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.

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

Evangelical symbols

Speaking of the winged creatures symbolically associated with the four gospel writers (see yesterday’s post), you don’t often see them used outside of churches specifically dedicated to one or other of them, and frequently not even then.  Venice has made a very visible multi-formed logo for itself out of the winged Lion of St Mark, but the others are less well known.

Matthew’s symbol is a winged man – not an angel – symbolising the human nature of Christ.  Mark, of course, has the winged lion, symbolising Christ as King.  Luke is represented by a winged bull or calf, symbolising the sacrifice of Christ.  And John’s symbol is an eagle, symbolising the omnipotent all-seeing eye of God.

Unusually shown together, here are all four evangelistic symbols as they are represented on oval lozenge panels set up high on the four columns surrounding the altar inside architect Antoni Gaudí’s masterpiece in Barcelona, the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia.

Matthew's symbol is a winged man - the humanity of Christ

Matthew’s symbol is a winged man – the humanity of Christ

Mark's symbol is the winged lion - Christ as King

Mark’s symbol is the winged lion – Christ as King

Luke is represented by a winged calf - the sacrifice of Christ

Luke is represented by a winged calf – the sacrifice of Christ

John's symbol is an eagle - the omnipotent eye of God

John’s symbol is an eagle – the omnipotent eye of God

Inspecting the work in progress

This scene, painted in 1896 by French academic painter Édouard Debat-Ponsan, is a fairly ordinary Salon painting of its time.  But I like it because it illustrates clearly that so much of the wonderful art produced until very recently was not the result of the personal efforts of our modern day idea of ‘Artists’.

It was instead a product made to order by skilled craftsmen and women (but mostly men, of course, opportunities for women in most of the arts were typically very limited), who were lowly workers employed by the wealthy and powerful.  And the richest and most powerful were very often the religious leaders, as in this painting.

A bishop inspects the progress of a sculpture being worked on by three stone-carvers

A bishop inspects the progress of a sculpture he has commissioned that is being worked on by three stone-carvers

It also reminds me of the Monty Python sketch where John Cleese, as the Pope, is berating Michaelangelo for exercising his artistic license by painting a Last Supper that has 28 disciples, and not one, but three, Christs.

Michaelangelo protests, “But it works, mate, the fat one balances the two skinny ones.”

“Look here”, shouts the angry Pope, “I want one Christ, twelve disciples, and no kangaroo, by Thursday, or you don’t get paid!”

Eric Idle, as MIchaelangelo, responds “You don’t want an artist, mate, you want a bloody photographer!”