Having returned home with 1600+ photos on my camera, it’s been hard to motivate myself to sort through them. How do I organize them? Which do I choose? And what was the name of that church again? There were definitely a couple of strong themes running through my photos: the sacred (churches) and the natural (cows). As I wait for the clock to strike midnight so I can wish my sister, admittedly traveling Europe at the moment, an EST-stroke-of-12 happy birthday, I’ve decided to begin the great task. I am also well-fueled with beer, which makes the task seem less daunting.
So let’s begin with where I began, where I sat in the middle, and where I ended: Paris. A beloved city of mine, I spent enough time there this trip that I feel pleasantly satiated. Certainly, I would go back, but for now I am happy to be home.
Since we mentioned beginnings and endings, it seems fitting enough to introduce one of my first pictures, an ending by most standards, but traditionally a beginning as well:
I quite admired the detailing in this relief found in Notre Dame Cathedral. They have made worm’s meat of him!
Here’s another ending/beginning from NDC. I don’t believe it’s medieval, but I’m not an expert in stained glass. Most of the stained glass in France, unfortunately suffered at the hands of rebels and wars (Chartres is a happy exception that I will happily post photos of in due time). Nevertheless, here is a beautiful piece of an historic moment:
Since I was 15, my favourite aspect of NDC has been the medieval wooden reliefs. These are one of the few decorative elements that have survived the centuries. They have, though, been repainted. I like these panels because they depict the Gospel stories through a flowing stream of pictures. In this section to do with the Nativity of Jesus, I’m especially delighted by the angel appearing to the seemingly miniature shepherds. Mary has an elegant way of lying after having given birth (in a pretty nicely fitted out stable, I must say), and I do believe that is the Christ Child cuddled up under the ox and ass.
Going outside, to a facade that has suffered much damage over the centuries as well but was reconstructed in the original style in, I believe, the 19th century (I really ought to dig out all those pamphlets I picked up so as not to distort the facts), we find St Denis holding his head and a couple of angels who don’t seem to know quite how to respond:
Angel on the left: Oh, um, you got that, Denis? Good, good. Um, yeah, you seem to have it all under control, so you don’t need my help, do you?
Angel on the right: This way to the Kingdom of Heaven, Dénis. Please mind the robes — no dripping, if you please.
Moving on from the Cathedral to the Musée de Cluny. I spent a glorious Sunday afternoon in this national museum of the Middle Ages. The temporary exhibit was on Cluny 1180, the third Cluny foundation and its demolition. That was relatively interesting, but the continuing exhibits are where it’s at. After having a picnic lunch in the medieval herb & pleasure gardens, I was soon faced with this statue of Adam.
The disembodied tour guide I was listening to informed me that Adam had been based on classical sculpture. I know little of such things, but it certainly looks like there was an attempt to imitate the ancients, whilst perhaps modernizing it a bit to keep up with hip medieval styles.
I was also excited to find this piece of rubble, which was one of the heads of the Kings of Judah that originally adorned the external façade of Notre Dame de Paris. It was reduced to its current pitiful state at the hands of French revolutionaries who apparently believed them to be the heads of kings of France. I’m not sure that it would have made much difference had they known the truth: kings are kings are kings.
If you look closely, you may be able to see traces of paint. Another limitation of trying to relive the Middle Ages with these cathedrals is that back in the day, they were painted all sorts of delightful colours. Over time the paint has worn away, of course. Can you imagine, though? An entire cathedral painted from head to toe? It must have been stunning.
No doubt they would have used colours similar those in this early 14th C. painting of the crucifixion:
Note Mary’s dramatic contortions. Her unnatural flexibility reminds me of Spanish crucifixes that express Christ’s suffering through a long-extended corpus. I personally find it very effective at communicating a symbolic message very quickly. Here the position of her arms also remind me that beside her is the baby she used to rock in her arms. The downward extension is balanced nicely with John’s stance. Altogether, a very beautiful, flowing, and moving depiction of the crucifixion in my opinion.
In this little statue, St Michael is fighting an apparently very stupid dragon:
Mary and John, who would have been placed under a corpus, probably in the cathedral of Prato:
After this, I took loads of pictures of liturgical implements for my own personal research interests, which I will not post here. Skipping ahead, then, here is the golden rose that Pope John XXII offered Rudolph III of Nidau in 1330. Avignon history, mes amis:
A tapestry commemorating St Stephen getting martyred:
Let’s take a closer look at that martyrdom:
I did also get to admire the tapestry of the Lady and the Unicorn. It was fascinating, especially the symbolism behind it. However, I did not take pictures, I think because it was forbidden. There are six tapestries in total: five depict the five senses, and the sixth represents her greatest treasure, the identity of which remains a mystery, be it love human or divine, or something else altogether.
Lastly, I offer you a devotional picture found on a retable triptych, I believe. Startling in its symbolism, I think especially to modern eyes not accustomed to such vivid pictoral representations of invisible truths, I found it both fascinating and almost embarrassing to gaze upon. Shoeing away my modern discomfort, however, I asked myself, What does this say about the late 15th C.?
The scene represents the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Mass. It appears to be the pope in his three-tiered papal tiara celebrating. It is evidently the Canon of the Mass, at which it is believed the Body and Blood of Christ appear on the altar under the form of bread and wine. It is interesting to note that in this picture, there is no bread (and, it would seem, wine) present. Instead, the pope is being treated to Christ’s very body having come down from the cross to stand on the altar, awkwardly, presumably as if in pain. And not only is His Body present, but He is squeezing from His the wound in His side, as if milk from a breast, His Blood. This sort of imagery is not uncommon in the writings of the mystics or even in Scripture, but it is startling when seen in a visual representation. All the more vividly does one comprehend that connection between Christ’s love for his people and a mother’s love for her child: she gives of herself that her child might live, just as Christ gives of himself that his children might have eternal life. It’s odd, but in its own way, it makes perfect sense. Behind Christ we see not only the double effect of the retable of the scene bearing another depiction of his crucifixion, but also symbols of his suffering, his torture, his betrayal. We have the cock that crowed at Peter’s denial, we have Pontius Pilate’s washing up, we have Judas’ kiss, the whips of torture and pillar for the scourging, the fists of anger and faces that spit, we have the ladder of deposition, the veil of Veronica, the hammer that drove the nails into his flesh. I think I even spy dice up in the shadows above the cross. The spear with vinegar, the spear that pierced his side. In a very elementary fashion, an entire narrative has been brought into a single picture.
After reflecting on this, I have to admire the genius of communication: so much in so little space! It is an excellent expression of medieval beliefs about redemption, salvation, the Eucharist, the interaction between man and God, etc. All laid against a heavenly gold background. Brilliant.