Angkor Wat’s celestial maidens

Many religions have within them the idea of ethereal beings of great beauty inhabiting the heavens. The three religions of The Book share the notion of Angels; the old Norse gods had their Valkyries; the ancient Greeks had the Muses; and south-east Asian Hindus have Apsaras, the celestial maidens who dance magnificently to the music of the heavens and sometimes seduce both gods and men.  When the main religion in the Malay-Indonesian peninsular changed, formerly Hindu apsaras were co-opted into Islam, so that they are now seen as the heavenly maidens described in the Q’uran, given as a post-mortem reward to devout Muslim males.

On the walls of Angkor Wat, the enormous temple complex in Cambodia, there are 1,796 bas-relief carvings of Apsaras and Devatas, the celestial maidens of the Hindu religion, all of them unique and different.  Many of the smaller figures show the maidens dancing, in which case, they are known as Apsaras. Most of the larger figures, up to life-size sometimes, are shown standing, either in preparation for the dance, or as sentinels, in which case they are Devatas.

Almost every surface of every wall at Angkor is elaborately carved into relief decoration of great complexity, with many representations of gods, kings, battles, and historical and religious narratives, as well as many celestial maidens.  This devata is surrounded by a typical example of purely decorative relief work.

This approximately half-size devata is surrounded by ornately patterned relief designs

This approximately half-size devata is surrounded by ornately patterned relief designs

The stylised four-petal lotus flower design is one of the most common repeating motifs in all south east asian art, buddhist and hindu.

The stylised four-petal lotus flower design is one of the most common repeating motifs in all south east Asian art, Buddhist and Hindu.

This double pair of devatas have elaborate hair styles rather than ceremonial gilded head-dresses, which are more typical. The formal way the lower body garment was folded and secured changed over time.  A documented chronology of these changing apsara fashions is one way that helps archaeologists to date the construction of a temple, or at least, put a date on when the sculptures were carved.

These devatas have very elaborate hairstyles rather than formal head-dresses.   The one on the right is holding up a lotus bud, the model for the shape of the stone towers of Angkor Wat.

These devatas have very elaborate hairstyles rather than formal head-dresses. The one on the right is holding up a lotus bud, the model for the shape of the stone towers of Angkor Wat.

During the period when these figures were carved, the conventional way of showing the feet was always pointing sideways, as they were in ancient Egyptian art, but here they are seen from above not side-on.

During the period when these figures were carved, the conventional way of showing the feet was always pointing sideways, as they were in ancient Egyptian art, but here they are seen from above not side-on.

This devata is wearing the more typical ornate headdress with its three golden spires.  On her upper body she is wearing an elaborate collar piece and upper arm bracelets, a gold belt-chain around her neck that crosses over to go round her waist, and nothing else.  Celestial maidens are usually depicted bare-breasted.

This image has worn well, and still shows the intricate gilded decoration of the head-dress and body jewellery traditionally worn by apsara dancers

This image has worn well, and still shows the intricate gilded decoration of the head-dress and body jewellery traditionally worn by apsara dancers

This is a typical apsara dancing pose.  Traditional Khmer Apsara dance as it is performed today is quite slow, very balletic, and very controlled, with  the dancers’ open hands and fingers curving backwards at what appears to be an impossible angle.  I spoke with a young woman who had trained throughout her youth to be a dancer, but she could no longer perform since her dancing instructor broke two of her fingers in the continual process of training them to bend further and further backwards.  One of these fingers had healed at an unattractively crooked angle, which ended her potential career as a professional Apsara dancer.

In this carving of an apsara dancing, you can see the last three fingers of each hand bending back in a steep curve, a position that takes a long time to develop in trainee dancers.

In this carving of an apsara dancing, you can see the last three fingers of each hand bending back in a steep curve, a position that takes a long time to develop in trainee dancers.

And here is a modern group of traditional Khmer ‘Apsara Dancers’ posing with tourists at the end of their performance in modern Angkor.  The costumes they wear are quite faithful facsimiles of the originals as depicted on the walls of the many hundreds of ancient temples nearby, except that, to avoid offending foreign tourists, the dancers no longer perform topless.

A contemporary Apsara Dancing group, with some tourists from their audience after their show

A contemporary Apsara Dancing group, with some tourists from their audience after their show

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Inside St Pierre, Avignon

Looking at the same church as in yesterday’s post, here is the nave directly behind those carved walnut entrance doors.  St Pierre is a small late gothic church, with no transept, but it has a short aisle on each side of the nave, and some small and shallow chapels coming off the south aisle, which is to the right in this picture.

The nave of the church of St Pierre in Avignon

The nave of the church of St Pierre in Avignon

Here is one of the chapels.  Still visible are the flaking and corroding remains of some extensive painted decoration, on the walls inside and right around the architrave of the chapel entrance.  In many old churches in Europe, even if they were once painted, there is no longer any sign of painted decoration because it has all worn off or fallen off long ago.  In this chapel enough still remains to make you realise that it would have been  a very beautiful thing when it was freshly painted.

Most of the elaborate painted decoration of this side chapel of St Pierre in Avignon has deteriorated and flaked off the walls and surrounds

Most of the elaborate painted decoration of this side chapel of St Pierre in Avignon has deteriorated and flaked off the walls and surrounds

Enough small patches of the original paintwork remains to demonstrate the incredibly skill and care that went into the decoration of this chapel

Enough small patches of the original paintwork remain around the architrave to demonstrate the meticulous skill and care that went into the decoration of this chapel

A fine entrance

The relatively small church of St Pierre inside the old city walls of Avignon in Provence, southern France, is hemmed in by cafés and apartments and narrow winding streets, and faces onto the small cobblestoned Place de St Pierre.  The façade is described as ‘Provençal Gothic’, which I think is meant to mean the ‘Flamboyant’ decorative style more common towards the end of the Gothic period, as this church was not completed until 1385 AD.

The church of St Pierre, Avignon, Provence

The church of St Pierre, Avignon, Provence

The entrance is certainly flamboyant, with two beautifully carved doors and a lovely life-sized sculpture of the madonna and child on a canopied pier between them.  The sculpture is attributed to Jean Péru, and the 4 metre high doors were made by a woodworker named Antoine Volard. They were commissioned and paid for by a wealthy local merchant, who apparently coughed up “60 gold crowns with the king’s hallmark” for them.

What a bargain.

The solid walnut doors of St Pierre, Avignon, open directly into the nave of the church.

The solid walnut doors of St Pierre, Avignon, open directly into the nave of the church.

Modonna and child between the two doors at the entrance to the church of St Pierre, Avignon

Modonna and child between the two doors at the entrance to the church of St Pierre, Avignon

Gaudi’s masterpiece – 3

The windows in the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia don’t tell sacred stories or commemorate kings or saints or wealthy patrons, they are there to illuminate the church.  There is no recognisable symbolic content in the windows, they are purely decorative abstract designs, but they bathe the interior of the cathedral in a kaleidoscope of rich multi-coloured hues, especially along the aisles.  The space in the centre of the basilica, and the roof over the nave, is relative calm and peaceful in its colouring, but the areas around the edges of the church are well lit and bathed in colour.

The window shapes of La Sagrada Familia are a modern variation on a conventionally gothic layout

The window shapes of La Sagrada Familia are a modern variation on a conventional gothic layout

The  purpose of the windows in La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is to bathe the interior space with shafts of intensely coloured light

The purpose of the windows in La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is to bathe the interior space with shafts of intensely coloured light

Every strong colour in the spectrum can be found in the windows of La Sagrada Familia

Every strong colour in the spectrum can be found in the windows of La Sagrada Familia

Every facet of the complex interior surfaces of the aisles of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is painted with colour from the richly chromatic windows.

Every facet of the complex interior surfaces of the aisles of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is painted with colour from the richly chromatic windows.

Not just the walls and columns, but the floor as well is dappled with shafts of colour inside Barcelona's most famous basilica.

Not just the walls and columns, but the floor as well is dappled with shafts of colour inside Barcelona’s most famous basilica.

The chromatic intensity of the panels in these almost traditional looking window shapes is quite delicious.

Aren’t they such cheerful and positive windows?

Gaudi’s masterpiece – 2

High above the apse in the basilica de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona there is a skylight hidden behind a kind of radiating chandelier that is a physical evocation of the idea ‘Shine down, oh heavenly light, on me”.  Gaudi was a pious man, and this building is his deeply felt expression of his Catholic faith, synthesising a long cultural architectural heritage of cathedral building with the forms derived from nature which so fascinated him, forms which Gaudi saw as God’s own beautiful creation.

A hidden skylight above the altar radiates what seems like celestial light downwards in the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

A hidden skylight above the altar radiates what seems like celestial light downwards in the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

The fan-palm-like forms of the sparkling canopy roof also radiate heaven’s light into the space below.  Many nature lovers have felt that being in a climax rainforest is much like being in an old cathedral.  Gaudi has captured that emotional connection with the wonders of the natural world and made his cathedral feel like a fantastic forest.

The overlapping irregular panels in the roof of the Sagrada Familia are also textured and decorated

The overlapping irregular panels in the roof of the Sagrada Familia are also textured and decorated

The solid thrusting forms of the central column trunks turn into branches holding up the roof canopy, which then break up into a sort of triangular foliage, rippling out towards the windows on each side. and gently fading away into the outer shell of the building.

The foliage-like vaulting in the roof of the nave peters out where it meets the clerestory windows over the aisles in the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia

The foliage-like vaulting in the roof of the nave peters out where it meets the clerestory windows over the aisles in the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia

It isn’t all organic and flowing, though. There is a textural richness to the surrounding structural embellishments that are distinctive and unusual, but which nevertheless feel quite old and traditional, echoing ancient buildings both sacred and secular.

Gaudi's great masterpiece of  building is a wonderful imaginative combination of old and new ideas and forms

Gaudi’s great masterpiece of building is a wonderful imaginative combination of old and new ideas and forms

No other great church blurs the distinction between inside and outside like this one does, not even Amiens Cathedral. Light pours in from all the different punctuations in the skin of the enclosure, and not just through the intensely chromatic stained glass windows – which I’ll come back to in another post.

Gaudi's Sagrada Familia is more organic than a traditional gothic cathedral, but like Amiens Cathedral it is designed to bring in a tremendous amount of light from outside to illuminate the interior.

Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia is more organic than a traditional gothic cathedral, but like Amiens Cathedral it is designed to bring in a tremendous amount of light from outside to illuminate the interior.

Gaudi’s masterpiece

I have been interested in the work of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi for most of my life.  His free organic forms and their unconventional decoration always seemed to me delightfully iconoclastic, and they appealed to the young hippy rebel buried in me.

But when I finally managed to see his work up close, in situ, and no longer just in books, I was sad to find that I was mostly disappointed.  Barcelona was blessed with other architects who played with organic forms, and who created interesting buildings far less conventional than those in other European cities, so Gaudi was not quite as dramatically innovative as he seems when you look at his work out of its nurturing visual context.  And his innovative ideas didn’t always work.  Sometimes they were just crass and inappropriate, poorly conceived and poorly executed.

With one outstanding, extraordinary, fabulous exception.

The interior of Gaudi’s Basilica de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona makes it the most astonishingly beautiful modern building in the world.  A big call, I know, but I’ll stand by it.  And not the exterior, the interior.  I’ll show you the far more familiar and less exciting exterior another day, but for now, let me just give you a small taste of the wonderful interior of this greatest of modern churches, which has been under construction for decades and only recently opened up to the general public.

The forest of columns that support the roof over the nave and side aisles don’t have conventional bases, they seem to sprout directly out of the marble floor, dark and deeply fluted like the buttresses of tropical forest trees growing on shallow soil.

The forest of columns inside Gaudi's Basilica de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

The forest of columns inside Gaudi’s Basilica de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

As they rise, the flutes double, then double again and again, transforming themselves gently from a sombre wavy form at ground level to a much lighter and perfectly cylindrical form where they stretch up to capitals carrying illuminated decorative lozenges like giant fruits.

As the columns rise inside Gaudi's masterpiece church, they become smoother and reach knobby decorated capitals, branching out like trees above them

As the columns rise inside Gaudi’s masterpiece church, they become smoother and reach knobby decorated capitals, branching out like trees above them

And the columns don’t stop there as if they were merely supports for something else to rest on, they become lighter, almost bleached, and keep going past their knobby capitals, branching and re-branching again and again, thrusting upwards to support, not a roof, but a canopy like an albino rainforest, filtering and shading you from, but also giving you glimpses of the intense celestial light above all.

Instead of a vaulted roof, the Basilic de la Sagrada Familia has a canopy like a tropical rainforest, both concealing and revealing fragments of the heavens above.

Instead of a vaulted roof, the Basilic de la Sagrada Familia has a canopy like a tropical rainforest, both concealing and revealing fragments of the heavens above.

This vast enclosure has been beautifully realised. It strongly echoes the best of traditional gothic architecture while remaining utterly unique and breathtakingly idiosyncratic.

Local heroes

This quite lovely window in Barcelona Cathedral is a mixture of decoration, celebration, and veneration.  The top part is purely decorative, with no religious symbolism that I am aware of apart from a couple of crosses.  The four centre panels seem to be illustrations of parts of the exterior of the cathedral itself, and they perhaps commemorate the church’s original consecration, or mark some significant anniversary of that event.  The bottom four panels depict four saints, who as far as I can tell must have been all accepted as local Catalan boys.

This interesting window from Barcelona Cathedral is a mixture of three types of imagery, not all overtly religious

This interesting window from Barcelona Cathedral is a mixture of three types of imagery, not all overtly religious

These saintly portraits are quite formal and in traditional ecclesiastical style, but I don’t think they can be any more than about a hundred years old at the most, because the second from the left is San Jose Oriol, according to the name on his plinth.   San Jose Oriol was born and ordained in Barcelona and spent his life caring for the sick, dying in 1702.  He was beatified in 1806, but not canonised until 1906, so he could not have been memorialised as a saint until after that date.  Don’t you think he has a strange sinister smirk, like he was a 30s Hollywood gangster holding a murder weapon rather than a cross?

San Jose Oriol, a philosophy and theology graduate from the University of Barcelona in 1676

San Jose Oriol, a philosophy and theology graduate from the University of Barcelona in 1676

In the leftmost panel we have San Severo, or St Severus of Barcelona, who was made bishop of Barcelona in 290 AD.  He fled from Diocletian’s persecution of Christians, but was caught and flogged with a cat of nine tails, before nails were driven into his head, which astonishingly did not kill him immediately.  Left for dead, he was found by some followers, but expired as they tried to revive him.  He is shown carrying some vegetation, because one of the miracles attributed to him involved the instant germination of some beans as they were being sown by a farmer.  Perhaps that is the origin of the magic beans idea in the Jack and the Beanstalk story.

San Severo, or St Severus of Barcelona. Bishop of Barcelona, he was tortured to death by the Romans in 304 AD.

San Severo, or St Severus of Barcelona. Bishop of Barcelona, he was tortured to death by the Romans in 304 AD.

On the far right we have the very pious-looking San Vicente, who was born in Huesca in nearby Aragon province, not Catalunya, but still not very far from Barcelona.  St Vincent the Martyr was rounded up during a Roman persecution of Christians in 304 AD, and was subsequently tortured most horribly to death.  So the legend goes, his faith throughout this ordeal was so strong that his jailor converted to Christianity (and if he had any sense would have kept very quiet about that epiphany, in case he went the same way as his mentor).

San Vicente, or St Vincent Saragossa, was also persecuted by the Romans under Diocletian, and tortured to death in 304 AD.

San Vicente, or St Vincent Saragossa, was also persecuted by the Romans under Diocletian, and tortured to death in 304 AD.

Second from the right is a mystery saint.  I can’t find a reference or a list of saints that can tell me anything at all about San Medin, but he looks a lot less priestly than the rest of these pious gentlemen, and I would love to know why he is depicted here with that wickedly barbed short spear.

San Medin, a well-armed but apparently not ordained mystery saint.

San Medin, a well-armed but apparently not ordained mystery saint.

Orthodox icons?

In a Catholic Cathedral?  What are these doing here, I wondered to myself when I saw them on the wall inside the main entrance of St Patrick’s cathedral in Melbourne, Australia.

Madonna and Child and Christ in Majesty are typical subjects for Eastern Orthodox icons, but it is unusual to see such stylised artworks in Catholic churches.

Melbourne Icons 1

Melbourne Icons 2

But all is not what it seems.  Look closer and you will see they are in fact very recent paintings, made by a local artist ‘in the style of’ Byzantine icons, in 1999.

Melbourne Icons 3

The 150th Jubilee celebration of the laying of the foundation stone of this cathedral occurred in 2000, so these works may have been commissioned for that event, or they may have just been a gift to the church from the artist or some other patron.  Either way, they are completely out of character, and a stylistically bizarre thing to put on the walls of this church.

Although, I have seen some other quite odd mismatches in some much older European churches, so there’s no accounting for taste.  Or lack of it.

An unusual window

This very pretty window from St John the Baptist’s Cathedral in Lyon, France, is quite unusual for a catholic cathedral.

The top part, with lovely heart motif mullions, has conventional imagery of angels carrying Latin texts written in a Germanic script, and although I can’t see a date marked on it, it appears to be quite old.  Below that, though, the four lancet windows have no religious imagery at all and are simply four columns of colourful swirly shapes.  It’s possible that the bottom part of the window is a modern replacement for an older window that was damaged somehow, but even very modern windows usually contain Christian symbolism of some sort, and are rarely this organically abstract.  Modern windows are also more likely to be dated, which this one appears not to be.

The two outer columns are mirror images of each other, but, curiously, the two central columns are not. Well, not quite.  The first, third, and fifth pair of square panels are mirror images of each other, like the two corresponding outer column panels.  The second and fourth pair, however, are identical copies, the same way round instead of mirrored.

Bright and colourful, this pretty window from Ltons Cathedral is a strange mixture of traditional Christian imagery at the to, and more modern-looking purabstract patterns below.

Bright and colourful, this pretty window from Lyons Cathedral is a strange mixture of traditional Christian imagery at the top, and more modern-looking purely abstract patterns below.

To me, it looks as if all the panels must have been removed at some stage, and two of them were replaced back to front.  I have found examples of windows in other churches where the panels have not been replaced as they should have been after cleaning or restoration, so that is not as unlikely as you might think, but it is hard to imagine that no-one noticed at the time.  Yet, why would this odd asymmetrical arrangement have been deliberate?

I wish I could give you answers to some of the questions that this window prompts, but I regret I can’t.  We’ll just have to accept it for now as an attractive curiosity.

A fine pediment

The 9th century Hindu temple of Banteay Srei, which is about 25 km to the north of the temple complex of Angkor in Cambodia, is quite small as Khmer temples go, but it is arguably the most beautiful of all of them.

Dedicated to the god Shiva, this temple was constructed from a local pink sandstone, which is easier than most of the other local stones to carve into exquisitely fine detail, but it is also quite hard and durable, so it has eroded less than most of the other temples’ intricate carvings.  Consequently, the sculpted religious imagery here has kept its form better than many much later decorations.

Here is one of the very fine pediments, over a doorway to one of the concentric layers of this temple.  The carved pediments over the many doorways tell the stories of the Hindu gods, in sometimes great and gory detail.

One of the many finely carved pediments at the Khmer temple, Banteay Srei

One of the many finely carved pediments at the Khmer temple, Banteay Srei

The lintel over the doorway at the bottom of this pediment has Shiva, ‘The Destroyer’, at its centre, seated above a representation of Kala, a toothy deity who represents both Time and Death.

The centrepiece of the lintel over one of the doorways at Khmer temple, Banteay Srei

The intricate centrepiece of the lintel over one of the doorways at Khmer temple, Banteay Srei

The Hindu god Shiva, known at 'The Destroyer' sitting above a deity representing death.

The Hindu god Shiva, known at ‘The Destroyer’ sitting above a deity representing death.

The Hindu deity known as Kala, who represents both time and death.

The Hindu deity known as Kala, who represents both time and death.

Because of the quality of the carvings and sculptures at Banteay Srei, it has been the subject of significant looting over the years, but it is much better protected now that it is one of the nation’s primary sources of tourist income.

Some of the more significant sculptures have even been removed and replaced with modern replicas, like these guardian monkey gods, the originals of which are now in the Archeological Museum in the capital, Phnom Penh. That’s a bit of a shame, but it does show what a gorgeous natural pink colour this sandstone is before it is discoloured by time and weather.

Guardians of the Banteay Srei temple in Cambodia.  These are modern replacements for the originals, now in a national museum.

Monkey god guardians of the Banteay Srei temple in Cambodia. These are modern replacements for the originals, now in a national museum.