May 13, Chartres

I hadn’t realized today was Ascension Day, a Big Deal in France a banik holiday, with some shops closed, some more pointedly open, etc. It’s the cleansing number “40” again, forty days after Easter this time, and Jesus ascended into heaven. The cathedral is deeply associated with Mary; it is, after all, Notre Dame de Chartres, and is particularly associated with Mary’s assumption into heaven, which is celebrated, I think, August 15. So the thing is, Jesus, and a few other prophets that Mr. Miller mentioned, ascended by their own steam, but Mary had to be taken up by the powers of others, where she was crowned Queen of Heaven and all the saints. Yes, it’s irritating. grrr.

So today was my last day at the Cathedral, and I would have to say that the Cathedral won. (though in a larger sense, it’s perhaps the pigeons that were finally triumphant.) I studied the stained glass windows. Yielding graciously to binoculars and written explanations of the scenes portrayed on them, yet they remain most perfect as slightly-remote, unknowable panels of sheer beauty that invoke appreciation, not understanding.  I looked closely at the choir screen. It’s a U-shaped structure, curving around the back (altar, east-facing end). There are 41 sculpted scenes of the lives of Christ and Mary, set within a huge ornately-carved wall, embellished with smaller statues and patterns. Each of the 41 (cleansing number plus one for luck?) is a complex, perfectly-carved tableau. The figures seem about 2/3 life size, and 4-6 figures could be gracefully slotted into a tiny space. However was the carving done? Various sculptors worked on the figures, and the whole took 200 years to complete. The work began in the early 16th Century, so purists complain that it isn’t Gothic. It isn’t, but it’s beautiful, and it fits the entire cathedral much better than the overblown rococco 18th Century high altar, which is also themed to the Assumption of Mary. more grrrr. The high altar was shrouded to protect it from repairs, though I wanted to see the 8th Century altar that was beneath it (if possible). I also asked about the St. Piat Chapel. Ferme! Dommage.

And looking closely at the choir screen, I was noticing the losses–lots of entire little statues–I did get a photo of my favorite, an almost-complete one of a peasant girl. (The clothing on the statues here is often more contemporary–16th Century, than classical biblical garb. It works perfectly.)  Lots of missing heads, hands, and arms,  other auxiliary body parts. I think Mr. Miller implied damage was done to the cathedral during the Revolution, though the building itself was saved. (The committee charged with planning its total destruction managed, in the way of the very best committees, to do nothing at all until cooler heads prevailed.) I noticed most of the losses could be reached by hand–this statue would look wonderful in the front hall–and the higher-up artworks were more often intact. I also studied the tiny carvings, the double patterns carved up the sides of pillars, often graceful, fantastical birds, lots of cherubs and some amazing fish. Each was perfectly designed and executed with exquisite whimsy, and probably, invariably, are overlooked.

Looking at the outside (cleaning would help a whole lot. The cleaner bits were much easier to examine) I found a couple of sly sculptures of a monkey or little monster, perched way high, peering down directly, smirking, on the observer, obviously knowing it’s safe there, and no way could the clumsy admirer climb up for a closer look.

There was a concert here on my last day. It was the choral group from the University of Kentucky, performing in four major French cathedrals. They were well received, and very well-trained. I think the acoustics just sucked up all the sound, and I wondered about the song selection. I think I prefered the ancient music concert I heard last time.

Overall, I got better at seeing the pieces of the Cathedral–watching where the size and color of the stones changed, indicating something built at a different time. The pastiche effect actually improves the whole. Just as scars and wrinkles can make a person look more authentic and interesting, the history of the cathedral, as shown on its skin, elevates, immensly, the overall impression.

And a last bit about the Cathedral. The Gothic style is vertical, all the emphasis on height. This was especially true because the footprint of the building had been already established, so to increase size the only dimension to increase was the height. And so they did. And you will find the enormously tall pillars, a round pillar surrounding smaller octagon pillars, or a huge octagon with supporting round pillars, but, as Mr. Miller pointed out, the pillars were constructed as horizontal blocks. A slab cut to the template of all the pillars, main and surrounding, is piled on another of the exact shape, and another, and so on. I found myself looking for the joints. The horizontal was used to build the vertical. There must be a lesson there.

Had a fabulous meal at Le Boeuf Couronne last night. Zut! And forgot to take photos, I was so eager to dive in. A nice salad starter, an interesting lemoned chicken bits and veggies wrapped in parchment paper with delicious sauce, and a rice pudding/ice cream dessert served, inexplicably, in a little old-fashioned canning jar. I ate every drop. I chatted with a Dutch cyclist who was also complaining about the cold. He, too, was wearing everything he had with him.

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