I was in Paris to see the quite excellent Giotto e Compagni exhibition at the Louvre, but I felt it might be a waste of a study trip abroad if I did not attempt to see a copious amount of Gothic architecture while I was there. The only research I did before leaving was where the old churches were, so it turned out to be a fun learning experience. A good deal of architecture in Paris is in the Late Gothic Flamboyant style, its name originally deriving from the flame-like patterns of the tracery that were influenced by fourteenth-century English Decorated. Yet like the contemporary English Perpendicular, it tends towards uniformity and a lack of subtlety in its later forms, and by the sixteenth century with the coming of the Renaissance it was felt ripe for replacement with the revived all’antica Classical style. Unlike England, where interest in church architecture completely evaporated after the Reformation, in Catholic countries, many churches were remodelled to accord with the new fashion.
Arriving at noon on Sunday, the first church on the way down from the Gare du Nord was the mostly late medieval St Laurent on the Boulevard de Magenta. However, the facade is neo-medieval, replacing a Baroque one that was ripped off in the nineteenth century. The interior is very characteristic of the late Flamboyant Gothic style: the biggest difference to previous centuries is the omission of capitals between the arcades and the columns: dying mouldings. The arch mouldings simply disappear into the body of the column with no interruption, leaving little opportunity for the craftsman to deploy interesting ornament. While the late Flamboyant has a purity that achieves an undeniable feeling of lightness and airiness, it also gives the whole structure and indeed the whole Gothic system itself an insubstantiality that risks its insignificance. The choir arcades were remodelled (“tres défiguré” I read in a early 20th century guidebook to the churches of Paris) in 1654 with inappropriate addition of spreads of palmettes above the arcades.
The tower of St Jacques, the rest of the church destroyed in the Revolution, is a much more interesting piece of Late Gothic, still properly Flamboyant in that it is peppered with an intricate but disciplined design of nodding ogee arches over saints (all obviously replaced in the nineteenth-century restoration) and the blind, flame-like tracery patterns that gave the Flamboyant its name.
Saint Merri just to the north of the St Jacques tower was well and truly locked, but as another Flamboyant church probably looked very similar to St Laurent on the inside so I wasn’t too bothered. I had a more important building to look at.
What the afternoon was largely given over to was the Saint Chapelle, built at the peak of the style preceding Flamboyant in the chronology of French Gothic, the Rayonnant. This famous chapel was built by King Louis IX to house the relics of Christ’s cross and crown of thorns bought from Constantinople. The building is well documented, as we know when all the relics arrived in France (1241), when it was under construction (1244) and when it was consecrated (1248). This is very handy because it’s one of those buildings that has a such a forefront place in the history of Gothic architecture as introducing a lot of new ideas and becoming particularly influential: it is said in a medieval poem that King Henry III wished he could bring it back to England in a cart, but instead had to settle for rebuilding Westminster Abbey in a rather French manner using a mason probably from Reims. Ultimately the idea of a richly decorated interior, serving largely as an opportunity to display stained glass became the original plan for the royal chapel of St Stephen next door to the Abbey (destroyed in the fire of 1832) and then the English Perpendicular style.
And the glass is why the St Chapelle is why the building draws so many visitors today. Absolutely not a functioning church, with a piano in the place of the high altar, it has the unfortunate feel of a crowded museum. It is also a frustrating experience in other ways. First, every inch of the interior has been repainted after it was wrecked in the Revolution, and it is almost impossible to tell what is ancient stonework and what is replaced or fixed with plaster. Secondly, the building is proportioned so that the windows can be seen best by sitting under the arcades against the wall. However, because of the barrier all the way round the perimeter, this means the side windows are difficult for visitors to see properly in their upper levels. And finally, the fact that the north side currently has two entire windows removed for conservation with an enormous scaffold and the rest blocked by exterior cladding dampens the experience. It is a great shame that the opportunity has not been taken to display some of the removed panels in a light box to the public, as is being done with the great east window at York Minster. This would be far more welcome in the lower church than the shop selling plastic knights in armour.
Despite all this the chapel is an amazing experience and although the weight probably would have crippled me, I really should have brought my field binoculars. Instead, I had to take pictures of every scene with my zoom lens and then look with my own eyes to appreciate the detail from afar. The amount of time this took made me appreciate the sheer artistic labour that went into this building. But also you realise the enormous amount of restoration that has gone on with such close looking. A huge amount of figure’s heads have clearly been replaced, but judging by the different appearance of so much of the glass, particularly the east windows, you quickly realise a great deal of the coloured glass is also remade by Violett-le-Duc and co. in the nineteenth century.
I also just can’t not sing the praises of the fifteenth-century glass in the Flamboyant window that was inserted in the place of the original Rayonnant rose window. The quality of the painting is incredible: and in some ways this window is harder to see than the side ones. It also takes the theme of the Book of Revelation, which is such a bizarre text that it means every piece of this window is fascinating.
After a few hours in the Saint Chapelle, I headed to Notre Dame, or, as we should probably call it more often, Paris Cathedral. Its appellation reflects its status where, like the Eiffel Tower and the Mona Lisa, it is rather difficult to see in its historical context and truly can be called “iconic”. It is largely an Early Gothic structure, begun exactly 850 years ago in 1163, in some ways still with a rather heavy interior with a lingering feel of the bulk of the Romanesque. Its famous harmonic facade with a rose window between the two towers was built around 1200-20, and then the whole building was given a makeover in the Rayonnant style in the mid-thirteenth century, with new transepts, a clerestory with bar tracery and rich gables and gargoyles along the building’s aisles which gives the building its overall character when you aren’t looking at the more disciplined facade. Also the famous tremendous flying stone arcs date from this period: they are not actually constructed as structural flying buttresses: you can see the smaller twelfth century ones underneath, but these massive ones flying over the top apparently only function as a rather sumptuous drainage system to carry water off the main roof and over the aisles but surely were added because they look cool. So much for the structural rationalism of the Gothic!
I took very few pictures inside Notre Dame because, despite the Rayonnant refenestration, it is very dark inside, you can’t use a tripod and gigabytes upon gigabytes of blurry pictures are created everyday when many professional images are easily available. What I was most interested in was attending the liturgy, a Vespers followed by an archiepiscopal High Mass of which I took some sneaky covert photos of with my not-too-great backup camera. The preceding voluntary on the grand organ at the west end I found rather odd, sounding as manic and loud as Jimmy Page hitting his guitar with a violin bow in the middle of a Led Zeppelin concert. After this however, when the music passed to the choir organ, the Mass was possibly one of the most immaculately performed that I have seen, the music being an early twentieth-century Misse Breve by Guy Ropartz with quite tremendous soloists. The Mass was actually dedicated to the Cathedral itself, as part of the 850th anniversary celebrations. I don’t think this made the service particularly special, aside from four new canons of the Cathedral receiving their cross of induction.
I would like to say that Notre Dame, despite its popularity with tourists, was notable for how well it managed both admiring and prayful hordes. There was a tremendously long queue to get in, but because entrance was free, it was less than ten minutes before it reached the door. Since most visitors shuffle down the south aisle, round the ambulatory and back out down the north, it was fine for those who just wanted to say they’ve seen it and those who wanted to mull for longer. The usher handing out service sheets before Vespers was also tremendously welcoming (“avec le messe?”), and tourists were still allowed to visit during the service up to the transepts. It was a paragon of balancing a building’s function as a church and museum letting visitors decide for themselves how to experience this stunning monument. It is a stark contrast with Westminster Abbey, with its unfortunately high prices, infamously grumpy ushers and unavoidable museum-like atmosphere punctuated by hourly enforced prayers over the tannoy.
The next day was at the Louvre from opening to closing, but I managed to bookend the day with a pair of great churches. The first was St Gervais et Protais, which has a largely pure late Gothic interior. Dying mouldings, star vaults, double aisles, a well-worn French plan very similar to St Laurent.
Aside from some impressive Renaissance stained glass, the medieval misericords were quite a surprise. The scenes of Bruegel bawdiness were also interspersed with some quite charming all-antica classical parodies, like this recumbent cherubic fellow.
So, on to the Louvre. Although Notre Dame trumps Westminster Abbey, Paris’ museums are not the hassle-free experience they are in London. At the Louvre, the policy of Liberté, égalité, billet means that entrance is slow and massive queues form. While I can always wander into the Tate, National Gallery or even the British Museum whenever I want, I knew there was no way I could have a quick look in the Museé d’Orsay. The Louvre is particularly bad because I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say that the majority of visitors are there solely to see La Giaconda. Despite the fortune they must make out of this building, it is still closed all day Tuesday and the Flemish paintings I wanted to see: (Van Eyck and Bosch) were in galleries that were shut on Monday. However the Giotto exhibition was stunning, certainly worth the trip despite its small size, and I may write it up in a separate post.
After nine hours of that though, Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois, the old chapel of the Louvre provided a wonderful relief from the crowds and the increasing stickiness of the weather. It has a rather handsome nineteenth-century bell tower that commemorates the bells that tolled to begin the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre, which actually came from the Early Gothic bell tower now absorbed within the aisles. The properly Flamboyant facade is quite well-preserved considering its location next to the palace.
Of course the immediate impression on entering is “oh, Late Flamboyant Gothic – dying mouldings yawn”. I suppose I can’t complain – it’s the same in fifteenth-century England with our similarly sober Perp naves. The choir is originally thirteenth century but, also rather predictably, unfortunately classicised in the eighteenth century.
However, some of the apsidal chapels survive untouched, and the south aisle is also fourteenth century, note that they hadn’t given up bothering to carve capitals on top of the columns then.
There is some rather nice late fifteenth-century glass in the roses of the transepts with sixteenth-century glass in the adjacent windows, but the biggest treasure of the church was the carved altarpiece with painted wings that stood as a museum piece partly behind perspex in one of the choir aisles. The first impression was “ooh, that’s not nineteenth century” which quickly became “wait, I know that thing”. On close inspection I remembered it was the topic of a paper given at the Courtauld’s Lille-Leuven-London meeting in Leuven I attended in March, given by Audrey Ginoux, a student at Lille University. It focused on the motif of the painter’s “baguette”, the tool which a painter uses to steady his brush, which St. Luke is using in the scene where he is painting the Virgin (with his Ox helping as usual). I had completely forgotten it was in Paris and it was a fun surprise.
Tuesday I had all day to myself and so, rather predictably, spent of all it going in a bunch of churches.
I saw this gorgeous thing on the way back to my hotel the night before, the priory of Saint-Martin-des-Champs, with a wonderful long Romanesque choir and a lofty pure Rayonnant nave, perhaps designed by the architect of the Saint Chapelle. Unfortunately, the Revolution turned it into the Musée des Arts et Métiers, so its opening times (10-6) forbade me a visit. Despite this being an important piece of architecture, I am not sure what sort of an experience the interior would be, what with a Foucault pendulum in the middle and all.
Across the road is St Nicholas-des-Champs. It is, yes, you guessed it, big, largely late-Gothic with dying mouldings, with the east end rebuilt in the late 16th century with classical Doric columns. The best thing are the lovely capitals in the south aisle, that like Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois, were preserved from the earlier building when the nave was rebuilt. Unlike the sober nave arcades, they bristle with undulating foliage with musical angels buried within the fronds and folds of the leaves. I am not sure why the French like preserving their south aisles beyond the fact they could use them as a temporary church during the rebuilding, but it was a novel phenomenon to me.
The fantastic bit of Renaissance Gothic that is St. Eustache, begun 1532, was having heavy restoration done and I imagine that was why it was closed. This was perhaps for the best as I had to get out of Paris on the Metro towards the suburb of Saint-Denis and I wasn’t sure how I was going to do this.
I got to the Abbey of Saint-Denis quite hassle free, and at first I was slightly let down when I was reminded half the facade was under scaffolding. But when I walked into the nave, I was reminded why I’d made the journey out here. What else can one do but go up to the high altar, drop to your knees and recite Abbot Suger’s immortal confession of his love for shiny things.
“Whence, when the many-coloured beauty of the gems had called me from external cares out of delight in the comeliness of God’s house, and serious meditation had induced me to concentrate on transferring the variety of holy virtues from the material to the immaterial; then I seem to see myself as if dwelling on some foreign shore of the earth neither wholly in the slime of the earth nor wholly in the purity of heaven. By God’s grace I seem to be able to be transported from this inferior world to that superior one in an anagogical manner.”
Okay, I’ll admit, I could only remember the bit after the semi-colon, it should have ideally been in Latin and the impression of the apse is actually that of a hundred years after Suger. Only the plan of his choir and the outer parts of the apsidal chapels remain, as it was all remodelled into an enormous triforium and clerestory in the thirteenth century. St. Denis is such an exciting building because it stands at the beginning of two important styles – the Early Gothic and the Rayonnant, and although it is unfortunate that Abbot Suger’s original Early Gothic choir was so remodelled, it is also amazing how much care they took in preserving much of Suger’s work when building their mighty extension heavenward into a blaze of stained glass.
Unfortunately, despite the quality of much of the nineteenth century glass in Paris and their capacity to make rather convincing medieval designs and colours, here we have horribly inappropriately gaudy glass, including a particularly ghastly plastic-looking pictorial window of Napoleon. It is a blight on the experience of the architecture and I would go as far to say it should all be removed.
St. Denis is one of those exhausting buildings because there is so much in it and it’s all so bloody marvellous. A big disappointment however was that every single piece of original twelfth-century stained glass reinstalled by Viollet-le-Duc in the windows of the apsidal chapels has been replaced with exceedingly cheap literally plastic copies. Since they have been away for conservation so long, since 1997, one would think they could have ones made in glass, but at least it gives hope for their eventual return. The windows were so carefully described by Abbot Suger that Viollet-le-Duc could recreate a lot of the iconographic scheme, and while the copies are interesting to understand the original impetus behind the Gothic style: Suger’s intent to overload the senses with unprecedentedly huge stained glass windows, it’s all a bit frustrating in lack of any authentic fabric. Instead I focused on the gorgeous stone altarpieces of the chapels. They date from the Romanesque to High Gothic, where they are as silky smooth and courtly as any Gothic ivory. Most charming was this scene of St Eustache and the deer – a triumph of the lyricism of Gothic art, where narrative scenes tesselate with the central crucifixion in one glorious composition of bodies, draperies and delicately carved leaves. It is the Gothic’s balance between naturalism and visionary symbolism – two concepts that some have wrongly considered as incompatible contraries – that is ultimately so moving.
But the tombs, there are so many tombs! Most of them can be considered together as they are retrospective royal monuments made in bulk in the 1260s, but there are many other fine monuments around, that would take far too much time to go through even selectively. Let’s take a look at the tomb of Louis de France (1244-1260), son of Louis IX and Marguerite of Provence. Many of the heads of the procession of mourners are restored but it is still an authentically poignant piece. While the scene of his soul raised to heaven is copy of the original now removed to the Musée Carnavalet, the remarkable scene at the other end seemed to me largely authentic, showing two despairing mourners accompanied by a beautiful smiling angel beaming with the spiritual optimism of the age.
I took Metro line 13 towards Saint Augustin, north of the place de Concorde. This building was a bit out-of-the-way of my later medieval trail, but I remember seeing it getting on for eight years ago now and thinking “ooh, that’s nice” but everyone else in the group thought getting back to catch a plane was more important.
The unfinished business of a visit to the interior did not disappoint – in fact it’s much better than the exterior elevations other than the facade, which are rather shallow in relief and look a bit like an Airfix kit. Built 1860-1871 by Victor Baltard, inside it’s a riot of High “Victorian” (sorry, I know we’re in France) eclecticism: Byzantine, Gothic, Classical, Arabic and the new technology of iron framing all mix together into a tremendously powerful interior. The building is triangular, which means the aisle chapels gradually get larger, making the nave feel wider as you proceed towards the centre, a crescendo to the reveal of the underside of the dome, which rather disappointingly was covered in netting. The iron spandrels holding up the roof were my favourite feature. This is a church that would delight any fan of steam-punk aesthetic: it’s a building that has the feel of a well oiled machine that could crank into life at any minute as some sort of robo-Gothic Transformer.
La Madeleine, is a famous church I thought I probably ought to have a look at. I do try with non-Gothic churches, but I found this an utterly uninspiring piece of Republican neo-classicism, horrifically inappropriate to a Christian church. There were plans to use the building throughout its horribly drawn-out construction as a secular monument or even a train station. If you can guess which end of its uninspiring bulk is the front, inside the only windows are the oculi in the vaults, making the interior a gloomy experience (goodness knows how anyone would see the departure boards). I hated every inch of the walk I made to the high altar and back out again. The massive doors showing the Ten Commandments are interesting, but when closed only serve as the icing on the cake to building that feels as a cold bastion of the Old Law, a cruel lawgiver, the cult of Reason crushing any rumblings of imaginative spirit.
I find Paris generally rather dull architecturally. Very rarely does any facade make you stop for a second to go “ooh, that’s nice” because they’re all the same. So it was an extraordinarily hot and testing trek through Napoleon III’s Haussman’d™ streets to Saint Germain-des-Pres on the other side of the Seine. The building was a bit of a shock and a bit of a disappointment initially. The nave is early eleventh century, but has been covered with a very heavy and inappropriate scheme of nineteenth-century painting that complete transforms the impression of this abbey church away from the ancient into a flimsy cardboard fake.
The choir however is much more interesting, consecrated in 1163. The exterior is rather powerful, with mighty but appropriately sized flying buttresses, with only a lingering sense of the Romanesque style of ornament amongst the pointed arches and dogtooth. And not a trace of Flamboyant, hooray!
One chapel in the ambulatory had been kept as particularly authentic, with the rounded arches of the dado arcade supported by capitals apparently preserving their original paint, and a very touching matronly late thirteenth-century Virgin and Child, split in two but still beaming with a lyrical Gothic smile. If was not for a quick browse in the postcard shop I would have missed the two panels of thirteenth century stained glass in the windows. My excuse is that they were unfortunately dimmed by the trees that were unfortunately growing right outside (as you can see on the shot of the exterior above), as well as thick heavy bars over the windows, but close inspection shows they had much authentic glass, even some heads original.
I got rather excited on approaching Saint Severin. For once something that looked utterly Gothic. The façade and first three bays of the nave are thirteenth-century with stout capitals and sensible quatrefoil plate tracery in the triforium. Then in the mid-fifteenth century, a window was inserted into the façade, properly flamboyant with flaming reticulated mouchettes, and the five east bays of the nave rebuilt as a reinterpretation of the earlier elevation, with almost English-Dec looking ogee tracery in the triforium, with busy leaves licking round their capitals.
Once again, like St Nicholas-de-Champs and Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois, the earlier south aisles are preserved, from a fourteenth century extension to the Rayonnant church. Up in the arcades are angels and prophets with scrolls, heralding the way to the high altar, wrapping through the mouldings to almost act as capitals in themselves.
The choir followed from the late fifteenth century into the early sixteenth. The mouldings of the inner arcades were cruelly cut back for remodelling as classical pilasters in the seventeenth century, but the most striking feature is the column at the axial point of the double ambulatory. In the Romanesque spiral columns were used as an indicator of particularly holy places, such as the site of the altar, as a nod to the Solomonic columns brought to St Peter’s in Rome from the Temple at Jerusalem. Rather than just a jeux d’espirit of the late Gothic, is this not perhaps a revival of such symbolic thinking?
But look up and there is so much old glass preserved in the clerestory! Rich colours, thoughtful faces, Gothic canopies – again I wished I had my binoculars despite the heat, but I think the pictures came out rather well. This was a largely Flamboyant church that showed enthusiasm for the Gothic right up to the sixteenth-century, and certainly one of the most exciting buildings I went in. Do pop across the Seine from Notre Dame to visit it if you are in Paris.
Saint Julien-le-Pauvre is a stone’s throw from Saint Severin, hiding behind a wall-like and not very promising eighteenth-century façade with remnants of the demolished first two bays of the nave standing in front. Inside, it is a relatively small church by the standards the surviving churches of Paris, and while it built around the same time as the Cathedral across the river the barrel-vault of the nave gives it a distinctly Romanesque and conservative feel. The choir however has more of a forward-looking Gothic lightness and was intended to be three storeys high, but they put the vault on after only two which might explain why the nave feels so hurried. Since the church has been Greek Orthodox since 1889, it has one of those highly frustrating iconostasis screens, obscuring the lower portions of the apse entirely from the eyes of those not ordained, and spoiling the effect of the building. It was at this point my camera started blinking red and complaining it was exhausted, and I partially conceded to crappy back-up camera, but we had one church left to do.
In many of the churches of Paris the Classical and Gothic styles seem to be at odds with one another, the former often attempting to cover the latter as a childish mistake of less civilised times, and then the Romantics with a warped conception of the moral values of style getting extraordinarily angry by the mere glimpse of an Ionic column. Saint Etienne-du-Mont is a remarkable building that actually shows how they can work together. The whole church was rebuilt from the early sixteenth century, and choir would have originally been a largely sober, tired out bit of Flamboyant.
However it was transformed by the magnificent screen that is incontestably the centrepiece of the building, with spiral staircases wrapping gracefully round the pillars of the crossing. Its playfulness is almost that of the Rococo rather than strict Renaissance classicism. Added as an afterthought, it provides the church with the linking leitmotif of the balustrade, which continues from the staircase round the Flamboyant choir and also informs the elevation of the nave, which has Classical detail such round arches with keystones. The building shows a distinct intelligence in using new decorative forms within the technology of Gothic, not the brutal battle of the styles that of course went the other way in the nineteenth century. Perhaps Goths and Romans can get along to make something nice after all.
On the way back it was unavoidable to have one last look at the Cathedral and obtain a blatant vanity shot with the help of a fellow English tourist. Doing the tourist walk round the back of the Cathedral for the flying buttress shot, I remembered one of the most overlooked features of Notre Dame: the reliefs on the north side of the choir showing the life of the Virgin. Elizabeth Sears has shown (full paper available on Google Books) how these were originally enclosed within the canons’ cloister, and were designed for reflection as they entered and exited Notre Dame itself. Now these graceful works of thirteenth century sculpture, in contrast with the entirely ransacked and restored statuary of the facade, sit behind a wire fence and are ignored by the tourists. Their crisp draperies, and, as Sears points out, their thoughtful composition tailored to a learned audience, makes them suitable as museum pieces, but somehow despite the ravages of the Revolution, Napoleon III and Viollet-le-Duc, they survive in situ after eight centuries.
(Since this is all very hastily “researched” even by my usual standards (I don’t have a Pevsner to check!), if I’m a century or so out in any descriptions, any corrections are welcome.)