Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Notre-Dame as palimpsest

One of the first chapels you come to, on the south side of the nave of the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, as you are herded through with the other tourists, contains an extravagant seventeenth- or eighteenth-century tomb which includes the following rather creepy memento mori:

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The effect is sort of amazing, as though the deceased is about to fall out of the open coffin, while Death himself stands over him with an hourglass. The chapel is otherwise painted with faux-medieval decorative patterns after a design by Viollet-le-Duc. Opposite this tomb hangs a gigantic dark painting depicting some Biblical scene in a swoony, violent Mannerist chiaroscuro.

Although Notre-Dame, begun in 1163, is one of the great monuments of French Gothic architecture, it is striking how little of what one sees inside the building is actually medieval. This has to do with its prominent position on the Île de la Cité, and its ancient connections with the French monarchy and state, which have made it a flashpoint for protests from the Huguenots who damaged liturgical sculptures in the mid-16th century to the architects of the French Revolution who officially rededicated the cathedral to the Cult of Reason in 1793. Most of what one sees in the church is frankly post-Revolutionary, and quite a lot dates from 1845 onward, when Viollet-le-Duc managed to help keep the structure from being demolished, and restored the famous facade statuary. The cathedral treasury, which can be visited for 3 euros, contains a lot of fantastic church plate from the Second Empire period and later (there's an awesomely gigantic Ethiopian cross given by Haile Selassie I, and a whole case of papal souvenirs) but essentially nothing particularly early. The only medieval relics are the tunic and cilice of St-Louis (King Louis IX), and some purported saint's bones in later reliquaries; and much of the window glass in the famous stained glass windows is original as well.

So when you see something that does look medieval, like this Nunc dimittis:

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you do end up wondering whether what you're seeing isn't more a Second Empire fantasy of the Middle Ages; but one can't really blame Viollet-le-Duc for it, since what he did essentially saved the edifice from destruction. Most of what was "original" to the Gothic church had been scraped away long before his time, and he merely reinscribed the parchment. It's just surprising to see so little of the incredible history of the place actually visible on the ground.

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