Tag Archives: architecture

A Few Joys of Paris

If, perhaps, you’ve only dipped into the Paris posts for The Metro of Doom, Adventures in Tea, and The Heat or not viewed my Flickr photostream, you may think I’m not enjoying my August in the capital of France. Such would be a misconception built around how easy it is to write wry, dramatic blog posts about the lesser things in life.

While I do not enjoy the Métro and probably never will — I dislike the heat (as you know, gentle reader) as well as crowds — there are many parts of Paris life that I have enjoyed, such as the aforeposted Galerie Mazarine and la Salle Ovale, downstairs in another wing of the same site of the Bibliotheque nationale, or the Gothic churches, not only the aforeposted St Denis and Notre Dame but also St Séverin and Ste Clotilde.

The cafés, although expensive, are a treat of Frenchness. You can sit yourself down with a 4 euro cup of coffee and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People et vous vous amusez. For hours. On that one cup of coffee. But I haven’t spent too much time or money at the cafés, due not to lack of desire but lack of time; I am here for French class in the mornings, research in the afternoons and braindeath in the evenings.

Therefore, I more commonly frequent les boulangeries de Paris. A boulangerie is a bakery. All of them sell bread, primarily baguettes, and most also include patisserie (pastry) and viennoiserie (crossaints, pains au chocolat, etc). I have tended to slip either into my neighbourhood artisan boulangerie for a baguette/pain au chocolat/pain suisse or into a location of the chain Paul for the same.

My first experience of Paul was with my fellow Edinburghers shortly after arriving here. Out of zeal for the name of the thing, I purchased une baguette Charlemagne. It was still hot, and as I enjoyed my steaming bread, I imagined the Holy Roman Emperor clad in eighth-century garb with a long, skinny baguette in hand. It’s a jolly image, one that stays in my fecund brain each time I order a baguette Charlemagne.

Another aspect of daily life I quite enjoy in Paris is the architecture. A simple block of flats that in some cities I know would be dressed stone/concrete straight and flat all the way up will in Paris have a few frills and windowboxes. Between this reality and the Gothic churches dotting the place, Paris is visually pleasing. As I walk around, I need only look up to find something to delight the eye and warm the heart in the deadening August heat that leaves my heat cold and misanthropic.

Music on the Métro makes it more bearable. There’s no guarantee you’ll get music, of course. And most of the time I ride the Métro, there is barely room to stand as we sweat against one another through the subterranean world beneath the city. Nonetheless, one of my first nights in Paris a very happy-looking woman with an accordion got into the train and began playing les chansons traditionelles for us. It was great! I gave her some change. This happy occurance has transpired a few more times for me, and it always makes me smile. Ethan claims to have encountered a jazz ensemble on the Métro. It certainly beats the beggars. (I still don’t like the Métro. Maybe if it had as many seats as the Toronto Subway…)

Besides the sites, parks, and museums, besides some good times with my fellow Edinburghers and classmates, these are a few of the notable things that have made Paris a lovely place to be.

St. Denis and Notre Dame

When the great minds of the so-called ‘Renaissance’ wanted to denigrate the art, architecture, and bookhands of the previous generation(s), they chose the word ‘Gothic’, as opposed to their re-birth of alleged Graeco-Roman ‘humanism’ in architecture, handwriting, and the visual arts.

In what follows, do take a look at the hyperlinks, for they take you to images on my Flickr photostream; the Notre Dame photos are not up yet, though! I am having trouble with file sizes and WordPress, soo….

I have recently visited two Gothic masterpieces here in Paris, Basilique St. Denis and Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Paris (the world-famous cathedral). Neither is worth denigrating (nor is the mindblowing Duomo of Milan).

The Basilique St Denis is north of the centre of Paris, in one of the <em>banlieux</em> where you feel like you’re in a mélange of French North Africa and French Subsahara with European architecture everywhere. In the Middle Ages, this was not Paris. The community would have arisen up here around the basilica and monastery.

St. Denis was, as tradition has it, founded by St. Denis, third-century bishop of Lutetia (Paris) who was beheaded on Monmartre (Mons Martyrorum) with two companions. Having been beheaded, he picked up his head and walked with it to where he wished himself to be buried. That was up in St. Denis. So they buried him in what would become his basilica’s crypt.

True story, if Hincmar of Reims (806-882) has anything to say about it.

St. Denis was conflated with another person of the same name, (Pseudo)Dionysius the Areopagite, writer of early sixth-century pseudepigrapha of a very mystical nature worth a read or two. It’s about reaching the uncreated Light and all that jazz.

So in the 12th century, Abbot Suger of the monastery at St. Denis decided to make a cathedral of light in honour of St. Denis, theologian of the light of God.

He (re?)built the chevet, the entry point of the church before you reach the narthex as well as a double ambulatory. An ambulatory is a place for walking behind the apse of a church (an apse is the round bit that sticks out like a bump at the back, where the high altar is in traditionally-arranged churches), and a double ambulatory has an extra arcade full of altars for the celebration of private masses.

This space is full of light, because a pointed Gothic arch can span a very wide distance, leaving room for naught but coloured glass.

Later, Suger’s successors rebuilt the Carolingian and Romanesque portions in the mid-twelfth century. This includes the high and lofty nave that reaches in a light, airy manner into the reaches of the heavens above, as well as the addition of transepts. If you imagine a mediaeval cathedral as a cross, transepts are the arms of the cross. Using the weightlessness of Gothic architecture, the transepts include very beautiful rose windows.

St. Denis basically blew my mind, architecturally. It is light and airy and is ribbed with magnificence.

Two nights ago, while Jennie was visiting, we turned up in Notre Dame during one of the Masses for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. We thus had the opportunity to visit the cathedral and experience Gothic architecture the way it was meant to be experienced — with choir and priests and bishops chanting out prayers and scripture readings and alleluias:

The nave was full, so I am unable to compare the height and grandeur of Notre Dame with the height and grandeur of St Denis. But here as well we have the high, fluted columns stretching to pointed arches and walls made of stained glass. We have rose windows.

And we have the chapels of a double ambulatory.

These chapels at Notre Dame are interesting. I do not know whether the painting is original, but I do not doubt that they represent an image of how such places were intended to look — full of colour and vibrance, dazzling the eye with the wonder of God’s good creation.

When I visit these large, airy Gothic places, I cannot side with anyone who would think poorly of them. They are magnificent, whether Notre Dame, St Denis, York Minster, Rosslyn Chapel, the Milanese Duomo!

I recommend a visit.