“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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
As 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- 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.
(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)