Sculptures — Niches & Caryatids
Statues sometimes take shelter on buildings, discretely tucked into a corner or prominently carved into facades. I chanced upon only one sculpture-in-a-niche below: Saint Catherine. Sometimes, you need an address. And you need to look up.
A sexy Saint Catherine
Historically, Saint Catherine of Alexandria is revered in France as a virgin martyr and prayerful confidant of Jeanne d’Arc. In her niche on Rue de Cléry, she’s portrayed as a sensual, nubile virgin. If her gown didn’t have cuffs and a neckline, one might reasonably assume that she was nude.
In the image above, she clasps against her body palm fronds, symbolic of martyrdom. At her feet leans a cracked breaking wheel, allegedly destroyed by Catherine’s mere touch before it could be used as the instrument of her torture and death. She was unable to cheat the executioner twice: Emperor Maxentius had her beheaded.
Traditionally, she’s the patron saint of unmarried women and milliners. Why milliners? On Catherine’s feast day, unmarried French women customarily wore a hat — simple or fanciful — and prayed for a husband. Enterprising French milliners took their cue from this custom and embraced Catherine as their patron saint as well.
Because of her association with the breaking wheel, Catherine rather morbidly — and ironically — became the patron saint of wheelwrights.
The merry knife grinder
I first thought that the niche sculpture below represented a medieval tradesman. Turns out it’s a copy of an 18th-century sign advertising the services of a knife grinder.
This one sharpens a knife and raises a wine goblet — no doubt a handy life skill. Water flowing from a pierced clog rinses and cools the whetstone. And unless I’m mistaken, wine splashes from the goblet.
The sculpture’s nickname is “Gagne-Petit,” low-paid worker.
Cleric with little boy
Christians and Pagans
There must be a good story or two surrounding the pre-Haussmannian edifice below, whose facade sports four sculptures in niches — two Christian and two pagan. The building is located on Rue Grégoire-de-Tours, named after the 6th-century bishop and historian.
The figure in the lowest niche, a bearded man holding what looks like a plumed pen, could be a representation of Grégoire-de-Tours, since that saint is often depicted with the attributes of book and writing implement.
Next storey up is Demeter, goddess of the abundant harvest, carrying a cornucopia and cluster of grapes:
Next up, a nun or saint in earnest prayer:
Laid-back Dionysus casually claims the uppermost niche. He slouches, loins barely covered with a lion’s pelt (one side slipping down suggestively). One arm leans on a grapevine plinth, the other rests on his head. Like Demeter, he holds a cluster of grapes, dangling them next to his head (also suggestively).
The facade’s cool classicism radiates a tranquil symmetry: the column of niched statues resides between vertical rows of identical recessed windows. And the horizontal bands at each floor balance the verticality of the niches and windows.
The whole facade is so harmonious that the mingling of nun and party god barely registers.
The egalitarian mix of Christian and pagan is another mystery of Paris with her often incongruous layers of history and myth.
Pagan gods on Hôtel de Rome
Eight statues and two busts — all Greek mythological figures — adorn the busy Neoclassical facade of the early 19th-century Hôtel meublé de Rome (furnished rooms for the “home-away-from-Rome”).
Whereas harmony and simplicity reign at the Christian-pagan facade, the dynamic rhythms of the Hôtel meublé de Rome keep the eyes pinging like a pinball machine:
Significantly, the height of ceiling and window decreases for each successive floor. This diminishing height creates a perspective illusion, making the building seem taller.
It also confirms that the building’s original function was not aristocratic hôtel particulier but hotel or apartment building (also indicated by its advertisement of “meublé,” “furnished”). Thus each floor would have held one or more tenants. This kind of apartment building or hotel, rather than single-family mansion, became more common after the French Revolution.
Buildings like the post-Revolution Hôtel meublé de Rome often displayed the social stratification of their tenants. Rental of a more prestigious — and expensive — lower storey apartment meant fewer stairs to climb and higher ceilings in your living quarters. The lower floors also had better facade decorations. Your higher rent bought you a whole god plus maybe a lyre and a fancy cornice.
Rental of the upper floor meant more stairs to climb and lower ceilings in your living quarters — and you only got the head of the god.
Caryatids & Atlantes
Caryatids are a phenomenon of ancient Greece. Nameless curvy women holding up a temple’s roof for eternity: a perfect marriage of function, aesthetics, and patriarchy. Traditionally, caryatids represented women who had resided in a Peloponnesian town that had, to their eternal sorrow, supported Persia during the Greco-Persian Wars. Thus, being a prop supporting an edifice was originally a symbolic punishment for women who happened to live on the losing side of a war.
Caryatids — and their male counterparts, Atlantes — have enjoyed a revival ever since the Renaissance. They’ve been part of the architectural syntax in almost every period since then. Even so, most of Paris’ surviving caryatids and Atlantes date from the second half of the 19th century.
What fascinates me about Paris’ caryatids is the way they absorb various meanings according to the wishes of the sculptor or the needs of their clients, or in keeping with the zeitgeist.
Since the nameless caryatids have lost much of their association with ancient Greek slavery, they are free to become associated with the ideals of the French Revolution, icons of industry and capitalism, or movements of social reform.
The swan song of Hôtel Fieubet
On a quiet corner of the Marais sits an exceedingly ornate mansion, Hôtel Fieubet, that now houses a primary and secondary school:
The edifice was first built as an hôtel particulier during the late 16th century. Over the centuries since then, the aristocratic townhouse was sold at least four times and renovated as many.
Twenty-five years after the French Revolution, Hôtel Fieubet was retrofitted as a sugar refinery.
In the mid-19th century, it was purchased one last time by a private owner, who began an ambitious restoration project. He hired sculptor Jules Gros to decorate the facade in the arguably regrettable Italo-Spanish Baroque style. The overabundance of carved detail became the swan song of Hôtel Fieubet.
On the eastern facade, the four curiously armless (and rather lifeless) Atlantes seem as superfluous as the cornucopian excess, jumbled tools of labour, and gratuitous disgruntled lion that they support.
Below: The two caryatids in the courtyard at least have the dignity of retaining their arms to grasp garlands of fruit and jewelry. However, these figures didn’t fare much better under Gros’ busy chisel. The illusion that they are upholding anything, be it Greek temple or aristocratic treasury, is laid bare. They have lost the appearance of usefulness.
Before the owner could finish his restorations, his money dried up, and large portions of Hôtel Fieubet’s facade remain a tabula rasa. No overflowing cornucopias, no supporting cast of caryatids or Atlantes. Peace and quiet, except for the schoolchildren.
The Four Caryatids of the Wallace Fountains
The most ubiquitous caryatids in Paris are the four that adorn the forest green Wallace Fountains that you encounter everywhere. These caryatids, with the help of their curled Ionian capitals, appear to hold up a reservoir of water that trickles down for the benefit of the thirsty passerby.
During the 1870s, British philanthropist Sir Richard Wallace donated hundreds of these public fountains to his beloved Paris. He wanted to provide free, clean drinking water to all residents after Paris’ aqueducts were destroyed during the Franco-Prussian War.
Another war, more oppressive weight on women. Plus ça change . . .
However, these caryatids are no longer oppressed slaves but bearers of Victorian reformism: one of the four is an allegory of Sobriety. Indeed, the Wallace Fountains themselves are part of an international program of so-called “temperance fountains” intended to promote their potable waters as a healthy alternative to alcoholic beverages.
Water flows from the Wallace Fountains in all except the coldest months. And yes, it’s still potable.
Caryatids holding up the evening paper (and writing it)
One of the traditional industries of Rue Montmartre is journalism and newspaper publication. The Revolution of 1848 saw a thriving newspaper market on that street. In 1883, the evening newspaper La France moved into its large new headquarters at 142 Rue Montmartre:
The two outer figures are identical Atlantes wearing lion pelts — paws and tails dangle on the columns that constitute the lower half of the men’s bodies. The Atlantes do the heavy lifting of the newspaper’s stone banner.
The inner two females are differentiated not only by their faces, poses, and draping, but also by their professional attributes of journalism and typography. They are not true caryatids, as they bear a different kind of weight: the responsibility of writing the news and presiding over the printing press.
One holds paper and plumed pen.
The other is surrounded by typesetting and printing tools: a printing press frame and cylinder. And I think I see a compositor’s forme to the left of her feet.
She holds a liberty torch — symbolic of enlightenment in the French republic and perhaps also emblematic of the ideal of journalistic truth setting people free.
The erotic Atlantes of the Théâtre de la Porte-Saint-Martin
The sensuality of the four Atlas figures on the Théâtre de la Porte-Saint-Martin (1873) is undeniable:
Their upraised arms and elbows, muscular form, and contrapposto attitude (raised hip accentuated by the drapery) are reminiscent of Michelangelo’s The Dying Slave or Rodin’s The Age of Bronze.
I’m thinking also of the identical sculptures lined up along the roof of an Art Deco police station in Paris. These sculptures, based on The Dying Slave, are also undeniably erotic.
The fashionable angel-caryatid of Rue de Turbigo
She’s colossal, self-possessed, and soignée. And she blends so well with her building’s facade. She’s a bit camouflaged, but once I became aware of the Angel of Rue Turbigo, I was in awe.
The hybrid angel-caryatid was born during Haussmann’s re-creation of Paris. Haussmann, in order to raze medieval structures and raise grander ones, invited developers to finance construction in exchange for the right to profit from the sale or lease of the properties.
One developer, Demangeat, was entrusted with building along a slight bend in Rue de Turbigo, creating an obtuse angle along the facade. Demangeat wanted to disguise and beautify the building’s angle. It was a dilemma of aesthetics. What’s more, the solution would have to conform to Haussmann’s building regulations: no protrusion of the ornament, and no obstruction of light entering adjacent apartments.
Demangeat advertised a contest at the Académie des Beaux-Arts and selected the winning submission: a monumental angel in relief — in effect, a caryatid. The angel’s long body is sheathed in a gown whose gathered folds resemble a fluted Greek column — a column that cloaks the angle of the building. And her counterbalancing horizontal wings conceal the balcony support for the fifth floor.
One more note about the aptness of the design, which is the polar opposite to the caryatids in the courtyard of Hôtel Fieubet. There, the caryatids’ jewellery languidly spills from their drapery in an overt symbol of aristocratic wealth.
By contrast, the Rue de Turbigo angel proudly yet matter-of-factly wears an haute couture bodice, earrings, a beaded necklace, a little handbag, and tassels adorning everything but her wings.
She’s a prosperous bourgeois angel. Her attributes also reflect the fashion industry of Rue de Turbigo: textiles, garments, and accessories.
The modesty plinth
Below are struggling male and female weight-bearers:
Where modesty or prudishness dictates, the loins of otherwise nude statues are most often sheathed with drapery. Above, plinths rise up like stone fig leaves.
Paris’ passages — paired caryatids and Atlantes
Caryatids and Atlantes grace the entrances to some of Paris’ passages. Only a few of these early 19th-century Parisian shopping arcades survived Haussmann’s draconian reconfiguration of streets.
La Cour du Commerce St-André
The oldest surviving passage in Paris is La Cour du Commerce St-André, (1776). Straddling the entrance are two figures representing Hermès, god of commerce in this context.
Passage du Bourg-l’Abbé
The caryatid and Atlas at the entrance to the Passage du Bourg-l’Abbé (1828) are not Greek gods but allegories of Commerce and Industry. Very 19th century.