Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Hello Earth... Depth, Darkness and Light

My favourite glass Christmas bauble that I love to stare into....
Sometimes we just seem to be scurrying around so much, weighed down by our allotted portion of preoccupations but it would be more sensible to just slow down to put the whole set-up into perspective, although that doesn't always appear possible. We are just a part of a vast entity but we lose sight of that, and do not have the time to appreciate the simple beauty around us.

Listening to the mesmerising music of Kate Bush's Hello Earth takes you away from the haste and hassle of the moment.

The beautiful video above (not always available due to copyright issues) shows the wonder of our planet and then the final line of the lyrics, in German, Tiefer, tiefer, irgendwo in der Tiefe gibt es einLicht that translates as "Deeper, deeper, somewhere in the depth there is a light." help us see through darkness, real or perceived....

This music was partly inspired by the Georgian-style chants that form the soundtrack of Werner Herzog's 1979 film, 'Nosferatu the Vampyre', composed by the West German group Popol Vuh, from the album Brüder des Schattens – Söhne des Lichts ("Brothers of the Shadow - Sons of Light"). This, too, is incredibly haunting. The unique quality of the music, combined with the atmospheric visual impact of certain scenes of the film, make parts of Nosferatu very moving. Okay, probably not the most joyous of experiences, especially the iconic danse macabre scene, but shadows always make you turn towards the light. Anyway, perhaps the message of Nosferatu is that while life is inevitably cut short, whatever its length, it is better to have that existence composed of waves of emotion, sensation, movement and light rather than an eternal non-life of cold isolation, shady statis and exclusion.
We should all be dancing, in fact....

Along with jars of seaglass...

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Mermaids in the MUDO at Beauvais - Les Sirènes au Musée de l'Oise à Beauvais....

Main building of the Episcopal Palace at Beauvais
Just opposite the romanesque Basse-Œuvre church that is attached to the Saint Pierre cathedral at Beauvais is the Musée de l’Oise (Le MUDO). This museum is housed in the former episcopal palace, the residence of the bishops of Beauvais, counts and peers of the realm, and dates back to the 12th century. It was initially built under the orders of Henri de France, son of King Louis VI ‘Le Gros’, who was Bishop of Beauvais before becoming Archibishop of Reims in 1162. A fortified entrance flanked by two towers was constructed in the 14th century in order to impose the episcopal authority on the unruly inhabitants of Beauvais, who had led a protest riot over the issue of tax increases. The construction work was financed by a fine levied on the bourgeois so it is probably safe to assume that the towers would have been a source of resentment for the people of the town.

Passing through this impressive porterie today, the visitor enters the enclosure of the palace that ‘Le grand bâtisseur’, Louis de Villiers, restored in the 16th century. The ornate gardens set off the elegance of the main building which combined flamboyant gothic and Renaissance features to great effect.

Although I did visit the museum’s art collection, it was in fact, part of the mural decorations in the original 14th century towers that caught my attention far more than some of those stodgy early-19th century Neoclassical paintings. Within one of the fortified towers, with its fairy-tale pointed slate roof is a discrete treasure - four ephemeral mermaid figures that seem to float above us on the vaulted ceiling. This fresco with its enigmatic vision of feminity offered my eyes a welcome respite from some of those hefty, heaving female forms of the MUDO collection.

This ceiling painting probably dates back to 1310-1320, shortly after the construction of the entrance. The function of the rooms within the towers is not clear. The presence of latrines and fireplaces indicates that they were inhabited, and it is assumed that some members of the bishop’s household occupied these spaces, rather than the main body of the palace itself. Were they used by members of the clergy or by the wealthy, prestigious family of the bishop, Simon de Clermont de Nesle? The nature of the intended audience would generally affect how the mermaids were to be interpreted; the simple presence of these fishy females was always significant.

Our modern-day image of the mermaid is that of a magical symbol of beauty, peace, light and grace, often associated with rainbows, unicorns and the like. However, these mythological hybrids have a far murkier reputation and legends abound of their sinister practices in cultures around the world. In the epic poem Odyssey, Homer’s malefic mermaids lured sailors onto the rocks with their bewitching siren songs, driving the unsuspecting males to their death. For Ovid, the sirens were the companions of the young Persephone who was destined to be the Queen of the Underworld. It was Demeter, her mother, who had given the sirens wings in order to search for her daughter who had been abducted by Hades. By the Middle Ages, mermaids had largely lost their wings, but had kept their symbolic fish tail and their wicked ways. The mermaid became symbolic of the lascivious female in general, flaunting her feminine charms to ensnare any man foolish enough to fall prey to her attributes. Most mermaid figures were shown playing musical instruments, as is the case here in Beauvais, and often carry a mirror and comb with which to preen themselves. The tempting yet treacherous nature of the mermaid had already been documented in the Bestiaire d’Amour of Richard de Fournival, dating back to the mid 13th century.

        "There are three kinds of siren ; two of which are half-woman, half-fish. The third is
         half-woman, half-bird… Their melody is so pleasant that nobody can hear it without wanting to                        draw close." 

Richard de Fournival, Bestiaire d'amour, 
Were these Beauvais sirens intended to warn the unsuspecting abstinent clergy of the dangers of the flesh, from a moral, God-fearing point of view ? Or, on the contrary, were they supposed to titillate the senses and satisfy aesthetic tastes of the profane red-blooded male? Many private chapels of the period were decorated with musical angels, that partly reflected the custom for chivalry and courtoisie with grand musical celebrations. Perhaps the image of mermaid musicians was used as a mischievous take on the musicians – les ménestrels - of the time? Certainly, the Middle Ages saw a fascination with many hybrid creatures and shape-shifters that embodied the ambigious, scandalous or sinful aspects of life itself. Many of these beasts would appear as marginalia, that is to say, figures decorating the borders of the main body of illuminated texts. These ornate manuscripts served the same role as stained-glass windows – informing a largely illiterate public through visual representation – and these marginalia underlined their central message.

In the tower, however, the mermaids do not occupy a marginal position, but rather a key one as they float around the intersection of the rib-vault ceiling. They seem to be the main focus of the artist rather than a quirky after-thought, unlike the usual drôleries (grotesques). Furthermore, these mermaids do not appear to be particularly ill-intentioned, even if they do have the long golden hair, voluptuous nude forms and long scaly, swishing tails of their evil sisters.

The cornemuse (left)  and the viol
Today, the room itself seems rather sober, which seems to makes the ceiling glow all the more. The bold ochre and terracotta colours are set next to slate-grey and the strange dotted decorations along the ribs and background seem to bring out the the curved, pale bodies of the mermaids themselves. Applied a secco on the stone itself, the painting has survived the centuries, unlike the rest of the original paint work in the room. Indeed, restoration work in 2013 revealed traces of decoration on the walls and around the windows that indicate that the room must have been as bright and eye-catching as the ceiling and would have created a very different impression to the one today.

The viol
The musical instruments that the sirènes hold lead us to further questions. One mermaid plays a large cornemuse, a French equivalent of the bagpipes, whilst another holds a viol, a violin-shaped instrument. A third musician plays a galoubet or flûte de tambourin, which is a three-hole pipe wind instrument, intended to be played in one hand whilst the other beats a snare drum – the 'tabor' –from the French word for drum; tambour. Finally, a fourth mermaid holds onto the elongated form of a trompette marine, appropriate in the context, one would think. However, the name is misleading since this instrument is neither related to the sea nor the brass family.

The trompette marine
This is in fact a bowed string instrument, producing the sound of a trumpet so that it was often used in convents instead of actual trumpets which were generally played by men alone. Instead of any association with wanton female seduction, the marine trumpet appears to have been closely linked to the culte marial, the Catholic devotion to the Virgin Mary. Marine was itself a deformation of the adjective marial ; in German, the instrument is known as the marientrompete or the nonnengeige – the nuns’ fiddle. Originally a monocorde instrument whose string was plucked, as in the painting here, later the marine trumpet had several strings played with a bow.

                                  EVO & L'Almodí - Alleluia / Quia ergo femina (6/10) - Auditorio Ciudad de León 7/5/2011

So all in all, these four mermaids continue to taunt their viewers, though not in the same manner as they originally did. We may not be sensitive to their particular powers of seduction today in the same way as our ancestors and certainly do not need to be warned of the dangers of the flesh but these mysterious figures still fascinate us. The simple fact that they have survived all these centuries makes their beauty all the more remarkable and humbling.

The galoubet or flûte de tambourin

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Joy And Sorrow - Chrysanthemums for La Toussaint...

In many parts of the world, the first of November marks All Saints' Day. To remember those no longer here at La Toussaint, here in France it is customary to mark their passing with pots of elaborate chrysanthemum flowers. These seem to me to be a perfect celebration of Life, although the association with Death itself means that many French consider the chrysanthemum to have morbid connotations. Such beautiful flowers just fill me with joy, even more so since the weather is generally cold at this time of year and the evenings have drawn in. They are simply bursts of light and warmth.

Whilst considering the subject of Life and Death, here is the poem Joy And Sorrow by Gibran Khalil Gibran.

Then a woman said, "Speak to us of Joy and Sorrow." 
And he answered: 
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. 
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. 
And how else can it be? 

The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. 
Is not the cup that hold your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter's oven? 
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives? 

When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. 

When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight. 

Some of you say, "Joy is greater than sorrow," and others say, "Nay, sorrow is the greater." 
But I say unto you, they are inseparable. 
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed. 

Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy. 
Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced. 

When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.

Joy And Sorrow Chapter VIII - Gibran Khalil Gibran - Lebanese poet and painter et peintre libanais, 1883-1931

Monday, October 31, 2016

St Peter's Cathedral at Beauvais - The Struggle of Architecture over Gravity...

After visiting some of the great early cathedrals – St Denis, Noyon, Laon – I was eager to see what makes the incredible edifice at Beauvais so unique. Well, remarkable it certainly is.

The vaulted interior of the choir of the cathedral of St Peter of Beauvais, soaring up some 48.50metres means that it is the highest in the world. This was in no way incidental or accidental, but was part of an aim to leave a mark by constructing a spire «so tall, that once finished, those who see it will think that we were insane». Until the collapse of a vertiginous central tower of 153metres in 1573, this cathedral had been the tallest human construction anywhere, even overshadowing St Peter’s in Rome.

The price to pay for such an act of hubris would be high and the sum due has still not been fully paid off. Beauvais cathedral is proof that pride does indeed come before a fall This crazy desire to build a divine edifice on a foundation of almost sinful worldly ambition has affected every single aspect of its architecture and fate to this very day.

When approaching the cathedral today, you are obviously struck by its sheer size. The elaborate chevet on the eastern side of the edifice, housing the apse, choir and radiating chapels, has an imposing structure that looks like some weird sci-fi Gothic rocket launcher, if such a thing could exist!

Your eyes are drawn to the metal rods that criss-cross and span the buttresses , which themselves resemble strange blades of stone. The whole seems to release a strange tension, as these vertical spears rise into the skies straight above, yet seem to curl inward slightly towards the summit.

Walking on around the perimeter of the cathedral, the striking Gothic and Renaissance features catch your attention, with the beautiful carved wooden doors on the northern side and with the magnificent sculpture of main entrance on the southern facade.

It seems odd to see a 10th century Romanesque church attached to the western flank of the cathedral itself, but it is the architectural structure just beyond this, trussed up by vast wooden joists and partly covered in slate that gives the distinct impression that something is somehow amiss. You can say that again…

If we are still able to see the old Romanesque edifice today -the Notre-Dame de la Basse Œuvre - this is due to the fact that the Gothic cathedral of the Haute Œuvre was never fully completed. The nave of the later work was destined to occupy the site of this early edifice, but lack of sufficient funds meant that the cathedral of Saint Peter is lacking this significant element.

Without a nave, the building is strangely truncated, but the impact of this architectural omission does not just concern spatial aesthetics. Furthermore, the problems that stemmed from this missing link have never been fully resolved. This is an ongoing story and whilst your eye might get distracted from the bigger picture when admiring the architectural details on the exterior facades , a glimpse inside the cathedral soon sets the record straight…

When the Romanesque Basse-Œuvre church was virtually destroyed by fire in 1225, the decision was taken to replace this Carolingian architecture by an ambitious Gothic edifice that would surpass the others of Northern France. In this way, the cathedral would be an appropriate reflection of the prosperity and importance of Beauvais that had grown with flourishing trade and a prestigious diocese that had significant religious and political power.

Situated on a crossroads of commercial routes, this ‘ville drapante’ benefitted from the considerable revenue generated by its textile industry. Work commenced on this new edifice, Saint Peter, using the technological experience that had been gleaned from the building of the first generation of Gothic cathedrals. Construction of the building relied on massive blocks of local chalk stone. These were set onto foundations that went down more than 10 metres in order to rest on the solid rock formation below.

Not only was the Beauvais choir to be far taller than those of its great predecessors, the battresses were to be thinner too, enabling maximum luminosity from the dazzling heights above. This initial construction period was realised relatively smoothly and from 1260 services started to be held in the completed choir area.

During some 12 years, from the end of work in 1272 until one fateful day in 1284, the Beauvais edifice must have been the glory of the town. Due to its great height, the cathedral rose above the plateau of the surrounding landscape, leaving it exposed to the high winds that would be funnelled towards its massive form and through its structure.

A November storm over 700 years ago saw the collapse of the choir. The fine buttresses buckled under the pressure exerted by the gusts of wind, in turn causing the vaulted ceiling to crash down onto the bays below, shattering the stained-glass windows in the process. Serious structural conclusions were drawn and the whole was rebuilt, to the same dizzy height but this time with walls that were thickened, pillars that were doubled and the inclusion of far more columns and vaulted partitions in the choir and chevet.

Restoration was finally completed around 1347, but the plague and the One Hundred Years War interrupted any further undertakings. It was only in 1500 that work was started on a transept to complete the edifice, some 150 years after the edification of the choir that had proved to be so troublesome.

Unfortunately, not all the lessons had been learnt in all those intervening years. The cathedral would continue to be blighted by the same weaknesses in its architectural structure which stemmed from the same old flaws in human nature; blind ambition arising from vanity and pride.

When it was decided that a lantern tower in the Flamboyant style would crown the transept crossing, it went without saying that this would indeed tower over any other similar structure in Christendom. Over 50 years, the spire rose up to reach its final height of 150 metres in 1569.

Carrying out this architectural feat demanded great skill and considerable sums of money, so much so that the nave was never actually constructed, for the lack of means. In this way, the weight and force of the spire were not offset by this essential supporting structure which would have stabilized the whole.

The fragility of the cathedral spire was soon apparent and in 1572 the iron cross that had been mounted on the top of the lantern tower was removed as it was considered to be too heavy. Despite this precaution, nothing could protect the cathedral from the elements. Yet again, the cathedral of Beauvais fell prey to the resonating winds. During Mass on Ascension Day, the whole spire collapsed just four years after completion, bringing down with it the tower, surrounding vaults and parts of the transept.

Reconstruction work followed over the next thirty years, but this time there was no spire; the money had run out. A simple wooden vault was put in the place of the tower. The nave itself was never completed and this western facade was later covered by the slates that we see today.

It was the southern facade that housed the main entrance to the cathedral for dignitaries and great processions. Despite the ravages of the Revolutionary years from 1789, this is still very beautiful today. Sadly the statues from the niches of the facade were destroyed and the furniture and artifacts within the cathedral were likewise removed.

Sans-culottes pillaged the building and for some time St Peter became a temple dedicated to Reason. The sculpted fleur-de-lys, symbol of the French monarchy, was effaced by the revolutionaries but several of the royal salamanders, with their tails coiled into a figure-of-eight, still hide on the facades, as emblems of François I.

Other parts of the cathedral facades seem to have escaped all damage during the Revolution. On the northern side, there is the richly-sculpted Tree of Life tympanum and just below are the wooden doors of the portal, built in 1530.

 Whilst the style and mood of these are Gothic, the shells that feature below the saints hint to the influence of the Renaissance. Eugène Viollet-le-Duc greatly admired the cathedral for its beauty – especially that of its choir, calling it «The Parthenon of French Gothic». Later in the 19th century, an impressive astronomical clock was introduced, and insured a further influx of visitors.

All in all, the greatest threat to the cathedral of Beauvais never really came from the Revolution… In view of the structural weaknesses that have blighted its long existence, it is a sheer miracle that the cathedral of Beauvais is still standing.

Over the centuries, the risk of collapse has been overlooked, just as it was throughout its construction years. Periodically, the metal supports between the structural features of the cathedral were removed, deemed inaesthetic and unnecessary, but were quickly reinstated, for obvious reasons!

More recently, other structural problems have appeared and solutions duly found, but the presence of huge wood and steel trusses inside the cathedral leave you in no doubt to the gravity of the situation. Without these, the transept would surely have caved in during the 1990s and strange floor braces rise out at 45°, to provide further support, should need be.

 Like the majority of old edifices today, the whole cathedral does look a little run-down, with leaking drains allowing water to stain the stonework and plants to grow from cracks and crevices.

I wish more money could be poured into the upkeep of these fantastic marks of civilisation, even those who have siphoned off so many funds during their lives. The cathedral of Saint Peter must be the ultimate example of a high-maintenance existence!