the subject said...

written from the soul. thanks, beautiful

grateful blogger said...

man i have not read so much since i was in highschool. but your post i could not quit. thanks, great. i learned more in one read, than i have in years.

Pamela (Malibu) said...

awesome stuff Clive. who would have thought?
you sure have grown since high school.
must be the water, over there, over there.

reader in Washington D.C. said...

I am impressed.

French scholar said...

One of the best posts I have ever found!

Anonymous said...

wow, wow, wow!