Wednesday, December 25, 2013

La Sainte-Chapelle of Paris...

In the 14th century, a Parisian scholar remarked that on venturing into the sacred edifice of La Sainte-Chapelle, "one understandably believes oneself, as if rapt to heaven, to enter one of the best chambers of Paradise." While others have been a little more reserved in their praise, La Sainte-Chapelle is widely considered to be the jewel of Gothic rayonnante architecture. 
Situated on the Ile de la Cité in the heart of Paris, it was constructed in the mid-13th century as a chapel for the Capetian royal palace, of which little remains today. Sainte-Chapelle is now surrounded by the Palais de Justice, which continued the regal function of hearing the pleadings of aristocracy from the royal lit de justice. The Conciergerie is the principal palatial vestige, ironically becoming a prison to hold those of noble blood before they faced the guillotine during the Revolution years. Marie-Antoinette was, of course, one of its most famous inmates. 

This dark, sinister past, along with the austere buildings that obscure the chapel from view give no indication to the creation of luminosity that lies behind the imposing walls. Even when you enter the central area, the rather modest exterior of Sainte-Chapelle, with the sobriety of its façade belie the breath-taking splendour within. There are no flying buttresses or lavish sculpture to indicate what lies beyond, and the gargoyles that peer down give no hint to what is hiding below. 
For above all, this royal chapel was conceived to be an exquisite jewellery box that had to be opened in order to reveal its treasures. This was a reliquary 'turned in on itself', created to house the Holy relics that acted as the jewels in the crown of Louis IX and underlined the sacred lineage of this future saint. 
The worldly and spiritual might of Louis (1214-1270) were mirrored in the magnificence of the architecture and decoration of the chapel interior, and were again reflected and refracted through the very themes of that decor.
 The basis of this was the play of a seemingly spiritual light on the terrestrial glass structure that led to the illumination of this jewelled structure and the elevation of the mortal to higher planes. 
The 600 m2 of stained glass creates the impression of a vast, vertical expanse of gem-stone luminosity. Fifteen intricate glass panels and a huge rose window of flamboyant tracery (c.1490) encase this space, but lift the eyes of all towards the vaulted ceiling above, creating an impression of ascension and weightlessness. 
This intricate cage was ingenuously crafted following the spatial examples of earlier chapels such as those at Amiens cathedral and at Aachen. More significant too was the influence of contemporary metalworkers, such as the Mosan goldsmiths of Northern France whose work may have inspired the use of two bands of metal in Sainte-Chapelle to encircle the structure.
 The brightly-coloured diaphanous shell was, in fact, firmly anchored to its base. Like Noyon cathedral, a two-storey structure is apparent. Indeed, the lower chapel for the palatial parishioners forms the foundation for its royal counterpart, with 14 pillars soundly rooted into its structure and crowned by stone and metal pinnacles far above. 

Although there is no specific trace of an architect for Sainte-Chapelle, Pierre de Montreuil, responsible for work carried out on the abbey of Saint-Denis and the cathedral of Notre-Dame, is often cited.
Beyond the rich stained-glass windows, every aesthetic means was employed to decorate the chapel to lavish effect. Any available space on the walls alongside, or on the vaults above, was painted in vivid colours that matched those of the windows - rather different to the more subdued tones used in the 19th century restoration. 
Textile hangings and furthermore huge sculptures of the twelve Apostles completed the visual impact of Sainte-Chapelle. Nevertheless, the stained-glass windows remained first and foremost key to the full symbolism of the chapel. 
Whilst several of the window panels deal with scenes from the New Testament, notably in the eastern apse, others in the nave feature images of monarchs. The vital role of Louis IX is highlighted in other scenes which represent the king's determined retrieval of the Holy relics and their transfer to Sainte-Chapelle itself. 
Many images are thought to have been inspired by the illuminated manuscript of the Bible of Toledo (the St Louis Bible). This was created for Louis IX, on the request of his mother, the Queen Consort of France, Blanche de Castile (1188-1252). 
King and Christ are portrayed in narrative scenes in order to seal the sacral kinship. Again, there is a play of mirrors as the glory of Louis is reflected within and amplified through this glorious looking glass. 
The whole conception of Sainte-Chapelle was part and parcel of a strategy that spanned most of Louis's life, and led to his death. On his coronation in Reims in 1226, the future role of Louis as 'Lieutenant of God on Earth' was acknowledged. As king of France - the 'eldest daughter of the Church' - it was Louis' divine duty to defend the Catholic faith. 
He went on two Crusades to the Holy Lands, in 1248 and 1270, the second leading to his final demise. Through his religious endeavours, Louis sought to present himself as a latter-day descendant of Emperor Charlemagne, the 'Father of Europe'. With the Holy Roman Empire in chaos, Louis portrayed himself as an eligible candidate as central monarch of Western Christendom. 
It was Louis' spiritual mission and his regal and political aspirations that led to his acquisition of several relics of inestimable worth. In fact, these did come at a very real price, for while others would simply pillage, the saintly Louis purchased his Passion relics from the Latin emperor at Constantinople, Beaudoin II, at huge cost. This took place in1239, after two years of negotiation, the Crown of Thorns being the most precious relic of all.
In the last stage of the transfer of the relics to Paris, it was Louis himself, symbolically dressed as a penitent, who carried them. From 1241, Louis further enlarged his collection by the addition of other Byzantium pieces which included fragments of the True Cross and the Holy Lance. A place of worship was required to unite this treasure temporarily kept in the Château of Vincennes and the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye. It was decided that a chapel would be built within the Palais de la Cité itself to house the relics, enabling the king to enter directly from the palace. The early plans were drawn up 1241, work commenced in 1246, and the consecration of La Sainte-Chapelle took place in 1248. 
No expense was spared to create a monument worthy of the prestigious relics. The fact that the reliquary chapel cost 40,000 livres to build and the initial relics came at the price of 135,000 livres gives a clear indication of their importance. A further 100,000 had been spent on a vast silver chest - la Grand-Châsse - to store the relics.
Of this vast aesthetic and spiritual wealth, only the intrinsic structure of Sainte-Chapelle has survived the centuries largely intact. Louis himself was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church and was pronounced saint in Orvieto in 1297. During his reign, the three petals of the fleur-de-lys were said to represent Faith, Wisdom and Chivalry, but throughout the years of the French Revolution the symbol was seen to represent everything that The Terror sought to overthrow. The end of the 18th century led to the dismantling, dispersion or destruction of much of the chapel's precious contents and decor. 
During the revolutionary years, the chapel was used as office for administrative purposes and for this reason it escaped the fate that its choir stalls, rood screen and spire met. Under Viollet-le-Duc, restoration work was completed on Sainte-Chapelle in 1855, notably with a new spire, and from 1862 is became a national historic monument. Today, the Sainte-Chapelle always seems to have a long queue of visitors which snakes along the street, rain or shine. The day I went, it was particularly cold and grey but the beauty shone through. Unfortunately, my camera was playing up, so many of the photos just do not do the chapel any justice whatsover. I intend to go back on a bright, sunny day. Roll on 2014 with a new list of New Year's Resolutions and above all, the intention to discover more marvels wherever I should find myself...

Until then, enjoy your Christmas!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Cathedrals of Frost...

I was trudging across a very unremarkable car park in last week's cold weather, when I noticed the beautiful dewdrops attached like intricate beadwork on the spiders' webs draped over the skeletal remains of plants.

 I returned the next day, but as the temperatures had plummeted overnight, everything had frozen. The droplets, as everything else, had turned to ice...

The bright winter's light gave a certain majesty to what had originally been unloved and unlovely scruffy weeds...

The light pouring through the stained glass windows of the cathedral drew me in closer, on the way home again. It seemed to emphasize the majestic weight of the whole, yet make this seem light and delicate. The rather animated angels also seemed to be chatting against this golden backdrop!

Here's a video, the image quality of which isn't great when put onto full screen. Haven't yet worked out how to improve on this, but still...

Friday, December 6, 2013

Cat allergies... Cats 'allergic' to each other... And happy endings!

I can't imagine life without some form of feline, or at least furry, friend. And I would certainly hate to think of any childhood deprived of such a thing. I do have a preference for cats, I suppose, because my first cat coloured my early years, although I remember being disappointed when he arrived on the scene one Christmas because I'd been hoping for a rabbit... As consolation (for me), the cat was named Benjamin after the Beatrix Potter character. As it turned out, having a Siamese cat suited me fine, especially as we had seen the Aristocats film, and so had got to know a thing or two about their cunning Oriental ways.
The haughty behaviour, quasi-evil traits, weird sense of humour and psychopathic sentiments were all irresistible, even to a child initially wanting a 'cute' fluffy bunny. And I shouldn't have worried; I didn't miss out on the rabbits... As a formidable feline hunter living in the countryside, he regularly managed to bring back roughed-up rabbits, mauled moles and numerous shrews that he didn't even bother to nibble before devouring (don't ask me how I know...). Yet despite his murderous tendencies, Ben was a great friend to me, even if not always very well behaved, and was certainly a devoted companion. He was also the first to religiously home in on any visitor that declared that they 'didn't like cats', not to mention those with allergies, and was, of course, always ready to give any self-confessed 'cat-lover' a very wide berth. He lived through almost all my teenage years, and finally died during my first year at university, kindly doing so when I was home and able to say goodbye to him, with all the fondness and due respect he truly deserved.
Fast forward almost 11 years, to when I found the essence of Benjamin in my second Siamese cat, Pedro. The kooky, quirky traits, perverse behaviour, wanton disrespect of others, the drive to be positioned in the middle of any activity thus causing maximum disruption, the evident joy to be gleaned from sleeping in any warm place, regardless of any other consideration were all manifest in Pedro, multiplied and intensified because he was for the most part, a 'house cat'.
A generation down; Pedro
He enjoyed a saunter around the garden, and would take purposeful swipes at bats, butterflies and bugs of all kinds, given the chance, but only once caught and killed a bird. Who killed Cock Robin? Pedro. The official line to the children was that Pedro and the robin were 'playing', though I'm not sure they bought that... especially having had first-hand experience of his 'games' which invariably involved a deft scratch and fleeting bite. However, true to his Siamese genes, Pedro, just like Ben before him, was nothing if not a devoted companion, following the children and myself around the house, albeit ever-ready to mark out the lines again when those weren't respected the first time. Pedro became increasingly affectionate towards the children as the years passed, although that never extended itself to their passing friends, who may still remember being systematically scratched and bitten.
This belated affectionate behaviour made it all the harder when it was officially declared that both children had cat allergies. Fortunately, we didn't have to take any action ('re-homing') and within less than two years poor Pedro had died of natural causes, in relatively old age. After this we entered the zombie-zone, of a cat-less existence... Until I heard of a hypo-allergenic breed of cat, that is...
Fast forward two years, subtract vast sums of money and finally greet Krasnogorsk Felix, the Siberian cat from the depths of the Loire region. Despite all my hopes, both children had truly awful allergic responses to our new furry friend, and for at least two months life was full of hankies and anti-histamines (inefficient). I despaired, and wondered how I could have been so stupid to take such a risk on every single level. However, little by little the situation improved considerably; Oggie became hypo-allergenic and/or the children less reactive.

 Fast forward three years, subtract sightly less vast sums of money and greet a female feline companion for Oggie; Masha the Siberian from Switzerland. Fearing that Oggie was getting bored during his extended day-time hours of solitude, I thought a little company would be beneficial and so when the occasion presented itself, I seized it. Act in haste, repent in leisure... Well approximately six weeks of nail-biting leisure, as it turned out. Had I taken the time to do research on the very basics of cat behaviour, I would soon have realized that cats do not 'need' other felines to feel good. Quite the reverse; a cat feels good in his space, alone, on his own terms, and certainly doesn't appreciate another feline encroaching on this territory. Although I had gathered that it was best to introduce the new-comer very gradually, I really hadn't foreseen any particular problems. Perhaps I thought Oggie would find the kitten as endearing as we all did. He didn't. After an initial interest that seemed encouraging, Oggie soon began to regard Masha as an over-sized mouse, ready to be chased and thrown around at will. His will. Although Masha did try to give as much as she was given, there was no match...
There followed several weeks of intensive study of cat psychology, numerous videos watched for practical advice to accompany the minutes, hours, days and weeks of keeping the cats separated, yet together. But finally...

So, if the introduction doesn't go well, take as much time as you possibly can to get both cats used to each others' presence. Don't ever let the cats 'fight it out' alone. Only let them spend time together under strict supervision, preferably with food and toys to distract them should one cat get aggressive. Having a greedy hostile cat is definitely a bonus at this point. Trim the claws of the hostile cat, but not those of the other cat; a useful self-defense weapon, if needed. When you do decide to extend the introductions, keep the cats shut in the room with you, making sure that there are escape routes available (space under furniture). Let the cats spit and spar a little, but only if it doesn't appear too hostile on both sides, and preferably allowing them to use strategic vantage points - furniture and cat castles.

A little rough-and-tumble should establish how the land lies, but it shouldn't turn too feral. For all of the dramatic element, there shouldn't be any blood drawn, although expect the odd tuft of fluff to fly in the action. We watched the trilogy of Lord of Rings over many evenings in order to let the cats find their marks under our watchful gaze. As the Hobbits and dwarves were battling against the Orcs, Oggie and Masha thrashed it out around us, to great theatrical effect as their battles became more and more playful. From what I have seen, cat politics seems quite subtle; without anything apparent to us humans, one cat is able to establish itself as boss, and it isn't necessarily the cat who was initially hostile!
Should all of this process take longer than you anticipated, watch the videos of the genius cat b
behaviourist, Jackson Galaxy, on YouTube to find hope and inspiration... My Cat from Hell.


Sunday, December 1, 2013

December, at last!

Christ Church Gate - Canterbury Cathedral
Well, November was not a great month, but here's December at last, so things can surely only get better. Actually, a day trip to Canterbury yesterday ended the month in style, although not without its 'moments'. Coach-bound teenage girls + two-hour delay = frazzled nerves all round...

However, looking up at the façade of the entrance gate to the cathedral brought a little fleeting serenity, for me, at least. The bronze figure of Christ was placed in the central position in 1990, in order to fill the niche that had lain empty since the destruction of the original figure during the Civil War, in the time of Cromwell. Apparently this 20th century addition is thought to be a little unsuitable, due to its vibrant colour, but I think it's precisely this which brings out the beauty of the whole.

The entrance itself dates back to the beginning of the 16th century, built to mark the marriage of the eldest brother of Henry VIII, Arthur the Prince of Wales, and Catherine of Aragon in 1501. Unfortunately the newly-wed died the following year at the age of 15, thus dashing the Anglo-Spanish alliance against France, and leaving Catherine a widow. Despite hesitations on the part of both parties, Catherine was finally betrothed to Henry VIII in 1509. One can only wonder how history would have been different had Arthur never died, or if Henry VIII had been able to produce a male heir to the throne...

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Made in Reims - Paste on, Peel off graffiti art...

Nothing happening here at the moment, no time to do anything even if there were... However, I have come across some 'urban decoration' with an original twist on the usual graffiti themes that invariably crop up on any available wall space around the town.

Here, the central Lego figure is based on the Ange au Sourire from the façade of the cathedral, just at the end of the cobbled street. Not quite sure about the artist's command of English, but the overall effect made a change from the usual sprawling initials and coded names. These also had the novelty feature of being in a poster form that can be either pulled off, or left to simply peel off in the rain.

The one above looks as if it might be a little more permanent...

 Well, another addition... This one must have been from Christmas time 2013, for obvious reasons, though I don't know what Santa's little gift might have been, as it has been ripped off.

I don't know what the references are here, though presumably one of them is to offal (= les abats).

This type of graffiti emerges sporadically, but doesn't last long. The ones I first posted didn't even make the end of the month, let alone see in 2014... Here are a few more that have just cropped up.

I like these, with all their snaky forms and weird details....

I don't really understand why people are so eager to tear these off...

I like trying to find them around town... like a mystery tour.

They appear in some strange places, though probably won't last much longer than the traditional variety. The spray paint stencil artwork is quite expressive, but is quickly removed.

The one above is part of the junky type of graffiti that usually just annoys me, but the panda with 'friend' makes a change...

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Poldark - A Grave Affair...

Celtic cross at Gulval.
Over the years I had been dying to watch the televised adaptation of Winston Graham's saga, Poldark. This was broadcast in the mid-seventies, to great acclaim, and yet I never got to watch a single episode. I can't remember the exact reasons for that, but I do remember being the only person in class who had no idea who Demelza and Ross were, let alone the nature of their relationship.

Perhaps it was precisely because of this romantic twist that I wasn't allowed to follow the series, although I used to hear about the latest gripping episode on Monday morning at school.

 Either way, it was only in January of this very year that I finally managed to see what I had missed out on in my early teenage years. I ordered a second-hand box set of the Poldark TV series and wasn't entirely sure what to expect...

Our house somewhere shrouded in mist in the valley
This was 70s viewing that offered a heady mix of heightened emotions, excessive ambition, material greed, base instincts, and honorable duty... not to mention those romantic storylines interspersed throughout.

Our old house - included just for my own pleasure...
All this costumed melodrama burst onto modest television screens at a time before the arrival of the soaps-and-series formats that are so familiar today and in a era when television offered only three channels. Even Dallas had yet to be created. This meant that every Sunday night Poldark held onto a captive audience that was entranced by the swashbuckling action, larger-than-life vilains and beautiful, virtuous beings.
The same again - no direct link to Poldark - but a past part of Cornwall for me...

They were fascinatined by the passion and drama that crashed around the plot much like the waves that opened each episode, and were likewise ensnared by the cliffhanger event that marked the end of each weekly fix of Poldark titillation. No wonder I felt left out in the cold!

Watching the series almost forty years after its creation, I anticipated a quaint but staid bodice ripper, with a bit of gritty social realism offered by the hardships suffered by the mining/fishing-cum-smuggling communities, thrown in along with the usual potboiler staple ingredients. However, despite a few outdated filming techniques, the occasional 'wooden' stage set and clunky sub-plots, I was surprised to see how well the series has stood its ground. Above all, I enjoyed the dynamism of many of the actors, and yes, the dynamics of Demelza and Ross's relationship that were so well brought to life by Angharad Rees and Robin Ellis.

Partners in crime...
Set in 18th century, the story certainly offered the scriptwriters a rich opportunity to introduce a wealth of idiosyncratic characters from all different milieux - all brought together by the Poldark name and the feuds that drove the family onwards, through pride and ambition and yet inevitably seemed to split its individual members apart. The baudy behaviour of rascals such as Ross's housekeeper Jud is set in parallel with the lecherous dealings of the reptilian Reverend Osbourne, brilliantly played by Christopher Biggins, both entertaining and shocking in equal measure. Their worldly antics are offset by the cold-blooded treachery of the brooding and beetle-browed George Warleggan, Ross's vengeful arch enemy. Alongside this is the love-interest element, largely focused on Ross, his thwarted love for starchy ice-maiden Elizabeth and of course the woman who occupies the other corner of the triangle, Demelza. From the wildcat wench who features in the first episodes, she becomes the fiesty female of fiery hair and temper - transformed but not entirely tamed by Ross. Other romantic sidelines are pursued in the plot, to greater or lesser degree and success, but the keystone to the plot remains the Poldark family relations.
The setting for all of this breathtaking drama, was one of equally stunning nature; the rugged moorland and spectacular coastline of Cornwall. It was mostly this that drove me to watch Poldark - the desire to view landscape that had been familiar to me and in so doing, escape the cityscape around me here in the present. Coming from Cornwall, though not actually Cornish, I wanted a hefty fix of homeland. The Poldark series 'delivered', though I wish even more had been shown of the land and sea.  However, I was also dying of curiosity to see the scene that I had witnessed in person, back then as a child in the mid-seventies...

And again...
Living in the countryside, in an old converted farmhouse with its battered barns, us children were drawn to the activities of a full film crew that was shooting in the churchyard just across the fields. Of course, we had never heard of Poldark, but the filming seemed interesting enough in the drizzly winter weather of the school holidays. Better still, however, was what the crew left behind at the end of the shoot. Indeed, the scene dealt with the burial of a family member, showing the mourners gathered around the open grave... a grave that had apparently been dug especially for the filming of the episode. It was convincingly deep, and was covered up with wooden planks at the end of filming. This in itself was tantalizing and needless to say, called for closer inspection.

Very seventies.

Never a tomboy, but always ready for a bit of action, and perhaps rightly labelled a 'scallywag' by a neighbour across the valley, I didn't need persuading to jump down into the grave with the boys.

It was a great; authentic skeletal remains protruded out of the soil on the sides of the hole. What wasn't so great, was the attempted ascent out of the depths. The boys shoved and hoisted each other up and out, but left me in there, scrabbling against the earthy flanks, trying to get a hold, but merely filling up my boots with dislodged soil. Finally they relented and hauled me out, and nothing more was said about the event, or indeed the filming, although we heard later that the farmhouse of one of the boys from school had been used as Nampara - Ross's home.

 It was naturally a true pleasure to see a few fleeting images of our old church in the Poldark series, but more remarkable still was to see the funeral scene, filmed from down inside the grave, just as I had experienced it! My children weren't impressed, but I did feel honoured to have been there.

We moved away from the country in 1976. We left behind the farmhouse, hill walks, mine-shaft dodging on the moors, treks across muddy fields, past herds of menacing cattle to go to school or over towards St Ives in favour of relatively 'glamorous' townlife.

 As much as I was excited to live in a 'big' town, in a 'real' house, and had been counting the days till we would leave, I can remember swearing to myself then that one day I'd come back and buy our farmhouse. I've followed the changes the old place has undergone over the years, but it makes me sad to see it now.

 It has become a holiday let, and is barely recognisable. It can even be viewed on the internet, but try as I might I can't find in these glossy images any remains of the old ramshackle house which itself dated from the 18th century - the Poldark period. The only thing that hasn't changed over the years is the house name, which I won't mention, for obvious reasons, and the distinctive chimney which us children would clamber up to escape from punishment merited by our latest escapades. I don't remember if we even told our parents about our grave affair...

Well, just for good measure for my virtual memory box - this post - I'll include a weird video clip of a wedding I attended as a child. This has absolutely no relevance to Poldark. I was the one fidgeting and flouncing around in the pink checkered dress. I don't know how the cow came to be there, but this was the wild seventies, after all.

Since buying my DVD set of Poldark, I have noticed that the whole series has been uploaded onto YouTube, so this might give rise to another generation of Poldark fans.

Along the coast from Porthcurno.