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Notes on the Geography of France: Paris 1: Gothic

It's gray and dull here in K-Town, but the weekend ahead is free, so we'll take a train Friday afternoon to Paris and return Monday. What to do with those two days? Forget shopping. Forget museums. Forget clubbing (whatever that is). We'll see as much as we can of the city's architectural history. It's November, but you won't need a jacket.

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We begin at St. Denis, the church where most French kings are buried. It's five miles north of the Louvre in the very gritty municipality of St Denis. Andrew Ayers, author of the very useful Architecture of Paris (2004), writes that St. Denis "combined for the first time in one edifice pointed arches, rib vaults, vault responds and flying buttresses in a coherent stylistic and technical synthesis, and can be considered the first major edifice of the early Gothic" (p. 289).

In short, this is the birthplace of that long-legged style. Note the tripartite division of the facade, useful symbolically as a reminder of the Trinity and useful practically for traffic control at a center of pilgrimage. The crenellations are there not for defense but as a reminder of the heavenly city of walled Jerusalem, where pilgrims might aspire to live eternally.

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St. Denis was the ambitious undertaking of Abbot Suger (1081-1151), who ran the most powerful abbey of the day. Although he did not live to see his church completed, he did see the west front consecrated in 1140. We see it today as it was renewed after the havoc of the French Revolution. The south tower dates from the 19th century; a much higher north one, also built at that time, collapsed long ago, forcing the resignation in 1846 of François Debret, who had spent 33 years working on the church. He was replaced by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, France's leading expert on the Gothic. Viollet worked at St. Denis for another 33 years, and Ayers writes that "it is essentially to him that we owe Saint-Denis as it appears today" (p. 289).

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A model of the church as it was in the 19th century, before the collapse of the north tower.

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Viollet-le-Duc replaced the original rose window, destroyed in the revolution, with one more in keeping with the Gothic style as he had come to know it and master.

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Gothic sculpture is said to have made its first appearance here. The jamb figures on the west front were destroyed during the revolution, but these, on the Porte de Valois or north transept, survived enough to bear restoration. The topic in the central panel above the door is the martyrdom of St. Denis, assumed to be the first bishop of Paris. According to legend, he was beheaded at Montmartre in 251, only to walk off carrying his own head. He stopped here for burial, on the site of the Roman settlement of Catulliacus.

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The limestone tympanum over the right-side door of the west front has scenes from his life.

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Suger also saw completed the choir (but not the nave) of the church.

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The choir was built in only four years. Ayers writes, "The innovations of Saint-Denis's westwork were nothing in comparison to those of its choir, which can be considered the touchstone of Gothic architecture" (p. 290).

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Most of the glass is modern, and the heavy piers were added in the 13th century. Still, the ambition is clear: to create a symbol of God as light. Light fills not only the tall windows of the clerestory but also of the triforium below, a gallery usually left dark.

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By the time of Suger's death in 1151, only the foundations of the nave were complete. Work on them resumed in 1231, at which time the transepts were also added, while the upper part of the choir was rebuilt to harmonize with the nave. The work was finished in 1281 with "new extremes of leanness, with minimum supports and maximum glazing" (p. 289).

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Nave and transept.

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Buttresses supporting the nave.

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From the time of Hugh Capet, this church was also the burial place of France's kings, 42 of them before the revolution. They were buried in a Romanesque crypt atop which Suger built his church. During the revolution, the tombs in the crypt were destroyed, and the remains of some 800 aristocrats were dumped into a nearby pit filled with layers of quick lime. (This was an angry mob with much to be angry about.) Napoleon wanted to be buried here, so he ordered the crypt's restoration, completed by Debret in 1833.

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Many memorials have since been added, like this one to Louis XII and Anne of Brittany, who both died about 1515.

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From the birthplace of Gothic to (by some measures) its apogee: we've come to Sainte Chapelle, which shares the tiny Île de la Cité with the Cathedral of Notre Dame and several government buildings, including the Palais de Justice, safe behind its giltwork here. The site was once the palace of Louis IX (alias St. Louis, r. 1226-1270), which is why Sainte Chapelle is here. It was built, in other words, as a private chapel attached to the king's apartments. Like so much of Europe, the handsome spire, which is cedar sheathed in lead, is not as old as it looks. It's the fifth one and was added in the 1850s. The chapel itself was built between 1241 and 1244--quick work--and consecrated in 1248 before Louis set off on the Seventh Crusade.

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The balustrades and pinnacles, here on the west or entrance front, are also from the 19th century. The size of the rose window hints at what lies within.

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Visitors rarely wonder how this stone building resists the thrust of the roof with such modest buttressing. The answer is iron rods lacing the envelope together.

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Otherwise the structure would fly apart.

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The same is true of the apse.

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There are two floors, a lower one for what we today would call support staff, the upper for the king and his court. The lower one is dark but ornate, with complex supports for the chapel above

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Louis entered straight from his apartment into the upper level, but visitors today use the spiral staircases from the lower level.

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Ayers writes, "Even amongst the other extraordinary achievements of the medieval period, the Sainte-Chapelle stands out, and its capacity to amaze remains undiminished after over seven-and-a-half centuries." The jewel box miniaturization hints not only at the private nature of the chapel but at the fact that it contained a relic, the crown of thorns worn by Jesus. Louis had purchased it from Baldwin II, the Byzantine emperor. The crown actually cost him more than three times as much as the chapel and was kept in the reliquary tribune or kiosk at the east end. The present kiosk is from the 19th century.

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A major restoration took place from 1836 to 1863, so major that Ayers calls the chapel "almost as much a 19C monument as it is a medieval one" (p. 24). Again, as at St. Denis, Viollet-le-Duc was involved. Still, about two-thirds of the 650 square meters of stained glass in the lancet windows is original, which is amazing considering that from time to time the wind blows in Paris. Some credit goes to the reinforcing iron bars, which run horizontally across the windows as though they were mere glazing bars.

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The iconography is not only complex but too small to be legible without a scaffolding or binoculars. It traces the history of the Old Testament and Louis's descent from biblical kings.

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The iconographic program.

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Although the eye does not detect it, the apse windows are two meters shorter than those in the nave.

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The west end contains a 9-meter-diameter rose window rebuilt about 1490 by Charles VIII. The rose seems even bigger than it is because the last nave windows are 35 centimeters narrower than the others. The gilding is 19th century.

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Between the 13th and 15th centuries, glassmakers shifted to a palette of green and light blue.

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Less than 400 meters upstream, Notre Dame stands on the site of the previous Saint-Etienne, demolished by Bishop de Sully, who wasn't about to be upstaged by Suger's church. The towers were completed in 1245, about a century after those at St. Denis and about the time of the completion of the Sainte Chapelle. Spires were never added. Damaged in the revolution, the church was in very poor condition when Victor Hugo published his famous novel of 1831. Restoration ensued, including the addition of the gallery of the kings of Judah, supposedly the ancestors of Mary, who stands above them and at the base of the rose window. The arcade at the base of the towers is also from the 19th century and helps to mask the nave gable.

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As so often the case, the original architect is unknown, and there are no documents from the time. Even the construction-start date is uncertain, but call it 1160. The spire over the crossing is a product of Viollet-le-Duc's imagination, which perhaps is why it looks so much like the one over Sainte Chapelle.

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Exterior of the nave.

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The choir is almost as long as the nave.

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The transepts are short to the point of non-existence, with the portal of St. Etienne in the face of the south stub. Is the twelve-slice segmentation of the rose a random thing, or does it represent the tribes of Israel and the apostles? hint: do the 50 stars on the American flag mean anything?

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The somewhat simpler north or cloister portal.

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The east end with its famous buttresses. Despite the common assertion that they resist the outward thrust of the nave walls, Ayers insists that they actually were built to carry away the rainwater that would overwise damage the roof of the aisles. "Thus Notre-dame's quintessentially Gothic external appearance, cadenced by slender, soaring arcs, actually has nothing whatever to do with the Gothic structural system so admired by Structural Rationalists of the last two centuries!" (p. 82).

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Another view.

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And yet one more. The water finally arcs out from the gargoyles.

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Last one.

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The nave is 33 meters high but only 12.5 across.

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The walls--arcade under tribune gallery or triforium under clerestory--have been modified over time and reduced from four to three stories. Originally there was a ring of round windows under the clerestory, but these were removed and reduced to part of the triforium. Although the piers are anything but diaphanous, the walls are less than a meter thick, much thinner than in Romanesque churches. A particularly light-weight limestone was used in places that did not bear great weight.

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About 1750 all the glass, except in the roses, was replaced by clear glass to bring more daylight into the church. The pendulum has swung with the restoration of stained glass (and the introduction of electricity).

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Time for one more mostly Gothic church, Saint-Eustache, one kilometer northwest of Notre Dame and very late, a product of the French Renaissance. The site is immediately north of Les Halles, the famous produce market vacated in the 1960s and replaced by the Forum, an underground shopping center and a metro and light-rail stop. We'll come to the Forum later.

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A closer view of the southern side of the nave and its transept. Viollet-le-Duc hated this church and called it "A Gothic skeleton clad in Roman rags." Ayers isn't much more polite: "In the execution of the detailing the facade's sculptors tried to classicize their medieval piling up of ornament, with very bastard results" (p. 53).

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The west end, designed by Jean Hardouin-Mansart de Jouy, takes the cake. Ayers writes, "The collision of this blind, rather dry Enlightenment-era mastodon with the busy Renaissance-period church behind does not make for a happy cohabitation" (p. 53). Work stopped in 1778 with the south tower incomplete.

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The arcade is almost ridiculously high, like a fellow who pulls his pants up to his nipples. Ayers writes that "its rather freakish, hybrid quality goes a long way to explaining why it was never copied." A surprisingly large congregation for the secular French, you say?

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But they aren't here for services. They're here to hear this baby, 8,000 pipes strong.

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This is a case where it would help to have sound. I kept looking up for stones that might be shaken loose by resonant vibrations. It doesn't do much good to roll up your collar, but reflexes are reflexes. No, Lon Chaney wasn't the organist.

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