The Old and New Testaments

Here is a series of remarkable windows from Chartres Cathedral in northern France. Please click on the image to enlarge it and have a closer look at its design.

These five lancets sit below the South Rose Window, and at first glance it is a very odd arrangement of figures.  The central one is relatively conventional, showing the Virgin Mary with the Christ child, but the two windows flanking on each side are quite bizarre, in that they depict four smaller men sitting on the shoulders of four larger men. The ones above are holding on to the heads of the ones below, with their legs wrapped around their supporters’ necks, like some troupe of performing acrobats.

But this is not an entertainment, it is important symbolism, and it is quite an effective metaphor, once you understand who the characters represent.  The four men below are the major prophets of the Old Testament, from left to right, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel.  Sitting on their shoulders, with haloes indicating that they are saints, are the four evangelists, the writers of the New Testament Gospels, again from left to right, St Luke, St Matthew, St John, and St Mark.

Symbolically, these figures are showing that the evangelical Gospels of the New Testament were built on top of the prophetic pillars of the Old Testament.  The New did not supersede the Old, but together they define the law, linked by the pivotal figures of the Virgin Mother and the Christ child.

The evangelists Luke, Matthew, John, and Mark, sitting on the shoulders of the prophets Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, with the Madonna and Child in the centre panel.

The evangelists Luke, Matthew, John, and Mark, sitting on the shoulders of the prophets Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, with the Madonna and Child in the centre panel.

This beautiful set of windows date from about 1255, and they were paid for by the Duke of Brittany.  The Duke’s blue and yellow check heraldry colours are at the bottom of the central lancet, below the Madonna and child, while the Duke himself and his wife and two children are depicted below the other four pairs of prophets and saints.

Not only did the Duke’s money and power achieve a form of immortality for himself and his family, this major donation probably earned them all some papal indulgencies as well, substantially shortening their post-mortem sojourn in purgatory.

Nowadays, of course, papal indulgencies can be acquired just by following the Pope’s tweets on Twitter.  I’m not kidding.

Notre Dame du Taur, Toulouse.

Jammed in amongst a street full of shops and other old buildings is a sweet little church that you can easily not notice at all as you walk down Rue du Taur from the Place du Capitole, the main square in the French city of Toulouse, to the Basilica dedicated to St Sernin, the patron saint of the city.  Yet, here was where the remains of St Sernin (or Saturnin) were first interred, only being transferred to the newly built basilica down the street when the crush of pilgrims became too great.

St Sernin was the first bishop of Toulouse, supposedly appointed by St Peter himself in the 1st century AD.  The church is named Notre Dame du Taur (Our Lady of the Bull) because, for refusing to worship pagan idols, St Sernin was allegedly martyred by being tied to a bull and dragged around by a rope until he was dead.  Legend has it that the place where the rope finally broke is where this church is today.

The church was built in the 13th-14th century, and the facade is of characteristically ‘Toulousain’ red brick, but not overly impressive.  And the only way to take any sort of picture of it in that very narrow street is from down a nearby alleyway.

Red brick façade of Notre Dame du Taur, in Toulouse, France.

Red brick façade of Notre Dame du Taur, in Toulouse, France.

Inside, though, it’s a little gem.   Quite short and squat, with side chapels but no transept, nearly all the surfaces, including the vaulting ribs, are quite nicely decorated.

Inside Notre Dame du Taur, looking towards the altar down the short nave.

Inside Notre Dame du Taur, looking towards the altar down the short nave.

The surfaces inside Notre Dame du Taur are quite intricately painted and gilded.

The surfaces inside Notre Dame du Taur are quite intricately painted and gilded.

Many medieval churches were once gilded and decorated like Notre Dame du Taur

Many medieval churches were once gilded and decorated like Notre Dame du Taur

Over the altar is a 19thC tableau depicting the moment the rope broke and St Sernin’s body, and the bull, came to rest.

The painted tableau over the altar showing the martyrdom of St Sernin is from the 19th century

The painted tableau over the altar showing the martyrdom of St Sernin is from the 19th century

There are several stained glass windows with traditional imagery that I also think are rather nice, like this ‘Pieta’, although I suspect that they are a relatively modern addition, from the 19th or perhaps even early 20th century.

This lovely stained glass window of the Pieta is not original, but a much later addition.

This lovely stained glass window of the Pieta is not original, but a much later addition.

The Victory of Faith

You could be forgiven for wondering what this painting is doing in a blog themed around religious art and architecture, but its title is “The Victory of Faith”.  It supposedly shows two devout Christians who have been captured by the Romans, but who have refused to renounce their faith in Christ, and so are to be sacrificed to the lions in the arena on the morrow.  They are sleeping peacefully beneath a sign of the cross that they have somehow scratched into the dungeon wall behind them, secure in their faith, and in the knowledge that they will be received into heaven as martyrs.

"The Victory of Faith" 1890-91:  St Gorge Hare, Irish, 1857-1933.  National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia

“The Victory of Faith” 1890-91: St Gorge Hare, Irish, 1857-1933. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia

The artist is St. George Hare, an Irish artist who usually specialised in portraits, but exhibited this painting at the Royal Academy in London in 1891.  It was, apparently, his first major treatment of the nude, but not his last.  The painting is in the National Gallery of Victoria, in Melbourne, Australia, and their caption includes the droll observation, “The depiction of naked women in chains seemed to hold a special interest for Hare, and he returned to the subject frequently.”

The ‘Mondrian’ windows of Sacre Coeur

The Basilica of Sacre Coeur in Paris is at the highest point in the city, the top of the Montmartre hill – the Mount of Martyrs.  It’s a magnificent location and the church is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city, but it is not an old building.  Not begun until after the Franco-Prussian war in the late 19th century and not completed until the outbreak of World War I in 1914, it is an unusual multi-domed Romanesque-Byzantine revival design.

Sacre Coeur Basilica is at the top of the hill in Montmartre, the highest point in the city.

Sacre Coeur Basilica is at the top of the hill in Montmartre, the highest point in the city.

Sacre Coeur was built by private subscription as a penance for a century of moral decline after the French Revolution of 1789

Sacre Coeur was built by private subscription, supposedly as a penance for a century of moral decline after the French Revolution of 1789

Part of the multi-domed interior of Sacre Coeur

Part of the multi-domed interior of Sacre Coeur

The official website of the basilica states that the stained-glass windows, which were originally installed in 1922, were destroyed by WWII bombing during the liberation of Paris, in August 1944, but “were restaured (sic) in 1946”.  I don’t think this can be correct.  I think some of the windows, at least, were not ‘restored’ to what they were before, but were replaced by new designs.

Here are two of the windows that I think could not have been designed before 1922.  The style of these windows is much more consistent with post-war design style, clearly influenced by the abstract geometric paintings of Piet Mondrian.  Mondrian’s work captured the public imagination in the post-war years, but his signature geometric style was not developed by him until after the original windows at Sacre Coeur were installed, and he did not reach the peak of this style until the late 1930s and early 1940s.

One of several windows seemingly inspired by the abstract paintings of Piet Mondrian

One of several windows seemingly inspired by the abstract paintings of Piet Mondrian

One of several windows seemingly inspired by the abstract paintings of Piet Mondrian

One of several windows seemingly inspired by the abstract paintings of Piet Mondrian

There are other windows in this Basilica that, although still quite modern, are at least more in keeping with traditional ecclesiastical stained glass window conventions.  It’s a shame that a real attempt wasn’t made to restore, or even reproduce, the 1920s designs.  I can’t help thinking they would have been more appropriate than these.

The ‘incomparable’ Sagrada Familia

Amongst much other published hyperbole, I have several times seen the word ‘incomparable’ used to describe Gaudi’s Basilica de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

I disagree.  There are many other constructions, both religious and secular, to which this famous basilica can be compared, and not always favourably.

Admittedly, it is still a long way from being completed, and this picture of mine is not the most flattering view of it, clad in tarpaulins and cranes as it is, but there are several obvious comparisons that we can make.

Four of the multiple spires of the Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona, Spain

Four of the multiple spires of the Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona, Spain

One of the main features of the Sagrada Familia that is often praised for its originality are the open framework design of its spires.  But that idea is not original at all.  There are many precedents for that approach to spire construction, even in Gaudi’s own formative environment.

Just a short distance across town from Gaudi’s Basilica is the mostly 14th century Barcelona Cathedral.  Its multiple spires are similarly hollow and open to the sky in their construction, and they reach for the heavens with the spiky elegance of ice crystals, besides which, Gaudi’s yet to be finished spires already look tired.

The open fretwork of one of the spires of Barcelona Cathedral

The open fretwork of one of the spires of Barcelona Cathedral

Barcelona Cathedral with its multiple open frame spires

Barcelona Cathedral with its multiple open frame spires

And in terms of being the product of the singular vision of a lone genius, Simon Rodia’s hand-built towers in Watts, California, have a vernacular energy that, to me, makes the Sagrada Familia seem clumsy and flabby by comparison.

Simon Rodia's Watts Towers, in Los Angeles, California, hand built by one man from collected scrap, over several decades.

Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, in Los Angeles, California, hand built by one man from collected scrap, over several decades.
(Image by InSapphoWeTrust from Los Angeles, California, USA (Watts Towers Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

But the most unflattering comparison of all is that between the inside and the outside of this extraordinary building.  Inside, it is breathtaking.  Built with respect towards centuries of traditional cathedral construction, it brings a new vision to the creation of a sacred space that truly inspires awe.

The breathtaking interior of  Gaudi's Basilica de la Sagrada Familia

The breathtaking interior of Gaudi’s Basilica de la Sagrada Familia

But outside, it looks like an unpleasantly dun-coloured wax model of a cathedral that has been left out in the sun too long and has started to melt.

Detail from the facade of the Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona

Detail from the facade of the Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona

Gaudi’s organic inspiration

A few weeks ago I described the interior of Gaudi’s Basilica de la Sagrada Familia as ‘like being in an albino rainforest’, but I’m not sure if everyone would understand what that meant.

Gaudi’s supporting columns get to a certain height and then smaller branches fan out from there, ending in overlapping jagged umbrella shapes, creating an organic vault of a roof.  That reminded me, not so much of a conventional rainforest, with its normal sort of leaf foliage, but of a fan palm canopy, a particular kind of treescape common to many areas of tropical rainforest.

Here is a group of fan palms in a rainforest in the Licuala National Park in North Queensland, Australia.  In a rainforest, every plant competes for as much of the limited overhead sunlight it can get, which is why trees tend to grow so tall.  It’s also why the fan palm’s leaves have adapted their shape so they present as much of their surface area as possible to any sun coming down through a gap in the canopy.

Fan palm forest, Licuala Park, North Queensland, Australia

Fan palm forest, Licuala Park, North Queensland, Australia

And here is another shot looking up at the interior of Gaudi’s Basilica.  These great stone trunks and branches have the same sort of upward striving feel as rainforest fan palms, and the jagged panels of the roof seem to be jostling for their place in the light above.

Looking up at the roof over the nave of the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

Looking up at the roof over the nave of the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

I don’t know whether Gaudi ever actually saw examples of those very tall palms somewhere, but they could easily have been his inspiration, don’t you think?

A gift from the gods

Beneath the relatively new rose window in Reims Cathedral that I wrote about yesterday are three large lancet windows, presumably also quite new, but not deliberately modern looking, at least, not compared to some other even more modern windows in this same cathedral.

The south transept rose window of Reims cathedral and the three lancet windows below

The south transept rose window of Reims cathedral and the three lancet windows below

From a distance, they look very pretty and very colourful.  They also look very busy, and there is no obvious theme or imagery that jumps out at first glance, you have to look very closely to figure out what is going on in them.

There are people with wings and haloes blowing trumpets and several people with just haloes looking saintly and making blessing gestures, but this is not a religious theme – at least not in a conventional sense.   Reims is the centre of the champagne-producing region of France, so these three large and complex windows are a celebration of the main industry in the area: wine making.  In the central rectangles of each lancet is the whole production story: workers tending the vines, picking and crushing the grapes, making barrels and bottles, and so on.  In the narrow rectangles down the sides of each lancet, all the wine producing areas of the Marne are listed and illustrated, Rosnay, Trigney, Avize, Dormans, Vertus, and many others.  (click the picture to enlarge it for the details)

 A closer view of the three lancet windows of Reims cathedral (I moved them a little closer together to show them all at once)

A closer view of the three lancet windows of Reims cathedral (I moved them a little closer together to show them all at once)

At the top of the central lancet there are two angels heaving to turn a wine press, while below there is another bewinged and haloed creature praising the red fluid coming out of the bottom of the press.

Closer view of the top of the central lancet in Reims cathedral south transept

Closer view of the top of the central lancet in Reims cathedral south transept

This whole tripartite window seems to be saying that wine is a gift from the gods.  I can relate to that.

Reims South Transept Rose Window

Have you got the impression yet that I’m very fond of rose windows?  An earlier post looked at the mostly original 13th century North Transept Rose Window in Reims Cathedral, and here is its twin, the South Transept Rose Window.

The structural form, the size and shape of both windows, is identical, but that is the only aspect of them that is the same.  They LOOK very similar at first glance, similar in age and style and type of imagery, but I’m disappointed to discover that this one is not original at all, it is a modern replacement.  The original 13th century south transept pair to the very old one in the north transept blew out in a storm in 1580.  It was rebuilt the following year, although perhaps not faithfully to the original design, but that matters little now because that whole window was destroyed in the First World War, anyway.  This replacement window was installed in 1937.

The window shows Christ in majesty in the centre, surrounded by 12 panels of worshipping angels, then the twelve apostles in roundels in the outer ring.  I imagine the theme and its realisation follows that of its predecessor fairly closely, but how similar this is to the original design I don’t know.

If you weren’t told this was not a 13th century original, I think you’d have to be an expert to be able to tell, because this is still a very beautiful window.

The rose window from the south transept of Notre Dame Cathedral, Reims, France

The rose window from the south transept of Notre Dame Cathedral, Reims, France

The central roundel from the south transept rose window of Notre Dame Cathedral, Reims, France

The central roundel from the south transept rose window of Notre Dame Cathedral, Reims, France

Some outer panels from the south transept rose window of Notre Dame Cathedral, Reims, France

Some outer panels from the south transept rose window of Notre Dame Cathedral, Reims, France

Notre-Dame de Reims

As soon as you turn into Rue Libergier in Reims, France, heading east, you can see the unmistakeable shape of the Cathedral of Our Lady facing you at the other end of the street.

Reims cathedral from the other end of Rue Limbirgier

This is not my photo, unfortunately.  I captured this from Google Maps Street View. I was at the wheel when I encountered this sight, and could not use a camera.

But as the great building gradually gets closer, you begin to realise a) that Rue Libergier is a much longer street than you first thought it was, and b) Notre-Dame Cathedral is much bigger than it first appears to be.

Approaching Notre-Dame Reims from Rue Libergier

Approaching Notre-Dame Reims from Rue Libergier.  This is my picture, taken at traffic lights, just as they turned green.

Reims is not a big city.  Although it’s the biggest urban centre in the Champagne-producing area to the north east of Paris,  it has a population of less than 200,000, so this great cathedral still dominates its surrounds like few of its peers are able to do any more.  This one has not been hemmed in and dwarfed by modern steel and glass and concrete office blocks.

Eventually, you have to abandon your car and approach the cathedral across its broad forecourt on foot, and it just keeps on getting bigger and bigger.

The facade of the mighty Notre-Dame cathedral at Reims

The facade of the mighty Notre-Dame cathedral at Reims

The three massive porticos fill your vision, encrusted with sculptures, beautifully proportioned, and you begin to realise why it was that all but one of the kings of France chose to be crowned here in Reims. This is a truly impressive gothic cathedral.

The porticos at the main entrance to Reims Cathedral

The porticos at the main entrance to Reims Cathedral

And then you look up.  What a thrill!  ‘Awesome’ is not a word I use very often, but some significant awe was definitely felt by me that day.  No picture can ever hope to capture the feeling of being one of those tiny, puny, people, standing in front of this extraordinary building.

As you look, from quite close up, at this gorgeous cathedral, it's impossible to see it all at once, but the rich details and the proportions of the whole structure work beautifully together.

As you look, from quite close up, at this gorgeous cathedral, it’s impossible to see it all at once, but the rich details and the proportions of the whole structure work beautifully together.

It’s also hard to grasp that it was people no bigger than those ant-like figures at the bottom of this image who built this building more than 700 years ago.  By hand.  Astonishing.

Inner City Legacy – 2

Brisbane was still only an infant settlement when a parcel of land on the hill near the old penal colony windmill was granted for the establishment of a church in 1856.  The ‘Brisbane Tabernacle’, as it was then known, was constructed of locally-quarried pink porphyry, and opened in 1862.  It soon proved to be too small and was enlarged in 1869, and what is now All Saints’ Anglican Church is the oldest surviving church building in the Australian State of Queensland.

Over time, almost all of the land around this small Early English Gothic Revival church was resumed by the city.  As happened to St Andrew’s Uniting Church not far away, the biggest sacrifice of church property was required to build a railway, only this time to tunnel a line directly underneath the church itself.  Once the tunnel was built, the former church land required to access this tunnel was filled in and sold privately.  Now, directly in front of the church entrance, stands a towering circular bank building, dwarfing what was once a Brisbane landmark.

Like so many inner city churches, All Saints is surrounded by modern office buildings

Like so many inner city churches, All Saints is surrounded by modern office buildings

There are a couple of features of this quite small church that are particularly worth noting.

Although it is a simple rectangular space with just a chancel, it has a spectacular and very rare double hammer beam roof. Compared to the single hammer beam roof in St Andrews’ (yesterday’s post), this is a more complex construction, but much lighter and more delicate, while doing the same basic job.

The rare double hammer beam roof of All Saints' Brisbane

The rare double hammer beam roof of All Saints’ Brisbane

There are many really pretty stained glass windows in this church, all in a very traditional style, most of them much more modern than they look.  However, at the east end, behind the altar, are the oldest stained glass windows in Queensland, dating from 1870.  The three main lancets are what you would expect to see, a crucifixion in the centre flanked by the Virgin Mary to the left and… er…someone else with a halo on the right.  But above them are one large and two tiny roundels which I really like – a benificent post-resurrection Christ, looking like some pagan sun god, and two tiny little decorative, and very cute, ‘alpha’ and ‘omega’ windows.

One of the oldest stained glass windows in Brisbane, over the altar of All Saints' church

One of the oldest stained glass windows in Brisbane, over the altar of All Saints’ church

One of two tiny roundels over the altar of All Saints' church, this is the sign for 'alpha', as in 'I am the alpha and the omega', i.e. the beginning and the end.

One of two tiny roundels over the altar of All Saints’ church, this is the sign for ‘alpha’, as in ‘I am the alpha and the omega’, i.e. ‘I am the beginning and the end’.

The other tiny roundel over the altar in All Saints" church.  Would it really be sacrilegious to put these two images on the front and back of a t-shirt?

The other tiny roundel over the altar in All Saints” church, is ‘omega’. Would it really be sacrilegious to put these two images on the front and back of a t-shirt?

All Saints is a ‘Forward in Faith’ church, which is almost, but not quite, a breakaway sect from Anglicanism.  That means that it sticks to a very traditional and more catholic form of the communion service, and is vehemently opposed to the ordination of women at any level, as well as being opposed to its parent Anglican church’s increasingly tolerant attitude to homosexuality.  Despite that, the Rev. Canon Richard Martin, the priest in charge of this church, was a very friendly and helpful man, and very accommodating to me and my questions, as well as to my tripod and other paraphernalia, and I thank him for that.

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