Tag Archives: Gothic churches

Paris Wanderlust: Gothic Meets 19th Century — Notre Dame

Gothic Meets 19th Century

The Early Gothic churches of this post and the next — Notre Dame and Église St-Germain-l’Auxerrois — collided with 19th-century renovations, with arguable results.

Notre Dame: Gothic Matriarch & Time Capsule

Notre Dame, fall 2017

Notre Dame is celebrated as a spectacular example of early French Gothic cathedral, constructed 1160-1260. And like all surviving medieval churches in Paris, Notre Dame has not come down to us in its original incarnation, but was modified over the centuries.

Time Capsule of Notre Dame

Notre Dame and its site on Île de la Cité are a time capsule, from the Gallo-Roman temple ruins excavated below the cathedral, to the cathedral itself during the 12th and 13th centuries, to its de-christianization during the French Revolution, to Viollet-le-Duc’s 19th-century restorations, and most recently to the 2019 fire and ongoing restorations. What does it mean that the vicissitudes of history are traceable (or not) in Notre Dame?

The 2019 fire provoked a major debate about what Notre Dame should look like in the future. But what does its appearance before the fire tell us?

Wounded by wind, wrecked by revolution

By the 18th-century, natural forces had taken their toll on Notre Dame. On the eve of the French Revolution, the aging cathedral had fallen into disrepair, and wind damage necessitated removing the spire.

A few years later, the French Revolution was in full swing. Sans culottes, decrying the power and abuses of the First Estate, desecrated and ransacked religious buildings, including Notre Dame. They smashed statues and other religious icons, but they were equally enraged by symbols of the aristocracy that had traditionally bolstered the power of the Catholic Church. Rioters at Notre Dame pulled down and beheaded the statues of the biblical Kings of Judah along the Gallery of Kings, mistaking them for French kings.

Revolutionaries appropriated religious buildings as public property and repurposed them for secular functions. Notre Dame was transformed into a Temple of Reason and a year later, a Temple of the Supreme Being.

Notre Dame, limping into the 19th century, was returned to its ecclesiastical function during the reign of Napoleon I. Toward the middle of the century, the cathedral narrowly escaped demolition before officials decided that it was worth salvaging and set about finding a suitable candidate for the restoration job.

Enter Viollet-le-Duc

Viollet-le-Duc was a top contender. He had restored many crumbling churches and chateaux across France, famously (or infamously) taking ahistorical liberties. His restoration of the fort at the ancient Gallo-Roman and medieval town of Carcassonne (in the South of France) was especially criticized. He used slate tiles rather than native terracotta ones, and he topped the towers along the ramparts with conical roofs.

Carcassonne, in the South of France

These architectural materials and forms were more characteristic of castles in the North of France, such as those in the Loire Valley. When I was in Carcassonne, I heard visitors derisively comparing Viollet-le-Duc’s turrets to those of a Disney castle.

In Viollet-le-Duc’s defense, however, he rescued many dilapidated structures from almost certain destruction. Another feather in his cap was the restoration of Sainte Chapelle (the royal chapel on Île de la Cité), along with fellow architect Lassus.

For twenty years (1844-1864), Viollet-le-Duc was the primary architect in charge of renovating Notre Dame. One of his most remarkable changes to Notre Dame was the creation of a new spire over the transept to replace the 13th-century spire that had been removed pre-Revolution due to wind damage.

Viollet-le-Duc’s changes, far from being literal and faithful reconstructions, added his own substantive signature. His new, enlarged Gothic-style spire, extended its reach to new heights and he added groups of bronze statues at its base, which aged to an ethereal patina. Viollet-le-Duc himself posed for the center top saint (below).

Another major innovation was Viollet-le-Duc’s addition of decorative chimères (gargoyles with no rain spouts) perched along the exterior upper balustrade. The grotesque and impish gremlins, dreamed up and sketched by Viollet-le-Duc, captured the nightmarish side of the Gothic imaginary. In effect, Viollet-le-Duc had reinvented the Gothic.

The 2019 fire

In April 2019 the world watched in horror as fire destroyed significant parts of the cathedral, namely, Viollet-le-Duc’s spire and the roof — and came perilously close to reaching the two bell towers of the western facade.

During my visit to Paris in autumn 2019, restoration was well underway. Below, the spidery flying buttresses of Notre Dame are themselves buttressed while being strengthened.

At the time that fire broke out in 2019, metal scaffolding was in place to make needed repairs to the roof. Although that scaffolding survived the fire, the intense heat melted the metal, which then fused with the roof. To facilitate the removal of the melted metal during the restoration of Notre Dame, a second metal scaffolding was erected.

Scaffolding over scaffolding, fall 2019

Below, Viollet-le-Duc’s chimeras watch over a crane restoring their fire-damaged home. Perhaps they are waiting to see what their cousins, the spooky succubi of the 21st-century psyche, will look like.

The birth of the university — Collège des Bernardins

The Gothic-style former Cistercian monastery and institution of learning was constructed 1248-1253, its completion coinciding within a few years with that of Notre Dame de Paris. By that time, Paris was already well established as a major intellectual centre of Europe.

Monastic schools of the previous century, such as the cathedral school of Notre Dame, were internationally famous. No longer were monastic schools set up largely to produce educated monks, clergy, and scribes, but they had become flourishing centres of theological teaching and (carefully circumscribed) debate. It was the age of Abelard, rock star professor and extra-tragic lover of the 12th century.

By the early 13th century, the University of Paris was founded, closely associated with monastic schools. University-style secular learning was taking root, as were centres of learning separate from — but associated with — the cathedral and monastic schools. Some colleges emerged from the student residence halls of the monastic schools. One of those halls was established by Robert de Sorbon, and thus the College de la Sorbonne emerged as a place of higher education.

It was into this burgeoning intellectual movement that the Collège des Bernardins was born. In addition to educating Bernardine monks, the school also taught students from the Collège de la Sorbonne and the Université de Paris.

I arrived at the Collège des Bernardins too late for a proper visit, but the entrance hall with its interconnected ribs of the vaulted ceiling is both austere and elegant.

Next — The Gothic “Cruet” Church: St-Germain l’Auxerrois

Camille Martin

Paris Wanderlust: The Gothic “Cruet” Church

Paris Wanderlust

The Gothic “Cruet” Church

Église St-Germain-l’Auxerrois

The Gothic church of St-Germain-l’Auxerrois is an unusual animal — not so much because of stylistic hybridity (mostly Gothic with Renaissances touches), but because the church seems to hold a mirror to itself.

Below, only the edifice circled in red is the Gothic church:

The Neo-Gothic tower and church-twin to the left are both Haussmann’s 19th-century additions. The building to the far left is actually the city hall of the 1st arrondissement — a mirror image of the Gothic church, but flanked by an office building (a dead giveaway for modernity).

Why did Haussmann append whole Neo-Gothic buildings to the authentically Gothic St-Germain-l’Auxerrois? Was it to confuse tourists who don’t know whether to go left or right to visit the church?

Actually, the answer involves a massacre of Protestants . . . but first, a look at the church itself.

Gorgeous Gothic interior

Considering how long it took to build the church, the interior is surprisingly consistent with its 13th-century Gothic beginnings. After the Hundred Years War interrupted the construction, the church was mostly completed during the 15th century.

The soaring Gothic choir:

21st-century stained glass

The church also harbors a 21st century stained glass window:

Claude Courageux, stained glass (2014)

Saints, hell, apocalypse

The well-preserved carvings and statuary at the entrance, protected by a porch, reward a closer look. Above the doors is a traditional “arc of judgement,” and to the left and right of the doors are groups of remarkable medieval statuary.

The arc of judgement::

At the top center of this arch are images from the Book of Revelation. I enjoy finding such representations. They appeal to my sense of the surreal. Plus — lots of action and drama. (I went to town with the rose window at Sainte Chapelle, which contains only scenes from Revelation.)

For example, in the detail below, the lower carving depicts events after the breaking of the Sixth Seal: the sun turned black and “the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together.”

The upper carving? The ensuing Apocalypse: earthquakes collapse crenelated castles into jumbled ruins.

Below: The arc on the right side ends with a horrific image of hell. An enchained devil with cleft feet grins approvingly as a monkey-demon torments the damned. Three heads grimace in pain as they roast over a fire. Bosch-worthy.

The left side of the arc ends in a representation of the Trinity. The three smiling heads resting in the lap of unitary God counterbalance the three heads burning in hell.

Below, a closer look at the statues to the right of the portal. Saints and an angel sport archaic smiles . . .

. . . as they trample demons and a damned soul underfoot:

The arms of the demons have, it seems, been rubbed clean by visitors, perhaps making a wish as they do so.

The middle figure, Saint Genevieve, holds a candle in her right hand, which the demon peering over her shoulder tries to extinguish. The two present the very image of the self divided.

Fast forward to the 19th century. St-Germain-l’Auxerrois, heavily damaged by the French Revolution and by an 1831 political riot, was in sore need of restorations. Among other changes, artists were commissioned to create fresh decorations to the Chapel of the Virgin. Amaury Duval was commissioned to paint the fresco surrounding the stone sculpture of Virgin and Child:

Amaury Duval (1808-1885); Virgin & Child (14th-century); Chapel of the Virgin (13th century)

The gold background and halos suffuse the fresco with a Byzantine aura. Duval’s paintings inherited a quiet stillness from his teacher Ingres. Below: an angel, suspended for eternity within a space defined by the ribs of the vaulted ceiling.

Let’s return to the exterior for the story of the massacre and the cruet.

In spite of the church’s renovations earlier in the 19th century, St-Germain l’Auxerrois might well have fallen victim to Haussmann’s massive erasure of medieval Paris. Haussmann’s Protestantism played a part in the preservation of the Catholic church whose very bells had signaled the start of the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Huguenots by Catholic mobs. Haussmann didn’t want a legacy as the Protestant who razed the church to avenge its role in the massacre. Whatever Haussmann’s motivation, the church was spared when all around it, ramshackle buildings were flattened, opening up a vast space all the way to the Louvre.

To balance the church in relation to the newly empty space surrounding it, Haussmann commissioned the construction, adjacent to the church, of a neo-Gothic belfry and a town hall mirroring the church’s facade. Twins in their Gothic faces, the bureaucratic echos the ecclesiastical.

The symmetrical complex has earned a banal nickname: the “cruet.”

I can’t leave St-Germain-l’Auxerrois without having a peek at two altarpieces and a statue of Mary of Egypt that have found a home in the church. My apologies. I can at least promise crooked stairs and a preternaturally hirsute female saint.

Two Flemish altarpieces

The older altarpiece, carved from oak, displays highly ornate scenes packed with throngs of figures within a defined space. No nook or cranny is wasted in this claustrophobic world-unto-itself:

Antwerp retable, early 16th century

Detail, crucifixion scene:

The other Flemish altarpiece is a triptych whose outer wings display painted scenes of Eden and the Annunciation. The inner portion consists of carved and painted wood panels representing scenes from the life of the Virgin:

16th-century Flemish altarpiece

I was drawn to a carved scene that included a painting. The scene represents the ancient Jewish rites performed in the temple following childbirth: the purification of the mother (from the “contamination” associated with giving birth) and the presentation of the baby Jesus. The three women entering the temple bring a small cage, perhaps an offering of turtledoves.

The framed painting within the scene is a full-length portrait of a Jewish high priest wearing the official vestments characteristic of the time of Jesus:

Around the neck of the high priest hangs a breastplate encrusted with precious stones:

Gold bells were sewn along the hem of his robe. When he entered and exited the temple, the tinkling bells became an amulet against death.

The high priest in the portrait is obviously Jewish. But the actual priest performing the rites for Mary and Jesus anachronistically wears a Christian bishop’s mitre.

Another blending of Jewish and Christian symbolism inheres in the lamb, toward which the bishop gestures:

The Jewish rite of purification after childbirth might involve the sacrificial offering of a lamb. The parallel with Christian iconography is evident, bringing Old and New Testaments together in one symbolic image.

These carved scenes are more naturalistic than the jam-packed earlier Flemish altarpiece. Even so, there’s something a bit primitive about them, as in the presentation of Mary at the temple (below). The staircase was not given the benefit of perspective, and the upper treads tilt perilously to the right.

In his description of the church, Huysmans calls the stairs “amusing.”

Mary of Egypt

Below, a polychrome statue of a heavy-lidded Mary of Egypt. According to hagiographers, she was a prostitute (like Mary Magdalene, with whom she is sometimes conflated). Mary of Egypt converted to Christianity, embraced celibacy, walked into the Jordan desert with three loaves of bread, and became a hermit.

Marie l’Egyptienne (15th or 16th century)

She’s often depicted naked (her clothes having worn away), sporting long hair or else displaying various stages of hirsutism. According to legend, animal-like fur miraculously grew to shield her nakedness. Mary of Egypt, her appearance transformed by the growth of a creaturely coat of fur, would not be out of place in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

The sculpture is remarkable for the delicate rendition of her wavy golden hair cascading over her thighs. Artists sometimes blurred the line between depicting female saints as voluptuous versus venerable. A sexualized female saint might elicit steamy rather than spiritual thoughts in the viewer. Many a Madonna lactans offering her breast to the infant Jesus radiates eroticism.

The sculptor of Mary of Egypt has it both ways. On the side of sensuality, he gives the hermit-saint a youthful face and blond Lady-Godiva hair/fur that caresses her body.

On side of modesty, her eyes are lowered chastely. A layer of her hair demurely covers her breasts. A cloth drapes protectively in rounded folds over her abdomen. And her swollen belly and stacked loaves of bread register fecundity, like wheat-bearing Demeter.

She is at once erotic and solemn; promiscuous and virginal; nubile and dry as the desert; a symbol of plenty with her stack of bread yet also of indigence, wandering through the barren wilderness.

A coda of fin-de-siècle ennui

To end this meditation on St-Germain-l’Auxerrois with a passage from Huysmans’ description of the church:

And we find ourselves, with this disgust at the beginning of the century, envying this good priest who interrupts himself from his work to wipe his horned glasses amid the great silence of these deaf stone walls broken only by the tired sighs of the wood.

J. K. Huysmans, Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois (1905)

Beatrice Guichard, Hautes Herbes (Tall Grass), a contemporary sculpture installed before the 19th-century neo-Gothic tower

Next: Sainte Chapelle — A Graphic Novel in Radiant Gothic

Camille Martin

Paris Wanderlust: The Prettiest Church in Paris

The Prettiest Church in Paris

Years ago, a couple lent me their apartment in Paris for six weeks. During my sojourn, I crammed in as many museums, parks, and architecture as I could.

When I saw the couple afterward, the wife asked me which church in Paris I thought was the prettiest. I couldn’t answer! At that time, churches didn’t interest me as much as the Picasso Museum or Art Nouveau architecture.

Now I have an answer for her: St-Séverin is the prettiest church in Paris. Specifically, its grove of “palm tree” columns behind the altar, against a backdrop of contemporary stained glass.

Eglise St-Séverin: From Gothic to Flamboyant Gothic

Of the 13th-century Gothic incarnation of St-Séverin, only the bell tower and the first part of the nave survived. Atop the bell tower sits a lantern, whose light could be seen from the Seine.

A fire broke out in St-St-Séverin in 1448 during the Hundred Years War, and most of the church was destroyed. The Gothic church was rebuilt in the new Flamboyant style of Late Gothic architecture. The entrance gained a large rose window, which puts the flame in Flamboyant.

Only the upper half of the rose window is visible (St-Séverin’s “hidden treasure”), as the lower half is obscured by the organ pipes. Below: the vaulted ceiling of St-Séverin, looking west toward the organ and rose window.

In the new nave, the Flamboyant Gothic style is evident in the flame-like and curvilinear shapes in the window and arch tracery.

Detail: a double lancet window in the triforium displays delicate tracery in the shapes of trefoils and flames.

Below, the semi-circular apse with 14th-century stained glass, double ambulatory (aisles) and twisted column behind the altar:

14th-century stained glass

The top portion displays the flame-like and curved shapes characteristic of the Flamboyant Gothic:

“Palm trees” and modern stained glass

Like a grove of palm trees, columns in the double ambulatory of the apse splay into a complex interplay of vault ribs. The use of star-burst decorative ribbing is also characteristic of the Flamboyant Gothic.

That torqued column is genius.

The apse features modern stained-glass windows (1970) by Jean René Bazaine.

The organ and its cabinet

St-Séverin’s 1748 organ is housed in a fine carved wood cabinet. I hear that French Baroque music sounds really good on it . . .

Bits & bobs

Inside St-Séverin, a medieval well has survived, its water illuminated and glassed over.

Before encountering the relief below, I had never seen a depiction of the circumcision of Jesus. Seems like I’d remember. Interestingly, a Catholic bishop performs the honors of the mohel. The monkish figure upper right appears green around the gills.

Gargoyles of St-Séverin:

Tour St-Jacques

Tour St-Jacques sticks out like a flamboyant thumb. Once part of an early 16th-century Flamboyant Gothic church, the bell tower is the only structure to have survived the French Revolution.

The church was called St-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie (St James of the Butchers) because its main patrons were the butchers selling at the nearby market (now Les Halles).

Below, the elaborate tracery of the bell tower screams Flamboyant:

Next: Medieval Paris, from Castles to Hostels

Camille Martin