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.

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

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.

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.

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 hymn to the vertical

I wish I could claim the phrase ‘a hymn to the vertical’ as my own invention, my own description of the beautiful interior of Amiens cathedral, but I confess I read it somewhere once and cannot now find a way to attribute it to its original author.  It is, however, appropriate enough to be worth stealing, because there is no church I know that forces your gaze vertically upwards in wonderment like this one.

I have shown you this wonderful interior before, but I make no apology for giving you some more images of it to enjoy, poor and inadequate though they are to convey the extraordinary beauty of this incredible 13th century treasure.

The nave of Amiens Cathedral, looking towards the apse

The nave of Amiens Cathedral, looking towards the apse

The exceptionally high vaulting over the nave of Amiens Cathedral

The exceptionally high vaulting over the nave of Amiens Cathedral

For such a tall cathedral, the main weight-bearing pillars of Amiens Cathedral give the impression that they are lighter than they really are.

For such a tall cathedral, the main weight-bearing pillars of Amiens Cathedral give the impression that they are lighter than they really are.

The outer north aisle of Amiens Cathedral

The outer north aisle of Amiens Cathedral

The long south transept of Amiens Cathedral

The long south transept of Amiens Cathedral

The southern side of the nave of Amiens Cathedral, looking towards the apse.

The southern side of the nave of Amiens Cathedral, looking towards the apse.

Putting up a good front

To me, it’s a little disappointing when you find out that an artist or architect has presented you with a really good front view of something, but didn’t take the same care with the reverse view.

Here is the quite impressive freestanding arch that greets you at the main entrance to the Basilica in Toulouse.  Ornately carved, of fine materials.

The entrance arch to the Basilica in Toulouse, France.

The entrance arch to the Basilica in Toulouse, France.

And here is how the same thing looks as you leave the church.  If they ran out of money when the thing was only half completed, then whoever built it was guilty only of very bad planning.  But if it was intentional, then shame on them.  Whatever respect and positive feelings you might have had on the way in disappear as soon as you step back outside the door of the church.  It’s like seeing the everyday face of a clown without any makeup, they’re just not a clown any more.

the much more prosaic rear of the entrance arch at the Basilica in Toulouse, France

The much more prosaic rear of the entrance arch at the Basilica in Toulouse, France

St Peter’s in Rome has a very large number of lifesize stone figures, mostly by Bernini, along the front of the cathedral and right round the Piazza in front of it.  These figures are made to be seen from a distance, never close up, so there is not the same fine detailed finish that he might have put into some of his other sculptures.  Not only would that be a pointless effort, it would actually be counterproductive, as John Ruskin noted in his examination of the art and architecture of Venice.  He observed that the visual impression created by a very detailed carving when seen from a distance was actually less convincing than a sculpture that was intended only to be seen from a distance and was deliberately carved with a coarser level of detail.

A few of the decorative sculptures over the entrance to St Peter's Cathedral in Rome

A few of the decorative sculptures over the entrance to St Peter’s Cathedral in Rome

Seen from above and behind, though, from the top of the dome, we can see that Bernini has left the backs of his sculptures more crudely finished than the fronts, but we can forgive him for that.  The sculptor probably surmised that many fewer people would ever see his work from that angle, and in the 16th century he also didn’t expect anybody to be looking at them through telephoto lenses.

The rear view of the decorative figures on the front of St Peter's in Rome

The rear view of the decorative figures on the front of St Peter’s in Rome

Bernini didn’t treat the occasional rear-viewer of his figures with the contempt shown in this much harder to justify example, though, which is nothing but front.  It’s possible that when this sculpture was commissioned for St Paul’s cathedral in London there was no intention of ever letting the public climb up into the dome so that they could look down on this piece from behind, but even so…

A very unhappy rear view of one of the sculpted decorations of St Paul's cathedral in London

A very unhappy rear view of one of the sculpted decorations of St Paul’s cathedral in London

St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne

This very sombre and imposing building is the Catholic cathedral of Melbourne, Australia.  It claims to be the largest church building anywhere in the world that was started and completed in the 19thC.  In style it’s a reasonably predictable Victorian Christian Gothic style of church, but it is quite untypical in some other ways.

The main spire of the 19thC Victorian Gothic Melbourne cathedral.

The main spire of the 19thC Victorian Gothic Melbourne cathedral.

The facade has matching spires, similar but not quite the same as the bigger spire over the transept.

The facade also has matching spires, similar but not quite the same as the bigger spire over the transept.

For instance, the main stone used for the outside is almost coal black, although it is actually a locally-quarried stone known as ‘bluestone’.

The outside of Melbourne Cathedral is rock-faced bluestone

The outside of Melbourne Cathedral is rock-faced bluestone

Unusually, for a gothic cathedral, the roof vaulting over the nave is all timber rather than stone.  And, despite the enormous range of Australian native timbers that could have been used, the roof of this cathedral is a mixture of Oregon pine from the USA and Kauri pine from New Zealand.

The roof over the nave is all timber, unusual for a gothic style cathedral

The roof over the nave is all timber, unusual for a gothic style cathedral

These very distinctive ceramic tiles were manufactured by Mintons in England, and then shipped halfway round the world to decorate this floor.

The floor is all ceramic tiles, not stone, and laid with this distinctive pattern.

The floor is all ceramic tiles, not stone, and laid with this distinctive pattern.

Melbourne Cathedral might not be a spectacular gothic-style church compared to many of those built much earlier in Europe, but it was an incredibly ambitious project for its time.  The site for what was soon to become the city of Melbourne was only chosen in 1834, so when this building was being planned fifteen or so years later, it was an extraordinarily young city, and it was still a penal colony.  More free settlers than transported felons were arriving by then, admittedly, but the prosperity of the Australian Gold Rush years of 1851-71 were still in the future, and Melbourne was still a small place, with only about 75,000 catholics in total.

Looking west along the southern aisle, from the ambulatory of Melbourne cathedral

Looking west along the southern aisle, from the ambulatory of Melbourne cathedral

What confidence in the future those pioneering Australian Catholic settlers must have had.

The arrival of St Mark

Here is the glorious cathedral dedicated to St Mark, in Venice.  It is one of my most favourite buildings in the entire world, and its exterior has frequently been renovated and redecorated as fashions have changed over the nearly 1000 years since it was first built.  Up close, it’s a patchwork of different materials, which presents as a surprisingly cohesive whole when you stand back and look at it from a bit of a distance.

The splendid cathedral of St Mark in Venice, complete with what the mayor of Venice once called 'flying rats' in the Piazza

The splendid cathedral of St Mark in Venice, complete with what the mayor of Venice once called ‘flying rats’ in the Piazza

Interestingly, though, in the hemispherical lunette that is above the leftmost arch of the largest five at ground level is one of the first mosaic panels that were originally created by Byzantine artists. It has survived unchanged, and it shows us what the front of this church looked like in the 13th century.

This lunette contains the oldest of all the mosaic scenes on the front of St Mark's cathedral, dating back to the 13thC

This lunette contains the oldest of all the mosaic scenes on the front of St Mark’s cathedral, dating back to the 13thC

We know the mosaic could not have been installed before the 13th century, because we can see four brightly gilded horses mounted on the balcony above the central door, and they were stolen and brought back to Venice when the Venetians sacked Constantinople in 1204 AD.  These original horses are still at the Cathedral but they are inside the museum behind the balcony.  The much duller bronze horses that are now on display outside are actually fibreglass replicas and they are not gilded at all.

Underneath the three of the five domes that are visible from Piazza San Marco we can see five rounded decorative panels, which now have ornate points added to them, the largest in the centre today showing a starry sky with the winged lion, the emblem of the city (see first picture above).  It’s also clear from this image, that this church’s original brick facade had already been clad in most of the different coloured bits of old marble and other stone that were filched by the Venetians from all over the Mediterranean.

The domes of San Marco as they were in the 13thC.  The horses mounted over the balcony were brightly gilded and were made in Greece in the 2ndC BC, and stolen by Venice from Constantinople in 1204 AD

The domes of San Marco as they were in the 13thC. The horses mounted over the balcony were brightly gilded and were made in Greece in the 2ndC BC, and stolen by Venice from Constantinople in 1204 AD

Beneath the massive central image of Christ Pantocrator – which is sadly no longer up there – we can see the coffin containing the body of St Mark the Evangelist himself being carried into the cathedral by clerics, supposedly for the first time, where it was to be interred.  The saint seems to be in remarkably good shape considering that: a) he died sometime in the first century AD; b) his corpse wasn’t brought to Venice until it was already 750 years old; and c) the church he was originally buried in, 400 years before this picture was made, was torn down and replaced with this one in the 11th century, by which time no-one could remember exactly where Mark’s body had been buried.

The large image of Christ is no longer there, and below it we can see the body of St Mark in its coffin being carried into the church for consecration and burial.

The large image of Christ is no longer there, and below it we can see the body of St Mark in its coffin being carried into the church for consecration and burial.