Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Although I definitely consider myself spiritual, I am not a religious person. Twelve years of strict Catholic education destroyed any desire to be part of organized religion. But as a student of the great architecture of the world, temples, mosques and cathedrals have always been of prime interest to me because of their importance to the communities that built them, as well as the care and artistry that were applied to their construction and ornamentation.

Among the great cathedrals of Europe, the ones whose difficulty and length of time in construction caused them to become eccentric in some form have always held a special fascination.

Back in the day when it was unclear which of the northern French cities would predominate, Beauvais and Paris engaged in a rivalry in the matter of cathedral building.   Construction of Notre Dame de Paris and Beauvais' cathedral was exactly contemporary, except that Paris managed financing, design and organization of the work in a manner that led to its being completed in 80 years, a remarkably short time for such a huge project in those days.

Work at Beauvais went slower, with breaks when the money ran out.  Also, Beauvais' goal was to surpass all other cathedrals in Europe in the height of its interior.  Height was the obsession of Gothic architecture and the Choir of Beauvais is indeed the highest of all.  But four years after Paris completed its cathedral, the vaults over the Choir (above) of Beauvais collapsed.  Rebuilt with reinforced columns and a different configuration of the vault ribs to handle load stress better, Beauvais continued at a snail's pace with the Transept (the "arms" of the cross-shaped plan of most cathedrals). Finally, work began on the great tower over the junction of the Choir and Transept, a daring 500 foot tall construction.

For 300 years after the collapse of those Choir vaults, all effort for decades and decades had been focused on that tower.  It fell one day in 1573, hundreds of tons of gorgeously carved French limestone, centuries of dedicated labor and an enormous financial outlay were obliterated in a few thunderous, earth-shaking seconds.  The project never recovered.  After clearing the considerable debris field, a simple facade was built over the arched opening where the Nave should have begun, closing the building.  All that remains of Beauvais' grand design is the Choir and Transept, the limited size of the cathedral's footprint only serving to emphasize its dramatically soaring height.

One side effect of the fact that the Nave and towers were never built is that the historic old Bishop's Palace and the little Carolingian-era Romanesque church directly in the path of the original plan weren't demolished and remain to this day in the shadow of their impossibly high neighbor.

Oh, and it was Paris that soon became the dominant northern French city!

The Cathedral of Orleans will forever be associated with Joan of Arc as it was here that she stood in triumph after taking the city from the English in only nine days during the Hundred Year's War with England, a victory that led directly to the coronation of Charles VII as King of a newly energized France.

Much of the cathedral was damaged and some of it actually destroyed in the fierce Religious War against French Protestants during the 16th century.  Reconstruction progressed by fits and starts from the 17th through 19th centuries, ending during the Bourbon Restoration after the Napoleonic Era.  The new details, conceived during eras when the Gothic style was considered ugly and representative of dark and repressive religious philosophy, sit oddly on the Gothic base, particularly the multi-columned tops of the towers, as if little Roman Temples had been piled up on top of each other

The Cathedral of Palma de Mallorca is a fortress not only of faith but also militarily.  During eras of peril, some cathedrals were built to resist siege and attack.  Mallorca's compact, almost brutally strong masonry would certainly give defenders a major advantage as the populace huddled inside for safety.  The big surprise is that while the exterior is strongly Gothic . . . 

. . . some of the interior is just as definitely high Baroque, encrusted with ornamentation to an almost astonishing degree.

My favorite French Cathedral of all was built high on a butte above a plain southeast of Paris and actually predates Notre Dame de Paris.  Of all the great Cathedrals, Laon came closest to completing the seven-towered ideal for all cathedrals.  The original idea was to have the main entrance to the building and the entrances at the end of the Transept arms flanked by towers.  A  seventh would rise over the Transept crossing (the tower that fell disastrously at Beauvais).  Laon completed five of these and at least began the other two, bringing them up to the height of the Transept

More remarkable is the effort required to build the cathedral as all its stone had to be hauled uphill to the top of the butte.  Great teams of oxen labored day after day at the task . . . 

. . . and their reward was to be memorialized in the statues placed lovingly at the tops of the towers, allowing them to gaze forever over what their labor had made possible.

I visited Laon with a group of students in the mid-90s, part of a travel-study tour that brought us to several cathedrals.  Standing in the middle of the Nave, I was very moved to think of the vision and determination that had gone into the building's creation.  I didn't know Fritz yet and it's a good thing, because I always kid him when he tears up at something like someone getting an award for great accomplishment or someone achieving a goal.  That day he would have kidded me mercilessly!  


With thanks to Joe Jervis of the blog Joe.My.God:

"Just got spam letter from M. Bachman! My reply: Woman go back to school take history! If I was on my deathbed and your best friend was JESUS, I wouldn't vote for your gay-hating, bully-loving, poser Christian ass!'"  - Cher, tweeting about Michele Bachmann.


Scott of Bill in Exile posted this delightful picture which, as a devoted cat lover, resonated with me in a big way.  I think anyone who has ever lived with a cat knows exactly what's happening between the young man, identified as Matt in the title of the picture, and the kitten sitting on his shoulder.

It may LOOK like a sweet moment between Cat and Matt, but what's really going on is the beginning of the takeover, of Matt's subjugation to the cat's rearrangement of Matt's life including his schedule and the way his home life is organized.  Around here, it is reinforced constantly by the gentle rollover onto the keyboard in the middle of my work, with seductive writhing to remind me that it's time for yet another tummy rub.  Or by Madame sitting ever so demurely on the floor in front of Fritz's chair staring fixedly at him until he gives up and provides the scheduled meal.

For Matt, the path to becoming Staff of the Cat begins with shared smiles and the adoring look.  It's the Euphoria aka the Denial Period when Matt's thinking,  "Oh, this incredibly dear and innocent little thing LOVES ME -- how sweet is that!"   Matt, step away from the precipice; it's the gentle hook before the iron paw begins ever so subtly but firmly to be deployed.

Love the cathedrals!

As for Matt and the Cat: yuppers. I have 3. My boy cat has taken to peeing in his food dish whenever it is empty, but it is hard to be angry at him cause he runs into the living and plops down on the carpet, exposing his belly to me with a high pitched squeel of a meow! Drat!! ;)
Love cats and cathedrals!

For years, we were attending a church that is about 125 years old. Of course that's new compared to the Cathedrals in your post but old for our area. Anyway, because of the priest, we changed to a different church that was just built two years ago. I have never felt comfortable being there because it's too new and bright. I think I do much better in older churches where I can meditate.

Fun post! m.

As I write, Hambleton is sitting at Ken's feet demanding.... something. He's already been fed and brushed! But I'm afraid your warning to Matt will fall on deaf ears.

As for Beauvais, it was the subject of a long ago term paper. As I learned, the lack of proper financing led to significant delays, and during this time the joints between the stones increased in size from hairlines to large enough that the shrinkage of the mortar became significant - basically the masons skills and knowledge had degraded over a century or two. The design of the side walls had paired thin columns and a wall pier supporting a large stone where the wall, buttresses, and vaults came together. The pier settled, more force went to the thin columns, one of which snapped, the stone fell, triggering a progressive collapse of the choir. When it was rebuilt, the bays were halved in size to decrease forces so that workmanship was less critical. The tower, which as I remember was the tallest structure in the world, collapsed because the nave and its bracing effect was missing - again a failure to understand the structural principles.
Hugh -- one doesn't always trust Wikipedia, but there is mention there that the 153 metre Beavais tower was second to St. Michael's in Tallinn at 159 metres, although load stress was vastly less in Tallinn because so much of that tower was a tall, slender wooden steeple.

I remember standing in Beauvais and being overwhelmed by the incredible height of it all.
I spent a month in France near Beauvais when I was 16 but, while I have vague memories of a castle, I have no recollection of the Cathedral. A great shame, it seems now.

Have you been to Barcelona and the Sagrada Familia? It is a modern masterpiece not to be missed.
Sadly, not yet. I've been to Madrid and all through Andalusia and love Spain, so we'll see what the future brings.
I too was wowed by the Cathedrals; such a good place for the Lord
the cathedral that stands high in my memory is the one at Cologne.On
first entering I knelt down and wept thanking God to be there.
Congratulations for your culture1
I have a sign at my home that says: "The dog and its housekeeping staff live here"... So true...

I'm just staff.... :)
I'm not a big fan of religion, except as mythology, but I love cathedrals. I was fortunate enough to visit Orleans several years ago. My first North American ancestor who landed in Quebec came from that region of France, a town called Pithivieres (I'm too lazy to do the accents.)

I like my churches and Cathedrals to have vaulted ceilings, stained glass, statues, and a touch of whimsy. My favorite, by far, Chartres, it feels just ancient. It was so beautiful inside I almost wept.
Mike and Victor -- thank you for stopping by and commenting!
I often wonder what else might have been accomplished with all the money and effort that went into building vast places of worship.

Where might humanity be if that effort was focused on other goals, such as actually helping mankind?

And I still wonder that about new church buildings as well.
Erik, the clergy responsible for the unfinished Saint John the Divine cathedral in upper Manhattan answered that question for themselves, their neighborhood and their city several years ago when they declared construction to be over, no matter that the building is incomplete. They said that henceforth all money coming to the congregation's coffers would be used for social programs to benefit the neighborhood and its people.
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