Archives

The Grand Entrance

Soon it will be “Goodbye 2010s” to an eventful decade and on its wake will resonate “Hello 2020s” in spirits of fresh-found confidence. Despite the anticipations of the prospect of a flourishing brand new year, considering the shifts in attitudes, fixation on praising excess, awful incidents emerging around the world, etc, one can’t help feeling a quiver of anxiety about what have the wheels of fate in store. As the years roll by with an almost frightening rapidity in a fusion of happiness, apprehensions and solidities, experiences prove that there are instances when one could not help feeling like a hooked fish on the time’s line.

Now as we hold up five fingers, four, three, two …. to signify the final-run-down to the Christmas day, the tale of Christmas miracle cannot be aptly told without music. This time around, in our mind’s eye, we go to Salzburg – to that gem of the Austrian Alps of castles, fortresses, churches, museums, parks, and, of course, nature.

Some years ago, we had the pleasure to drive around and savour the enchantment of Austria. Vienna hosted us as the base of our domicile for this visit. A clear rival to Paris in the superiority and variety of its architectural decorations and every style of art, Vienna proffered us a good stroke of fun with the fortunate presence of our friends.

As I wrote in earlier posts, we drove or foot-marched over much of the city to set our sights on the fave haunts of the locals and also on out-of-the-way tourist spots not counting the 18th-century Schönbrunn Palace, the Museums, Wiener Staatsoper, the Burgtheater, Stephansdom, Café Sacher Wien and other coffee spots where no one knows how to make bad coffee.

Hoping to get some more inspiration and to make good of the plentiful time at our disposal, we had jumped in with both feet and visited places as far as Graz, Salzburg, and their vicinities. Without a glitch, those days were mostly bright and of clear blue sky. All the way the only shadow cast was from the trees.

Our trip to Graz was covered in the car and company of my old business friend in Vienna from my days in the Middle East. At Salzburg, we were driven around by Herr Rupert, a gentlemanly fellow who only wanted to please as he took us around. Rupert, as we know, is the name of the patron saint of Salzburg who founded the Abbey of St. Peter’s beneath the sheltering cliffside of Mount Mönchsberg in the center of the Old City. With musical luminaries as talented as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Herbert von Karajan gracing the annals of the city, the delight of music is so divine and tangible in the air.

Now back to Christmas – a little more than 200 years ago, Josef Mohr (1792-1848), an assistant priest in the sacristan of Oberndorf bei Salzburg wrote a new poem of Christmas flavour at his first parish in Mariapfarr, the village of his father where Josef had cut his teeth as a priest at a young age in 1815.

Although limited to a year, Josef’s clerical term out at Mariapfarr was in 1816 when Prince Klemens von Metternich (1773–1859), the Chancellor of Austria, won repossession of the Province of Salzburg for Austria from the Bavarian crown. The following year, Josef was appointed as curate to Oberndorf, about twenty km from Salzburg. It was a village of boatmen, wooden and stone houses located on the Austrian bank on the serpentine bend of the River Salzach (Salt River/Igonta). Originally a Roman settlement, Oberndorf was mentioned in the Salzburg chronicles as early as 1050.

It is said that a clergyman sees you at your best, a lawyer at your worst and a doctor as you really are. Having taken up residency in Oberndorf, Josef conducted his priesthood which enriched the life of that parish.

During the morning of the day Josef had written the poem, he was with his closest friend Franz “Franzl” Xaver Gruber (1787-1863), a village schoolmaster, song writer and church organist. Josef was attending a celebration in the school house of Franz in the village of Arnsdorf when they realised that there was no really great Christmas song. The Christmas is already right at their doorstep.

And so, the poem Josef wrote celebrates the greatest birthday of all time – illumines the holy night and the birth of a baby in a stable at Bethlehem long time ago. It held the vision of a baby so little and soft – pure as a white flame. Having grown up close to River Salzach, no doubt, Josef must be inspired by the legend of the statue “The Enthroned Madonna with Child” (about 1500) which is believed to be a work of miracles and supposedly washed ashore by the ice-drift in the River Salzach.

At Josef’s instance, Franz who lived in Arnsdorf and performed in the post of organist at Oberndorf since 1816, soon composed tune to accompany the poem in German verses which was named the “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” (Silent Night). A task he accomplished creditably, Franz’s composition, said to be done during the afternoon of November 24, 1818, was goodness set to music and his idea of perfection lauded the dictum that a good melody must be rooted in the nature of the human voice.

 

The song was performed publically for the first time during the Christmas Midnight Mass of 1818 at St. Nikola parish church at Oberndorf – just a stone’s throw away from the serpentine bend of River Salzach. The working partnership of Josef and Franz was extremely successful – an alliance that would subsequently unite their names famously for all time. Rendering the song as a duet in the plain rural dignity of that church, curate Josef sang the melody and played the guitar while composer Franz sang the bass. It was complemented by chorus of the resident choir. Undoubtedly, Josef and Franz didn’t want to face less than perfection in their song and it made a remarkable effect on the congregation of parishioners of that great Midnight Mass.

In such ready expertness, “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” had to be first played to guitar accompaniment because the works of the church organ on which it was to be played at the church service was damaged useless probably by the gnawing mice and river flooding. Even though under normal circumstances guitar was not a medium in vogue acceptable to play a German song in the church service, the guitar had become a favoured medium since by that period the six-string guitar had replaced the lute completely and was of greater prominence on the European concert stages.

The work of Josef and Franz more or less would have been confined to the repertory of that parish and slipped into obscurity had it not been for Karl Mauracher, an organ builder, a one-off who came to repair the damaged organ. He took an interest in the song and sought a copy of its text and music to take along with him to his village in beautiful Tyrol in Western Austria which attracts many tourists.

No sooner had they heard the version of the song from the organ builder, the Strasser Quartette, famous for their beautiful singing of Tyrolese mountain songs, was won over by the full zenith of its charm. At length, they added it to their repertoire and performed widely on their concert tours as “The Tyrolian Song” due to its place of birth. It was often considered a folk song but without any known authorship of its poet or musical composer.

Although the Rainers, another singing group had taken “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” into their shows as early as 1819, it was later sung by the Strasser Quartette before the congregation at the great cathedral of Leipzig, Germany. The song remained unprinted until 1840. Some attributed its melody to Johann Michael Haydn (1737–1806) until the Royal Court musicians in Berlin, in their wisdom, enquired with the Abbey of St. Peter’s (Stift Sankt Peter) in Salzburg about the origin of the Christmas song “Silent Night”, believed to be by Michael Haydn of that Abbey. Through Franz’s son, this inquiry reached the ears of Franz who was then still alive while Josef had since deceased. It was nearing the end of 1854 when Franz set his claim to Berlin and soon after received credit for his creation.

In 1854, the “romanticist on the throne” Emperor Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia (Reign: 1840-1861), whose beautiful Queen consort Elisabeth (Elise) Ludovika of Bavaria who had been brought up in the Roman Catholic faith, took great interest in “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” following its performance before him by the Berlin Church Choir. He delightfully ordered it be given first place in all Christmas programmes. Curiously, he was the first Emperor of Prussia to enter a Roman Catholic place of worship when, back in 1844, he attended the celebrations marking the completion of the Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom). From that distance of time, trooping ahead past events like its performance during the World War I front-line during the Christmas Truce, until today, “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” was on a moving treadmill fuelled year on and on by popularity – casting a celestial spell upon all Christendom and in a multitude of directions.

During an interview in the early last century, the grandson of Franz produced a copy of the manuscript of “Silent Night” in his possession which he claimed to be a copy made by Franz Gruber in 1836. The original is no longer in existence. It was the oldest known copy and contained the original stanzas penned by Josef for which voices and instruments were arranged.

Presently, the Stille Nacht Kapelle, the memorial chapel blessed in 1937, stands on the site of the old St. Nikola Church which disappeared with time – perhaps consequent to the deadly maelstrom of floods of River Salzach in 1899 when most of the river-side houses were carried away. The year 1899 may be remembered by movie lovers as the year of birth of American actor Humphrey “Bogie” Bogart. He was a Christmas baby born on December 25th. The image of the old chapel can be seen, among other works, on the brochure of Stille Nacht Kapelle and as chocolate-box scenes.

The carols we always associate with Christmas are of very old religious lyric and musical idea. The combination of singing and dancing carols is undated since it existed among people from time immemorial. As one could think of the Christian tradition of the joyful hymn of praise “Gloria in excelsis Deo” the angels sung to the Shepherds, appreciating the Nativity story in a stirring age in our history, the popular mind could also reflect on the soft lullaby of the Nazarene maiden Mary as she lulls her new-born babe to sleep in a manger of that hamlet called Bethlehem (according to a book, the name Bethlehem signifies the “House of Bread“).

Fashions have changed – tastes have altered – the carols may go in and out of favour. Then again, together with the seasonal favourites “O Come All Ye Faithful / Adeste Fideles,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, the jubilant “Joy to the World”, etc, the soulful Christmas carol “Silent Night” has always sweetened the joyous effect in our home during the Christmas Eve.

As Christmastime shows up annually, we have had our moments in the festivities, feasting and jollities that goes along with it. In common parlance, the Christmas favourite lists: the living room dressed in the house’s finest, the Nativity crib, a brightly decorated tree to glisten and gleam with baubles, tinsel and fairy lights, the mistletoe, the Christmas stockings and gifts, the brass and silver brightly polished, the holiday table laden for sumptuous feast fit for a gastrophile at heart, the seasonal melodies like the “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,” to moon and swoon, to talk over old and new times with near and dear. All those Christmas traditions are perfect and nice to hold on to – and meaningful, too.

The concept of the illuminated Christmas trees in legends of Germany relates to the heathen belief that the new life energy developed after midwinter by all trees and sprigs should be taken into homes to radiate its power among all those who live there. Delightfully, there are other things also not to lose sight of – mind you, to ensure a certain period to reminisce and meditate about all things that one builds too high in one’s mind and to thank for our many blessings.

At this time, Christmas would seem funny here without snow. But we would overlook that – for it has always been so. Then again, certainly there will be melodies inspired by my wife from our collection of her native Weihnachtslieder to ensure this Christmastime will be one of enchantment.

A Merry Christmas full of Joy and Cheer

Jo & Carina

(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

Christmas Always Comes Up Trumps

Christmas is different from what it was more than 100 years ago… yet it is much the same. At length, Christmas celebrations have become more and more elaborate – hiked up by the gravitational pull of commercialisation that might even lead us to believe that Walt Disney invented Santa Claus.

But the traditional oldies are there to fall back on: the Christmas Eve, the traditional Holy Mass, shining stars, cribs in Nativity scene, Christmas trees, angels, decorations, greenery, fairy lights winking and blinking, carols, songs, dances, gifts, wining and dining, stuffed poultry and plum pudding, white-iced cakes, Christmas & New Year greeting cards…..and then there are the candles calling attention to the legend of medieval times when lighted candles were placed in windows as a welcome to the Christ child, to show that there was a place in the home for Him.

As I wrote in my previous posts, I have had many Christmas memories from my childhood and one of my few flights of fancy is to allow them to flood me every now and then – especially during Christmas time. They are like Christmas decorations saved from Christmas to Christmas, and more added each year.

The joy of those carefree Christmases! Still and all, Christmas was something inside me – a singing in my heart. As if Mr. Charles Dickens might call at any time, our ritual of Christmas does not change. Each year there is much the same routine. The excitement spread over weeks as the star is hung, the crib is made, the Christmas tree erected hung with baubles and other decorations, and friends and relatives came in to visit.

The clever old Santa, with rhythmic, booming sounds and a certain sense of dignity will show up in the evenings without his sleigh, his eyes, exuding geniality and delight, peeping through the eye holes on his mask. He was accompanied by dancers and singers few of whom can’t carry a tune in a steam shovel. It’s all very Christmassy.

One of the neighbours of our traditional house was a family with three men good with their hands and easy-to-make notions. They are linked in my mind with stars and cribs. Two-to-three weeks leading to Christmas Day, these men and some of their friends, real no-nonsense workers, devoted their afternoons to create very low-cost and small-scaled Christmas trimmings for selling locally.

As it drew near to Christmas and there was no school to worry about, I sometimes went over to watch them create stars and cribs using bamboo. Their vibes was so grand that they could all laugh at the same things. Once the bamboo was cut vertically into sticks of required lengths, both surfaces are buffed finely to obtain smooth texture before they are tied into shapes of stars and cribs. The roof of cribs was thatched with hay.

Most of their exquisite works, some even varnished for glossy look,  are sold at Michael’s shop at the junction by our street and in the evenings people oh’d and ah’d looking up at the cribs and lighted stars on display for sale.

One of the most amusing was a wonderful Christmas in the 70s when our family made a beautiful Christmas tree. It stands out most vividly in my mind. Approximately 6ft. tall, it was bedecked with all the delicate sparkle associated with Christmas decorations. Given that the pine and fir (species grown as fresh Christmas trees in Europe and elsewhere) were not readily available potted at that time, a similar species (possibly, Araucaria Heterophylla) was acquired.

Set upright in base made of wooden pieces, the plant was decorated with gold and copper paper, gold and red ribbons, sequins, bugle beads, gold streamers, crepe paper strings, cardboard cylinders, fairy lights, etc., to create that jingle-bells effect. Copper and gold was kept as colour scheme to indicate the sparkle of the festive occasion. Few years saw us using a tree with branches cleared off its leaves as a substitute when the right plant was unavailable. Always the charming note is that the decorated Christmas tree, ablaze with tiny lights, represents the spirituality of Christmas.

The matter of substitute mentioned above brings to my mind the letter of a woman published in an old magazine about her great-grandmother who was a colonist passenger in a ship from Europe bound for Australia more than 160 years ago. As the narration goes, everyone was looking forward to spend Christmas in the new land and ladle great helpings of Aussie hospitality.

But, sweet suffering grief, on the Christmas Eve all were disheartened to learn that the ship was still hundreds of miles away which meant – no Christmas tree. Then again, did anyone there hear the angels in Heaven sing? When the children gathered in the saloon for their gifts, they were surprised to find a little tree with real leaves.

Assuming that the ship will be delayed and Christmas would be spent at sea, the ship’s carpenter had made the tree. Upon sailing from Cape Town, he had sowed parsley seeds in a box filled with sand (from ship’s ballast) and sawdust. Having kept out of reach of salt spray, the crew took turns to water it using their daily allowance of drinking water. As Christmas neared, the parsley had grown luxuriantly. From the firewood the carpenter carved out the stem and the branches on which the parsley leaves were tied. The tree was adorned with tiny candles, tinsel ornaments and white sugar for ‘snow’. A Christmas tree was born!

True to the Christmas ideal, how wonderful the ship’s carpenter had made his finest effort and shared his decorated Christmas tree to swell the hearts of strangers and friends. Indeed, Christmas, just as it always does, triumph after all. Merry Christmas, Jo

(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

A Winsome Sweet ‘17

1

2The New Year’s Day 2017 has arrived with hopes – giving new courage and belief for a fresh start. The transitory period when the old year gives way for the new often kindles a curious manifestation of optimism in us and inspires hope for a “happy and better New Year” – free from the misfortunes of the year just gone by. Inwardly, this feeling is merely a repetition of the optimism that inspired us at earlier New Year’s Eves when it was wished that the ensuing New Year would bring its own heaven. Even though the year’s outcome was contrary to our expectation, yet again, when the clock struck the first note of midnight at the New Year’s Eve, and the bells ring, the fire crackers were lit, Auld Lang Syne was sung to be followed by other old, new, nostalgic medley of seasonal carols and songs, and toasts were raised, we take fresh heart to, once again, hope for the best.

New Year’s Day is the eighth day after Christmas and traditionally, bears the name “Octava Domini” (In Octavas Domini) in the Gelasian and Gregorian Sacramentaries. The first of January appeared as an ecclesiastical festival at Rome for the first time at the beginning of the ninth century, where it is called from the first Circumcisione Domini. The idea and date of this festival are derived from the Gospel of St. Luke (Chapter II. 21), since eight days after birth, the Christmas child of Virgin Mary was circumcised and received the name Jesus, a personal name. The year ends with the birth and begins with the naming.

3

This year’s crib in our house

The traditions and customs related with New Year’s Day were concerned with bringing good luck for the coming year. When the year dies out at the chimes of the midnight hour, and when the traditional toast and ubiquitous salutations of “Happy New Year” and “Good Health” resonate the air and people hugged, kissed and shook hands; whatever be the attitude of the body, certain thoughts in some of us would become silent prayers turned heavenward, thanking for the past years and hoping for the best times and good health. Holy Toledo! The truth is you cannot savour the joys of life without good health.

4

It is also a time for New Year resolution – decisions intended to abandon a bad habit or adopt a good one in the New Year, most popular being the decision to give up smoking and to diet which are always updated as time passes by. According to a survey, two people out of three made such resolutions but most soon break them.

5

Back in December 2013 we were in Bangkok for the festive season. There was political unrest in the country at that time between red and yellow shirts. But rather than let the tourism go haywire and celebration of people curtailed, the sensible local authorities, very efficient to cope with the matters of their positions and departments, did not clamp on any undue restrictions which was laudable.

6

On that warm Saturday morning of December 2013, I was waiting to keep my appointment at one of my favourite Foot Reflexology parlours in Bangkok which I had managed to reach from my hotel with some difficulty. As many of you will know, Bangkok is notorious for traffic congestions, but since yesterday (Friday, 27th) the streets were unusually packed as the New Year revellers flocked out of Bangkok to their villages. A friend of the owner of the parlour, a middle-aged Thai was also in the lobby with me waiting for the arrival of his friend. A great conversationalist, he is known to me from my earlier visits. That was the extent of our acquaintance. Having known that I write about Bangkok, he wisely used my waiting time to give me a run through about some of the many traditions and customs of his land – most of which I had come to know over the years in some finery.

7

9When our conversation touched upon Songkran festival (marks the start of the traditional Thai New Year which falls during April), he suddenly switched the topic to the hair style he would be getting at the adjoining salon either on 30th or 31st (specifically on Monday and Tuesday which he believed are the only good days for getting haircut!!) in time for the New Year’s Eve. At that time, his hairdresser would remove the red-shades from his natural jet black hair worn too long by Thai standards. Although I tried to avert the conversation from being nosy about his personal choice, he went right ahead and told that he is clearing the red shades for his elder sister who has invited him to her house for late dinner on the New Year’s Eve which he intended to attend, after cutting-short his own razzle-dazzle with his friends at the local pub.

8As assigned, he would be the “first-foot” to enter his sister’s household to usher in the New Year. This fairly clear-cut custom, which has many versions, is based on a Hogmanay (a New Year’s Eve in Scotland) tradition, and still kept up in some Far Eastern and Australian households.

It is believed that if the first person to cross the threshold of a house after midnight, when the old year ends and the New begins, is a dark haired man, a year of good luck will follow. Since her brother’s last “first-foot”, she had experienced lesser gale over the domestics. And certainly, once more the elements of specific gifts a “first-footer” usually brings which symbolised life, hospitality and warmth is in his consideration to take along with him.

For his sister, who displayed great strength and furious energy to go through the ritual of sweeping her whole house thoroughly on 31st of every December, the recruitment of her brother to make the necessary entrance at her house is rooted on her belief that it should be someone with dark hair and not of her household.

10

Family ties are stronger at Christmas and New Year time – and louder, too. First of January is Global Family Day, too. Mind you, he would have his fun in her home ground – the whisky, the songs, the smile, the smells – and the mishmash of games: shuffleboard, Ping-Pong, Bingo, cards, and God knows what else. To reach her home at that time of the night without the bow-wow of stray dogs in her street would be a benefit since any stray dogs living in the premises on New Year’s Eve were particularly cleared because, according to his sister, they brought bad luck.

11

People do strange things hoping for best things ahead. Not long ago, a European chef of Mandarin Oriental spoke about a Thai chef’s unbridled enthusiasm for anything associated with superstitions. The Roman belief that misfortune would come into a house by anyone entering with his left foot first, is a custom which is strictly followed with right foot by his family. They have a tradition to criss-cross certain rituals of the Thai Songkran festival also with the customs of New Year’s Day.  The ingredients they used in this respect, forming part of the ritual of bathing of Buddha statues during Songkran, consists of five bowls containing different-coloured floating flowers – each colour to represent prosperity in a variety of forms: Rose Red to bring a tranquil life devoid of obstacles; Marigold Orange to signify success and wealth; Anchan Blue representing strength to overcome obstacles; Pandan Green for peace without problems; and Jasmine White to symbolise a joyful life.

12

The question about how a fairly intelligent and even moderately educated person could inwardly believe these superstitions – that number 13 is unlucky, or that one should not start a new venture on Friday, etc., in spite of its universal acceptance, is, how-do-you-say-it, much like a pyramid balanced in unstable equilibrium upon its point. Nevertheless, people do knock on wood; take a pinch of salt and throw it over their left shoulder; or refuse to walk under a ladder, and hope that, “touch wood”, this New Year would hopefully go down in memory as the year they moved into the house of prosperity, good health, peace, joy and all things of goodness – with the baggage of serious misfortune safely left behind. I remember the saying, if you must leave your old house and move to a new one do not take your old broom with you.

Thank you for riding with me during the past year. I raise a toast: Here is wishing my friends and readers a lovely, peaceful and prosperous new 2017. Jo

13

(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

NOTRE DAME WILL STAND – Part II

2-01

Will you walk a little faster?” said a whiting to a snail,

“There’s a porpoise close behind us, and he’s treading on my tail.”

Here at last, we are at the queue at Portail de Sainte-Anne and these lines from: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Lobster Quadrille (The Mock Turtle’s Song) by Lewis Carroll (1832-1898) had crossed my mind. To whoever was right behind me at the queue – there certainly was urgency to get into the cathedral.

2-02

Once inside, we would soon realise that the timing of the visit to Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris was perfect for us. Before we could explore the double aisles, various chapels, rose windows, the ambulatory, etc, our attention was drawn to the streams of music wafting from the central transept where, we soon found the Chorus, soloists and an orchestra in jubilant mood – practising a classical music concert. So that explained the urgency at the queue.

2-03

In comparison with its length, the cathedral is extremely broad. Standing over the black and white coloured floor tiles at the west end, the interior appeared well lit though I could see a marked variation between the principal nave, the transept and the chancel.

2-04

However, despite the changes made to provide more light to the tribunes, in gloomy weather, the cathedral can still appear sombre and even cavernous. This subject about the light reminded me of an entry I once read in the Duchess of Windsor’s (Wallis Simpson) memoirs: “….As the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII) walked past, I (Wallis) overheard him mutter to his uncle, the Duke of Connaught: “Uncle Arthur, something ought to be done about the lights. They make all the women look ghastly.” (1)

2-05

Good music often transports me into another dimension. Slipping into a wooden bench nearer the transept, we spent some time in glorious musical bliss while the 14th century Statue of Virgin Mary Holding the Christ Child joyfully watched over us as she leaned against the south-east pillar where an altar dedicated to the Virgin had stood earlier. This work is dedicated to “Notre-Dame de Paris” and the most distinguished of nearly 40 representations of the Virgin inside the cathedral.

2-06

At every moment in the world, things change and the shape of things to come seldom announced its presence among us, but later on. It was as if fate had planned our visit to arrive here right on our schedule. Had we lingered longer by the banks of the Seine and watched the barges and bateaux mouches float silently along the river; or indulged longer to thumb through dusty volumes at the quayside bouquinistes’ stalls selling bouquins (old used books) and other special treasures, while enjoying the kiss of the sun from above; or idled more time away sitting under the candy-stripped awning of the open-air café on the chestnut-lined boulevard, with a lingering glass of red and a croquet-monsieur, relishing the general joy of watching the moving stream of pedestrians; – then, we might never have reached this cathedral to enjoy the musical treat on that day. Punctuality works! Carina always said Punctuality is indeed my first, last and middle name.

2-07

I was too entranced in the music to turn around to look up the nave at the West end where, directly below the artistic upper West Rose window is situated the great organ (one of the three) – a marked feature of the Cathédrale. Rebuilt by Thierry Lesclope in 1730, enlarged in 1785 by Cliquot, and improved by Cavaillè-Coll, it is reputedly the largest organ in France, There is no need for me to look back at it now. I had endeavoured to study it during earlier visits and my mental picture of that area is clear down to the upper ends of the organ’s pipes obstructing the lower half of that Rosette.

2-08

Presently the musical performance came to a close, and a wave of applause swept through the cathedral. Most of the crowd, as if signalled by an internal green alert, had started to head for the exit – possibly, in search of the sun.  We resumed our exploration along the far-stretching southern aisle, passing the great cylindrical columns rising to support the vaulted ceilings, their weights being shared by the external flying buttresses on both sides of the huge structure. On our right was the line of chapels forming part of the numerous chapels around the walls.

2-09

I can well understand why Notre Dame de Paris has had a splendid acceptance. In its long course of construction, this edifice had to transit through the art movements of Romanesque and the Gothic, a progression that branded it as a transitional structure. The gauzy structure of Gothic architecture resulted in the rise of stained glass, the virtual elimination of solid wall space and transformed the walls as connecting space for windows. At that time, the thought crossed my mind that all this would be of professional interest to my second daughter Andrea, engaged with her studies in architecture back home.

2-010-north

An important feature on the southern side of the slightly projecting transept is the Rose window. Now this is an artful creation of bold, simple trellis designs with an amazing arrangement of stained glass work. The most frequent background was a red trellis on a blue field. During an earlier visit, I overheard a local guide mentioning about the window’s primary colours to a group of American tourists, suggesting that “it is very drawable.”

2-011-south

But if we observe it with a painterly eye, there is a revelation. We could see the predominant blue dissolves for different colours; and the window glows in pink and crimson tones. The colours had been there to be found all the time. When taken as a boy to Notre Dame, it was this rose window of the south which seized upon the imagination of the great architect Viollet le Duc (January 1814 – September 1879) and stirred his passion for Gothic. In “Paris; the Magic City by The Seine”, author Gertrude Hauck Vonne explains that situation: “While gazing at it the organ began to play, and he (Viollet) thought that the music came from the window – the shrill, high notes from the light colors, and the solemn, bass notes from the dark and more subdued hues.”

2-012

2-013As we proceeded further ahead, we would notice that not only the nave, but the choir, possessed double aisles. To our right was the entrance to The Sacristy (formerly part of the Palais Episcopal) and The Treasury which housed many precious things. Before going around the magnificent semi-circular apse at the east end to the northern aisle, one could see the High Altar; the three large statues: the Descent from the Cross; Louis XIII, (both by Guillaume Coustou, 1677 – 1746) and of Louis XIV (by Antoine Coysevox, 1640 – 1720). The Ambulatory (pourtour) of the Choir was raised above the body of the church by three steps, both sides enclosed by a low grille in wrought iron with gilding. I could well imagine the magnificent set-piece of pageantry of various ceremonial occasions held here; and how the echoes of many “Te Deums” had resonated inside these old walls for victories long forgotten, and for those many long remembered.

The removable stones of the pavement close to the small organ on the north side of the choir lead to a subterranean burial chamber for eminent officials of the cathedral. Remains of a small Gallo-Roman votive pillar to Jupiter (which I had mentioned in the First Part) were discovered some six feet beneath the apse during excavations for this crypt during 1711.

Prior to the northern Rose Window, one could see the famous Porte Rouge (Red Door), a masterpiece that dates back to the 14th century. It derived its name from its painted doors.

2-014-north

Corresponding with the statue of Notre-Dame de Paris on the south is a statue of St. Denis by Nicolas Coustou in the north. Although many of the treasures were destroyed by the Revolution, granted there is time and inclination to explore the interior, one could spot the intrinsic beauty of many things that were well made – the sexpartite system of alternating ground supports, the clearstory, the stone step, the various windows, moulding round the doors, an artistic door handle, the numerous sculptures, fine chandeliers, paintings of much value ,… and the flowers at the foot of the statue of Notre-Dame de Paris which seem, to some, suddenly glow as if they were lit from within.

2-015

Having purchased a Médaille for Andrea from a counter at the west end, we walked out through the northern Portail ae la Saint Vierge. In the bright sunlight one could clearly see the splendid character of the ironwork of the outer doors.

2-016

Curious tradition relates this to the skill and energy of the devil. Up above, the grotesque representations of Chimères and gargouilles or “Devils of Notre Dame” lurked on strategic locations of the cathedral, scowling down from their point of vantage upon the French metropolis – probably their mark of attention even reached our present hotel somewhat closer to Basilique du Sacré-Cœur – one of the many hotels of Paris noted also for its number of French oils – impressionist, expressionist, and abstract.

2-017

As we took leave of Notre Dame de Paris, I reflected on the staying power of this ornate feat of architecture – this edifice of a community’s tangible bygone days. Have I missed something here? Although individual escape from the present into the past has rarely been more widespread than it is now, there is another side of the coin of course. Recently the world has witnessed the cruel destruction of historical monuments to suit the ideologies of certain groups.

2-018

In September 2016, The Telegraph (UK) reported the discovery of upto seven cylinders of gas tanks and documents in a specific language in an unmarked Peugeot 607 next to Notre Dame cathedral, sparking fresh terror fears. Condemnations and appeals against such ideologies were heard. Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, Notre-Dame de Paris, was the product of a similar protest and aimed to draw attention of his contemporaries to deter the destruction of existing architecture.

2-019

By visiting and polishing up our love for noble monuments of the past, relating the stories behind their construction, understanding the masters who build them in their times, we not only comprehend the traditions, aesthetic and cultural history of an area but also of the high-values reached by civilization. Time is the most precious commodity I possess. I am glad that the hour glass of my life is also filled by precious moments like the favourite footpaths I have treaded in the course of my visit here – helpful journeys into the past which I am excited to make from time to time. And, hopefully, when I come back here again, I know Notre Dame de Paris will be here – waiting. Jo

2-020

Notes:

  • Besides other improvements, the Cathedral’s lighting system was upgraded by late 2012 owing to a year-long 850th anniversary celebration.
  • For those in need of flowers for Notre Dame de Paris, there is a huge selection at Marché aux fleurs, Place Louis Lépine – Quai de la Corse near Cité Metro Station.
  • I am indebted to many publications dating from the late 19th century onwards, for useful background data;
  • This article is dedicated to my daughter Andrea Lalis Sebastine, the architect in our family.

2-021

(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

The Kaleidoscope of Hoof Prints

b1

(This follows my article The Ballad of JEANETTE and MICHEL  of March 2, 2016)

If there are phrases on my tongue which connote the blessings that can unwittingly come in many disguises to the gentle-natured donkey, it is those plans and purpose which chanced upon as revealed in some events of “The Bible”. With Palm Sunday (March 20, 2016) followed by Easter (March 27, 2016) coming up, bringing in a time when it is not unusual for people to be religious in thoughts, I take a little liberty to reflect on those events.

b2

Animals like sheep, camel, donkey, have afforded their presence to many episodes of the Bible. Indeed there are momentous occasions when the donkey was part of events that were important junctures in the life of Jesus Christ.

b3

The ass of Palestine and the Bible has been identified as the Nubian wild ass of Egypt. This common beast of burden, used for agricultural work and also for riding, is not in the East by any means a despised or a despicable animal – but considered part of a moderate household. Whole families rode him, shared food with him, and sometimes allowed him to stay in a section of the room with the family.

b4

Visitation: It is related that Mary, pregnant with Jesus, used a donkey when she set out on her journey for her ‘Visitation’ to congratulate cousin Elizabeth who was pregnant with the child who would one day become known as John the Baptist. According to tradition, that donkey had travelled about seventy miles from Nazareth over hills and through valleys to the little town in the Judaean hills where Elizabeth and her husband, priest Zachary dwelt. Considering that the feast of the Annunciation of the Birth of Jesus is held on March 25th, this journey could probably have occurred during the last days of March or early April when the rainy season was just over. Although Joseph is not named in this journey, it is unlikely that Mary would have ventured on a long and arduous journey alone and abode with Elizabeth for about three months before she rode back to her home in Nazareth. Besides, it was customary to have a driver for the donkey, when women rode on them.

b5

To Bethlehem: The initial scenes of William Wyler’s biblical epic movie “Ben-Hur” (1959) portrays Joseph, a village carpenter, leading a meek donkey by the bridle, on which sat his pregnant wife Mary covered with a long cloak, during their journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in Judea to enrol their names in a census which had been ordered by Caesar Augustus. The vague details of that journey of about seventy miles could be visualised as five days of privation, fatigue and discomfort through an uncomfortable path in the winter chill of December. A book on the Virgin Mary names this donkey as “Eleabthona”, but we could only wonder if it was the same animal which had previously been similarly used when Mary went on her “Visitation” to Elizabeth.

b6

To Jerusalem: Whichever donkey it was, that animal had the opportunity to be closer to the newly born Jesus in the stable outside Bethlehem. Besides, amongst the few other domesticated animals present there, he was the one who would render service as the mode of transport to Joseph’s family when, at the age of forty days, the infant Jesus was taken to Jerusalem for presentation in the Temple and return.

b7

To Egypt: Sometime thereafter, warned of an imminent danger to the child, the family hastily embarked on a journey in the middle of the night, with Mary and the child riding the donkey, as they rushed out of the territory of King Herod to retire into Egypt. With the winter still persisting, that journey of ten days covering about two hundred miles via the city of Pelusium (modern Tell el-Farama) was not without difficulties and dangers arising from cold, wet and stormy weather, lack of shelter over their heads, less water, attack by robbers and wild beasts, proceeding partially through the shifting sands of the desert as far as the land of Gessen, where they resided (1). Not until had King Herod died in the spring of 4 BC, did they retire to the early home of Joseph and Mary at Nazareth of Galilee.

b8

Soon after, the donkey of those journeys slips into obscurity even though according to a recorded event of Jesus’ youth, at the age of twelve, Jesus was taken on a long journey to Jerusalem to attend the Passover before returning to Nazareth when the service of a donkey would have been required.

b9

It is widely held that the dark line down a donkey’s back and across the forequarters in the shape of a Latin cross denotes the heritage of that race from the day one of their forebears carried Jesus on its back during His triumphal entry into Jerusalem which is commemorated as the first Palm Sunday (Dominica in ramis Palmarum), and marks the beginning of what is technically called Passion Week.

b10

To Jerusalem: According to the Gospels, Jesus, having come to the little village of Bethphage (Beitphage) on the summit of the Mount of Olives sent two disciples into the village to fetch an ass and a colt they would find tied there. Having brought the animals, they cast their garments upon the ass and made Jesus sit thereon. (2) The animal carried Jesus, sitting meek and gentle on its back, as it treaded over the olive palm fronds strewn over the garments laid on the path, amidst the joy and singing of a multitude of accompanying people wielding branches of palm trees as a testimony of honour and respect.

At that time Jerusalem was surrounded with fertile fields and trees, and on the southern slope of Olivet, where they were passing, date-bearing palm trees grew in great abundance. The Palm has been in all times and places the emblem of victory and its reward and it was the custom to carry and wave palm-branches as a sign of joy and victory.

b11

At length, the donkey carried Jesus down the hill, passed between the walls of Gethsemane and the Garden of Olives, crossed the Cedron valley (Kidron), through the road leading up to St. Stephen’s Gate (Lions’ Gate), and entered the Temple through the Golden Gate with its beautiful pillars. This occasion, commemorated on Palm Sunday with a Procession of Palms was customary in Jerusalem as early as 386 when it was first mentioned, and was adopted in the west by the seventh century as attested to by Isidore of Seville, who died in 636.

b12

Until the Reformation in the Middle Ages, the event was remembered in a folklorised ritual on Palm Sunday (Palmsonntag) in some southern German speaking regions when, in addition to the tradition of the blessing of palms (Palmbüscheln), a procession known as “Palmesel” (Palm Sunday donkey) was held when a statue of Jesus mounted on a wooden effigy of an ass fixed on a wheeled wooden bier was taken round the streets spread with clothes and strewed with palm branches. To mark this joyous occasion, people sang hymns and waved fronds of palm or of some other similar tree, while at some places bouquets of flowers attached to boughs of trees were sometimes carried in the procession calling it the Easter of Flowers.

The ass was not forgotten either. A book on ecclesiastical architecture relates an old tradition that “the ass on which Christ made His entry into Jerusalem left Judea immediately after the Crucifixion, and passing over the sea dry-shod to Rhodes, Cyprus, Malta, Sicily, and Aquileia, finally reached Verona, where it lived to a very old age. After its death its bones were collected and deposited in the belly of the wooden ass of Santa Maria in Organo, which was made as a memorial of it and its exact image.”

b13

Just as that event at Jerusalem made them an object of peculiar reverence to the early Christians, the cross on its back inspired belief that children suffering from whooping cough will be cured if they are made to sit on the mark and the donkey walked in a circle nine times.

It is interesting to think, with what different sentiments one regards the donkey at different periods. The poor quadruped which tradition says earned its reputation for stupidity in the Garden of Eden when it could not remember its name when God asked it, is actually, as one of my friends wrote, a poorly understood animal.

b14

Ass, when properly kept, is a handsome animal – much stronger in proportion, and much more hardy than the horse. The positive efforts of institutions such as Kölner Zoo in Germany, The Donkey Sanctuary in Devon, England, etc, very much help the welfare of the docile and friendly donkey to save them from becoming snapshots of a bygone era. Let us be glad that they are there and keep alive the age old tradition that to see a donkey will bring one the good luck. Until next time, Ciao, Jo

b15

Notes:

  1. According to some publications, the particular place where Joseph settled in Egypt is probably Metaryieh, near On/Heliopolis, about two hours distance north-east of Cairo.
  2. A Franciscan church, built on the foundation of an ancient shrine, stands to commemorate the place where Christ mounted the ass, contains a stone traditionally identified as used by Jesus to mount the ass for the journey to Jerusalem.
  3. Thanks to: Mr. Bernd Marcordes, Kurator, AG Zoologischer Garten Köln, Germany for the picture of Michel and Jeanette; to Ms. Pippa Helock of The Donkey Sanctuary, Devon for the picture “Looking Handsome”; and to Stefan Ahrens of Bistum Regensburg, Germany for the four pictures.
  4. Print and visual versions of “Ben-Hur” is available with amazon.com, amazon.co.uk and other leading dealers.

b16

Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)