The summer of '95 was one of my most memorable summers. Lucky enough to receive an NEH summer seminar grant on "Gothic in the Ile-de-France" I packed my bags and cat (see Greece story) and headed to Paris. I was the only historian in the group, which was daunting to say the least. While most of the mainly art historians talked about apses, dedoes, and clerestories (Greek to me), I simply took in the magnificent architecture first of Paris then the earliest Gothic churches in the Ile-de-France.
We didn't start on top of cathedrals, but rather sat in a classroom in the Latin Quarter learning more about the subject from a specialist. I soon learned that medieval architecture (probably any architecture) requires a good understanding of math. I had been to Notre-Dame (the second church in the great 'French style' experiment -- Gothic was a term invented by Renaissance thinkers who despised the art of the north) many times before, but began to see it through new eyes -- as a whole new way of constructing earthly and heavenly experience in the 12th C.
Then we went to St. Denis, right outside of Paris on the metro line. While the exterior has suffered from religious wars and revolutions, in the early 12th C. Suger, abbot of the royal abbey of France, decided to try out a new style of architecture based on light and height. From this came the beautiful stained glass and rose windows, although with increasingly slender pillars that made the inside and walls look paper thin as time went on. Suger was so proud of his work that (unusually for the time) he had his name inscribed on numerous parts of the abbey church. The main innovation besides the thin walls, height and light were the flying buttresses that are still holding (most of) the churches up. As I began to learn the new terminology, I found out that the anticyclone zone of Paris, combined with centrifugal forces in the construction made the buttresses essential.
We went on to the Sainte Chapelle, built during the reign of (Saint) Louis IX in only a few years. Louis had come back from Crusade with a grand relic -- the supposed Crown of Thorns, which he'd purchased. He decided it needed a very special housing , so the Sainte Chapelle was built as a giant reliquary. The lower portion of the church is beautiful, but when you ascend, you are overpowered by the light of almost seamless stained glass windows.
I'll skip over a lot of what we did to head out from Paris. One of the next cathedrals we visited was Laon, in a beautiful medieval town. Most interesting about the cathedral were the sculpted oxen way up in the towers -- they were added as a tribute to the animals who had carted the stone and building supplies as each town in the north of France tried to compete to have the best and highest church.
On to Amiens, where I first stood atop a cathedral. The story of Icarus and Daedalus became associated with the cathedral. The master of the cathedral had built strong buttresses, but as styles changed, the son of the next master builder tried to fly too close to the sun by building ever thinner buttresses, leading the vault to buckle. Steel inserts had to be inserted to hold the cathedral together. Another spectacular aspect of Amiens, like Chartres, is the labyrinth, which symbolizes the journey through life. When I was on the roof with the group, I learned, alas that most gargoyles are modern inventions by 19th-C. architects who tried to improve on the original Gothic while also restoring the churches. But there was an original 13th C. gargoyle in a pit in the roof. We took turns jumping down to see it, only to be dragged back up by the strongest men in the group. I also learned that just like the Parthenon and other buildings in ancient Greece, cathedrals were originally painted all over inside -- it is only centuries of use, smoke, and environmental and human damage that has erased most of the traces.
I'll only mention one other cathedral before returning to ND in Paris, though as you can tell I could go on forever. Beauvais' bishop wanted his to be the greatest of all in height, the tower being 154 feet in height. It was simply too high. Part of the vault collapsed in 1284; then in a more spectacular fashion the tower collapsed in 1573 during the French Religious Wars. They had pushed beyond the limits of the sky and the sky won. The now squat looking cathedral whose aisles still seem enormously high is held together inside and out by huge girders and beams.
Back in Paris, the director of the program got permission from the Monuments historiques for a couple of us to go on top of Notre Dame with our NEH leader to measure between flying buttresses, in the hope of proving when they were actually constructed. There's nothing quite like seeing Paris from the roof of ND!
Since I had been working on medieval sermons since finishing my dissertation, my final project was to give a sermon to the group. It was all fun by then (as if it hadn't been), so I decided since I couldn't pull off a Franciscan habit I'd wear a little black dress and heels. But I used a real sermon that I had translated. After I was handed a glass of champagne for courage, I began, individually (and loudly) castigating the behaviors of each and every member of the group. I had previously told them that medieval people were far from passive at sermons. They took me too seriously and started throwing things at me and trying to shout me down. Twenty minutes in I lost my voice. And let's just say that wasn't the last glass of champagne of the night!
In my spare moments, while staying at my 25 sq. meter apartment on the 7th floor (no elevator, of course) in the Latin Quarter, I took my cat for walks on her leash in the Jardin des Plantes, where Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin used to walk. Walking a cat on a leash in Paris is quite a conversation opener. A French family who had lived for a couple of years in San Diego stopped me. Their children wanted to speak to my cat in English! A Franco-Algerian guard marveled that I had gotten a cat on a leash (it's not hard, really!).
I came away from that summer entranced by art/architecture and have used it as part of my teaching ever since. I learned a lot about what history is -- it is all of the things that happened in a given time and place, not just politics or economics; economics did, however, play a part in the age of the cathedrals -- some bishops and abbots were murdered in their quest for more money for building and there were more than a few revolts based on the costs.
Some of my pictures are from the pre-digital age, so excuse the quality.
Never been to the top of ND, but will make it on the next trip.
Here are some of my favorite pictures from inside ND. You helped remind me of the beauty of ND!
Keep the information and pictures coming!
Right back at all of you! I am very lucky to have a job I love, teaching and writing, and able to spend lots of times in fantastic places in Europe. Thinking about summer travel stories has brought back lots of great memories that I'd partially forgotten (or thought I had).