Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Christina Rossetti - In the Bleak Mid Winter....

The snow has been back at intermittent periods, followed by icy rain which has created beautiful icicles suspended from every natural and man-made form.


In the Bleak Mid Winter  
Christina Rossetti 
In the bleak mid-winter 
  Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, 
  Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, 
  Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
  Long ago.


Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him 
  Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
  When He comes to reign:
         In the bleak mid-winter 
                       A stable-place sufficed
                               The Lord God Almighty, 
                                    Jesus Christ. 

                    Enough for Him, whom cherubim
                            Worship night and day,
                    A breastful of milk 
                         And a mangerful of hay; 
                   Enough for Him, whom angels 
                         Fall down before, 
              The ox and ass and camel 
Which adore.

 Angels and archangels 
  May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim 
  Thronged the air,
But only His mother
 In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved 
  With a kiss.
Gargoyles spitting ice.

What can I give Him, 
  Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
  I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
  I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him, 
                   Give my heart.

In the Bleak Mid Winter was one of the poems written by Christina Rossetti in the latter part of the19th century. It was to be set to music, initially by Gustav Holst and later by Richard Drake and is one of my favouriteChristmas Carols.

Follow the link below to listen to the choir of King's College Cambridge singing it...

The 29th Deceember is the date on which Christina Rossetti died in 1894, her grave being in Highgate Cemetary. Although Christina Rossetti is perhaps better known as the sister of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, she was a recognized artist in her own right as a poet.
Christina Rossetti
Despite the fact that her life was dominated by her religious convictions as a devout High Anglican, Christina had a relatively rich existence in the sense that she was able to frequent renowned artists and writers of her epoque thanks to her brother's wide social circle and the fact that she was born into a family of artists, scholars and writers. Swinburne, Whistler and Lewis Carroll were amonst those she would have met, while one of the original founders of the PRB movement, painter James Collinson, had demanded her hand in marriage as did Charles Bagot Cayley. Both men were rejected due to their religious faith, considered incompatible with that of Rossetti. She did herself appear in several of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's works - the most famous perhaps being The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1849) where she modelled Mary.
The Girlhood of Mary Virgin; Gabriel Dante Rossetti 1848-49
In her writing Christina Rossetti often dealt with sober themes that led her thoughts and life; that of difficult love, death and resignation.
Ecce Ancilla Domini; Rossetti

Elements of repression and restriction are reflected in her fairy story Goblin Market whist her own concerns about female fellowship were put into action through her volunteer work with fallen women at St Mary Madgalene's penitentiary. Rossetti devoted much of her life to her family and not surprisingly she had exacting standards regarding those who were to enter the family sphere.
Gabriel Dante Rossetti

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was forever drawn to the writing of the 14th century Italian poet Dante Alighieri - especially the agonised love between Dante and Beatrice in The Divine Comedy as a source of inspiration to creativity. To a certain degree Rossetti replicated this duality in his relationship with his muse and long-term lover, the model Lizzie Siddal.
Ophelia  - John Everett Millais 1851-1852
It was Lizzie Siddal who was the model for John Everett Millais' Ophelia - a captivating painting due to its intense reality and even more moving since the girl subsequently became ill due to the extended period spent submerged in cold water. Lizzie Siddal was to be plagued by illness for the rest of her relatively short life and her health severely compromised by her addiction to laudanum. Having already had a still-born child, Lizzie again ill, depressed and pregnant  was to die of a laudanum overdose in 1862. Much of this is, of course, discussed in Lucinda Hawksley's biography, The Tradegy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel (published by André Deutsch 2004).
Beata Beatrix 1870
Both Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal having artistic talent and temperament and subject to self-destructive behaviour due to mood swings and bouts of depression, they formed a complicated couple wherein the muse had to wait 9 years before the artist was to 'make an honest woman of her' - through marriage. Rossetti's continual postponing of their marriage and his infidelities did nothing to aid Lizzie, and the reception of Lizzie by the female members of the Rossetti household, when Rossetti finally decided to present her, did nothing to encourage the reluctant man in his obligation. Christina was said to be fascinated by Lizzie Siddal - with her flame-haired beauty, strange aurora, prickly social skills and unconventional lifestyle -  and she could see how her brother was fatally drawn to her. At the same time Christina is said to have received Lizzie with a certain coldness and even perhaps slight hostility towards this bewitching creature who had beguiled her brother and blinded him to the fact that she simply wasn't worthy of him. Nevertheless, Christina's vision of Gabriel Dante Rossetti's relationship with his muse is perhaps quite acurate and was reflected in her poem In an Artist's Studio.
Lizzie; Rossetti

.....He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she wIth true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light;
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dreams.

Despite her own artistic talent, recognized by the art critic John Ruskin, Lizzie's potential was forever hampered by ill health, depression and rather erratic lifestyle.
Lizzie did, however, inspire many works herself, and perhaps the most famous of these was Beata Beatrix, painted after Lizzie's death. Her ethereal beauty continued to haunt Rossetti even after her demise and this haunting image was maintained by legend... Rossetti had her coffin exhumed so that he could recover poetry buried with his muse. The face was said to be ever-beautiful to behold, and the striking red hair had continued to grow after Lizzie had left this world...
Her grave is to be found in Highgate Cemetery, as is that of Christina Rossetti...

Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas Market - Going, Going... Gone!

Reims Market
I didn't have time to post this before Christmas, but maybe it might make people feel a little curious to visit this market, or any other of the hundreds that animate town centres over France in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Not surprisingly once Christmas Eve has passed, the shelves are emptied as the wares are packed up and the huts themselves are dismantled....So here are some of the goods on offer... Whilst many of the food and drink items have a historical and traditional relevance to the different regions of France, many of the stands offer articles that have a much more international flavour...

The first markets are said to have appeared in 14th century Germany and Alsace with the Marché de Saint Nicolas.

Documents referring toChristmas markets date back to 1434 under the reign of Friedrich II of Saxony, with mention of a Striezelmarkt in Dresden.

This word in turn relates to Struzel or Stroczel cake better known now as Stollen, sold on the market. This, along with many types of biscuit and glazed cakes typical of Alsace figure largely on the modern stands.

This is generally accompanied by mulled wine, although today other variations are available such as hot cider and orange juice. I wasn't even tempted to try these this time because the traditional wine just looked so inviting, especially during the cold spell we've been experiencing, along with the majority of European countries!

Macarons are also very popular here... The exact origins of this almond meringue pâtisserie seem to be difficult to define - some say that the recipe was brought to France with Catherine of Medicis. Others claim to have invented the macaron or at least to have encouraged its popularity. Various pastel colours and differing sizes exist, but the reference for the macaron here in France has got to be Ladurée - known as the Paris Macaron.

In Reims, the biscuit that traditionally accompanies champagne throughout the year and not just at Christmas is the Biscuit Rose - the reference for this being La Maison Fossier...

There are also pâtés en croûte and savoury brioches - which are rather like large sausage rolls with various types of meat filling...

Many forms of ham, dried sausage and smoked meat are also sold on the market. These can all be served with condiments - here are all different flavours of mustard that are produced here by a Rémois company - Clovis...
Clovis mustard and condiments.
There is also olive oil...

Of course these are all presented next to stands selling various different types of wine, spirits and beer....

One of the more colourful stalls sells dried and confit exotic fruit....This fruit comes from the Provençal tradition of the 13 desserts that are served at the end of the Christmas meal, which in France generally takes place on the 24th December, rather than on the 25th as we tend to do in England...

The number 13 is symbolic of the Last Supper with Jesus and the 12 Apostles. Here the sweet offerings are divided into 4 categories - Pâtisserie (Pompe d'olive and Oreillettes); Confisserie (Nougat and Pâtes de fruit); Fruits secs (the 'Mendiants') and finally Fruit frais (fresh clementines, grapes). Les Mendiants (referring back to the Mendicant religious orders dependant on charity for their livelihood) are the most important of the 4 categories and this group is itself divided into 4 groups...
Hazelnuts and walnuts represent the Augustinians; dried figs symbolize the Franciscans; almonds, the Carmelites and finally raisins represent the Dominicans.

Santons de Provence.

 The Santons are used to decorate the crêches, again a tradition from the Provence region in the South of France. It is said that santons flourished in popularity after the French Revolution when churches were closed and Midnight Mass banned, as were all public representations of the Nativity. The small brightly-coloured clay figurines enabled families to celebrate in the privacy of their own homes; in 1803 the first Foire aux Santons was inaugurated in Marseille. Here on the right-hand side of the santons photo above you can see a little person who was drawn to the colourful lollipops also on display....
Looking like brightly-coloured sweets are decorated glass baubles to be found alongside decorations more typical of Eastern Europe... I love the angelic expressions of the smaller Russian doll baubles....

So now we'll just have to wait till next Christmas....

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Holly and the Ivy...

Not actually holly, but beautiful nevertheless...

                                                             The holly and the ivy,
                                                             When they are both full grown
                                                             Of all the trees that are in the wood
                                                             The holly bears the crown. 

 I love the contrast of bright red berries and vibrant green of evergreens, typical of the holly. With its symbolic origins in Pagan and Christian faith the holly is synonymous with Christmas and its image is, of course, intertwined with that of ivy. Together they are traditionally said to represent evergreen hope throughout the dormant or 'dead' months of the year before spring starts to open the door to burgeoning new life.
Ivy and clematits (in Canterbury!).

 Over the last few weeks the snow has clothed the city landscapes, but evergreen colours keep appearing ....
Reims cathedral.
Blood red and warm orange defying the icy temperatures...
Physalis - L'amour en cage - lanterns in the garden.
Whilst rich green leaves contrast the dark, stark branches of the trees you can find evergreen and verdigris all round the city...

Beyond all of this, from time to time, there have been bright blue skies....

Reims cathedral.

The sun starts to break through and then the snow begins to clear... The ice melts to create its own cathedrals of inverted spires and dripping gargoyles...

Here's a link to enable you to listen to The Holly and the Ivy sung by Winchester Cathedral choir.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Plenum gratiae et veritatis...

St Jean; Montmartre
Plenum gratiae et veritatis - grace and truth - comes from the prologue of the Gospel of St John, Verbum caro factum est. Here in this stained glass window from the Evangelist church of St Jean at Montmartre, we typically see the Holy dove - image of the Holy Spirit, and symbol of peace, hope and truth. As one of the four apostles, along with Matthew, Mark and Luke, John was said to be the closest to Jesus Christ and is often symbolized by an eagle, whilst an angel, a lion and an ox respectively represent the former.

 Considered to be the enemy of the snake, symbol of the devil himself, the eagle is able to reach celestial heights, has all-seeing vision and is said to withstand the blinding light of divine truth. It is the eagle which generally supports the lectern in churches and cathedrals and it is the lectern, of course, which bears the Bible, with the Holy word.

The majority of the sacred Christian edifices from the Middle Ages and beyond offer scenes of Judgement Day.

Notre Dame; Paris
From a  Burgundy cathedral
These present in no uncertain terms what will happen to those lesser mortals who have strayed from the Holy word.

Sinners' ill deeds are noticably considered and weighed and those led astray by temptation are separated from the saintly... Some may be cleansed by Purgatory, others not...
Reims cathedral
For those who remain unpurified, evil creatures are at hand to visibly herd them together and haul them off to Hell, often presented as a flame-licked cauldron.
Reims cathedral

The sinners, understandably, look petrified and perhaps a little repentant....

Meanwhile the devil and his fiendish helpers appear jubilant, brazenly looking directly at us as surrounding saints and angels look on with more modest expressions... There seems to be little hope of earthly redemption, as the devil has already claimed the souls of his sinners....
A Burgundy cathedral

Famous for having heard the word of God, and yet being killed for this and her role in leading the Dauphin Charles to the sacred city of Reims to be consecrated King, was Joan of Arc - La Pucelle d'Orléans. Frequently seen as symbolic of the resistance of France against the enemy, Joan of Arc's intervention meant that  the long-standing hostilities between the English and the French took on a distinct religious aspect.
Joan of Arc; Reims
The Hundred Years War had begun in 1337 and were made up of a succession of disputes over the French throne. When Joan emerged on this tinder-box historic scene, the English had virtually gained dual monarchy under English control. When Joan was tried and condemned for heresy and witchcraft the legitimacy of the coronation of Charles VII was questioned, enabling the English to have a claim to the throne. She was burnt at the stake in Rouen in 1431, the body being burnt twice again so that relics could not be collected...
Unfortunately on the photo the national heroine looks as if she's just been struck in the course of a huge snowball fight which doesn't seem very respectful, especially as we English showed her no mercy and certainly flouted all laws....
Palais de Justice; Reims
This weekend I've been marking all my Law faculty students' exam papers....
Lex is the Latin word for law - meaning the system or body of laws, written or unwritten, to be applied to a case or issue. Meanwhile jus is the word for justice which is often  portrayed its allegorical  form on the facades of lawcourts, with the symbol of Justice, Justicia holding the scales to measure right and wrong, legal, illegal, in order to rectify the imbalance. She also bears a sword, ready to cut the line between the parties concerned. In French the verb used to describe the judge's decision-taking is trancher, meaning literally 'to cut'. The Goddess of Justice also wears a blindfold to show that she is not as such blind, simply not blinded by prejudice.

I decided to set a theme I always find fascinating and therefore more interesting to work through - namely the nature and difficulty of the role of the criminal defense laywer...The gut reaction to the ethics of this line of work is often the same, but is generally because we fail to see that the duty of the defense lawyer is ultimately to defend the integrity of democracy and the justice system and thus avoid any individual, be that the accused or the plaintiff, being oppressed or abused by law, and victim to miscarriages of justice. Well, that's the theory, but it does help to bear in mind even if it can often be difficult to comprehend, so I do enjoy reading what the students have to say on the subject, before being obliged to measure their work and give them a final mark.
Reims ( I didn't put it there, honestly! I just love his expression!!)
I myself don't like beer, but a glass of wine after my day's work of  weighing up is welcome!

And just before I finish, in general terms, I suppose it might be appropriate to quote Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice...

The quality of mercy is not strain'd.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes.
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown.
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the heart of kings;
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Le Train Bleu.... Restaurant and Railway Line

Central 'track' of Le Train Bleu restaurant
Having repeatedly heard about Le Train Bleu restaurant in the English Sunday newspapers I finally gave in to curiosity and went to pay this renowned historical site a visit a few years ago. I certainly wasn't disappointed and have been back several times.

The Train Bleu Menu
Most of the old European train stations are like vast cathedrals to19th century travel, with their huge vaulted glass expanses and ornate fretwork rising up above like neo-Gothic structures whilst their tracks stretch out before us like veins linked to new lives. However, it is perhaps rare to have an actual glimpse of these potential horizons, savour the mood of other landscapes far from the capital and to feel yourself transported in time and space whilst sedentary in the station itself...
Seascape wall panel
Just above the central platforms of the Gare de Lyon, overlooking the activity and routine of travellers and strictly timetabled trains stands the unchanging Train Bleu.

View onto the platforms and tracks

 Here, you are able to experience not only the majestic, sumptuous decor of turn-of-the-century Paris, crystalised and reflected all around you, but also to sample the azure horizons of the Train Bleu's destinations on the French Riviera.

And that's without mentioning the fact that you do so whilst eating and drinking exquisitely! This strange mixture of elements and extremes forms the magic of this establishment set in a listed monument and also makes Le Train Bleu unique since it is accessible to travellers or the general public alike - even those of more modest pretentions.

The Train Bleu restaurant as we know it today did not bear that name at its beginning in 1900. Initially it was rather modestly and unimaginatively known as the Buffet de la Gare de Lyon. However, the historical context  gives more insight to the decor of the restaurant than its original name on its conception under the Second Empire.

It was constructed for the Exposition Universelle, along with Le Grand and LePetit Palais, le Pont Alexandre, and was decorated in the lavish style of the Belle Epoque for the PLM - the railway company Paris-Lyon-Mediterranean.

The decor is richly ornamented with gold stucco, beautiful crystal chandeliers and wide windows looking out onto the busy Parisian streets of the 12th arrondissement and the tracks themselves fanning out below and beyond the restaurant. The walls and ceilings are decorated with scenes from le Côte d'Azur, representing the play of southern light  which brings out the different colours of the sea and landscapes which offer a foretaste to the South-bound passengers and whetting the appetitite of the city-bound Parisian diners.

The restaurant is set out with original train features or elements that reflect those - from the leather banquettes to the brass luggage racks, however the final atmosphere is in no way cramped since the light-filled restaurant stretches out the full length of the station.

 Indeed, on the far left-hand side as you enter the restaurant  is Le Big Ben café/Bar with its burgundy armchairs and rich curtains creating a relaxed atmosphere, a little like gentlemen's Victorian pubs.
The nearby restaurant toilets are an experience in themselves with their old original ceramics and tiles and a slightly more modern shoe-polishing machine.
Central time piece and the emblematic French cockerel
At the other far extreme is the great buffet piece, mounted by a very proud golden French cockerel. This same Gallic pride is displayed by the in-house buffet cat who can be seen as he non-chalantly makes his rounds, observing the customers with insouciance, ignoring their advances and any petty notions of Health and Safety that seem to plague England.
One of the diners with a little canine company (not the coat!)

I particularly like this more relaxed, tolerant attitude in such majestic surroundings and was delighted to see that one of the elegant, rather well-heeled diners had a small Daschund peeping out onto the table from behind her fur coat and a glass of champagne, which yapped discreetly at regular intervals!

As for the Train Bleu railway service itself, this was initially a luxury train launched in 1922 for a company of sleeper wagons from between Calais and Ventigmiglia. Just the names themselves conjure up the glow and Twenties glamour of the French Riviera - Marseille, Toulon, Saint Raphaël, Cannes, Juan-Les-Pins, Antibes, Nice, Monaco, Monte-Carlo, Menton and San Remo in Italy.....

 The train's name reflected the choice of colour for the decor of the carriages and it was a name that remained whilst the more elitist pretentions of the train did not. Although earlier passengers included Charlie Chaplin, Chanel, Winston Churchill  and Scott Fitzgerald, after the Great Depression of the 1930's there were fewer affluent passengers from America and England. When the Popular Front nationalised the train, second and third class travel was offered to French citizens of a more modest milieu.

The last official Train Bleu ran in December 2007, however the line has been immortalized in various literary, musical and cinematic works -Agatha Christie's The Mystery of the Blue Train being just one such example.

Even if you can't visit the Train Bleu restaurant in person, you can always visit it on the official website - complete with a video.
Another possibility is to watch the extract from the Mr Bean film - for although it may put you off eating oysters, it will nevertheless whet your appetite for a trip to this fantastic restaurant site which was officially recognized by André Malraux in 1972.
And finally here's a song by France Gall, Cézanne peint, to put a little sun into a cold winter's day.
Route de Cézanne - Aix-en Provence