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...