Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Beach Life - Links to the Past, tenuous and otherwise...

I arrived in France this day, twenty-four years ago. That is almost a quarter of a century and represents almost half of my life - quite alarming! Before leaving England, I went to visit people and places; one of these being my elderly great-aunt in Birmingham. She is the little girl in the picture above, standing next to my paternal grandfather, on the step of the family shop. As can be seen from the name of the proprietor, there is in fact a particular reason for my giving this blog its cheesy title of Beach-Combing Magpie...
I remember hunting around for this elusive black-and-white photo back then, but only found it again this summer, after all those years. I think the picture was taken in 1911; the grimness and grime of those red-brick Brummie streets comes across, perhaps a little unfairly, but that is probably not helped by the rather mournful expressions of the children. Maybe a more just representation of Midlands life is shown in the photo below, of my maternal grandmother in a group outing of the Birmingham Naturalists (hence the butterfly net).

She is the cheeky little creature sitting in the front row, third from the left. I never actually met my grandfather, but I did know and love the old ladies that these two little girls eventually grew into. Both were full of character and determination and learnt to manage, for one reason or another, to live and work as single women in a man's world. My grandmother had a wicked sense of humour that must have steered her through moments of hardship, and in hindsight, was probably in possession of a large dose of political incorrectness that simply passed for forthrightness in those days, and either way was certainly fine by me...

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to know what lies ahead of us, and whether that would be desirable or disastrous, or simply both of these simultaneously... What would my great-aunt and my grandmother have done to alter the course of their lives, if they could have done so? I know of a number of things that I would change, but how much else would be modified and fall away, as if it had never existed? Maybe that whole erosion theme is what makes me love the film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind... Anyway, here's me on a holiday trip to Cornwall, a few years younger than the other two little girls above. This must have been taken just a year or so before our final move from Birmingham to settle in the South West for good... Well, until I finally left for France, that is...

Baie de La Somme
Although I may be very far from the beach now, and have certainly changed my line of seaside attire, the beach-combing instincts are still fully intact.

To celebrate aspects of the last (almost) 25 years here, and to compensate for others, I decided to visit the Baie de la Somme this weekend. I walked miles along the impressive eroding chalks cliffs and vast expanses of beach; one of the chief attractions of the latter being the pebbles, of course!

These really were the most beautiful specimens... It's strange to think about how and from what they were formed, over all those years, to take up their present shape, size and location - my balcony!

My great aunt
My grandmother

Above are the women those two little Brummie girls grew into, still years before I even knew them in my childhood, but long after theirs were over, and their lives had already been shaped and driven by events in their existence...

And finally, their relative!

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Bayart and The Four Sons of Aymon - La Statue du Cheval Bayart et Les Quatres Fils Aymon des Ardennes...

Statue of Les Quatre Frères Aymon (one hiding!) and Bayart the magical horse.
The forested lands of the Champagne-Ardenne region, with the river Meuse snaking through the valleys, have long been the source of legend and folklore. The most famous of these is that of the Four Sons of Aymon, a tale of great valour in the face of injustice and adversity, and which is one of a number of Medieval chansons de geste, sung or recited by les trouvères (minstrels) in the north of France. Depending on the emphasis given to the key characters, it is also referred to as the ‘Legend of the Knight Renaud of Montauban’ or the ‘Legend of Bayart’, but the main elements remain…

It is not surprising then, that a large monument dedicated to the heroic deeds of the four brothers Aymon and their magical steed, Bayart should be found in the heart of this region, high above the town of Bogny-sur-Meuse, overlooking the sinuous river and the forests beyond. The legend, with its story of defiance, determination and the strength of blood ties seems to symbolize the lands itself, frequently at the heart of strategic manoeuvres in power struggles and warfare. The sculptor, Albert Poncin, received the Médaille d’Or at the Salon des Artistes Français in Paris, 1929 for his statue, Les Quatres Fils Aymon. Whilst it was hoped that the piece would honour its ‘rightful’ lands – placed either in Charleville, Monthermé or Château-Regnault along the Meuse – lack of resources meant that it was nearly erected in Lyon instead. Sufficient funds were eventually raised, but the monument that we see today was only inaugurated in 1950.

Although the statue initially met disapproval due to the stoic aspect of the valiant protagonists of the legend, it seems most appropriate today, as it stands proud and imposing, high above the meandering river. Each character has a particular stance and expression whilst Bayart, with eyes rolling, ears back and teeth bared, seems ready to defend his masters in their fight.

In the legend, the treacherous adversary of the four brothers Aymon is none other than Charlemagne himself; King of the Francs and Emperor. Duke Aymon of Dordonne, vassal to Charlemagne, brings his sons Renaud, Allard, Richard and Guichard to the court so that may serve the king honorably and become knights. Almost immediately, Renaud is granted this honour and given a noble steed to mount, thus inciting the jealousy of the King’s nephew, Bertolais. A fight ensues during a game of chess, ultimately resulting in Bertolais’ death. To escape the subsequent wrath of Charlemagne, Renaud feels, quite accurately, that he must flee the court and hide away until calm is restored. Strong sibling loyalty, and the canny feeling that Charlemagne might somehow stop at nothing to avenge himself of Bertolais’ death, the three brothers accompany Renaud on his flight from Paris. Into the story enters Bayart, the trusty beast, however it must be remarked that this is no ordinary horse.

Overcast skies: Bogny-sur-Meuse - site of the monument.

As the offspring of a dragon and a snake, Bayart is naturally doted with extraordinary physical force along with a conveniently wide range of supernatural powers. Not only is he large enough to bear the four brothers on his back, Bayart is also able to cross valleys and rivers in one leap and swiftly carries them away to the mysterious forests of the Ardennes region. Any attempt by the enemy to pursue the brothers is quickly thwarted by Bayart, and the Aymons soon find refuge in these obscure lands. Here, with the help of Maugis the magician, the brothers build the fortress of Montessor which dominates the Meuse and live safely therein for a period of seven years until the grudge-bearing Charlemagne learns of their whereabouts. Through treacherous acts of cunning, the fortress of Montessor is stormed by enemy troups but all five heroes - Bayard being a key player in the action – escape via a tunnel to seek refuge in the deep forest, yet again. Seeing the fortress burning behind them, Renaud swears that henceforth the edifice shall be known as 'Le Chastel Regnault'.

Canadian geese along the cycle paths of the Meuse...
Tired of never-ending flight and wishing to serve a noble cause, the Aymon brothers finally go to the Gascony region in order to offer their services to King Yvon in his fight against the Sarrasins. With the brothers’ aid, and that of the multi-tasking magical Bayart, the king soon defeats the enemy, headed by the Emir Beges. To mark his appreciation and to reward their valiant efforts, King Yvon erects the castle of Montauban, while Renaud takes the king’s sister as his wife. However, the ending ‘And they lived happily ever….’ seems a little flat and unfitting for a legends of such great chilvalry... Furthermore, let it be said that Renaud is not one to retire calmly , and so our hero decides to snub Charlemagne even further.

Fallow herd next to the path...
 Indeed, Renaud does so by going to Paris to enter a competition that aims to find the best war horse possible for Roland, yet another of Charlemagne’s nephews and yet another sworn enemy of Renaud. Thanks to Maugis’ wizardry, Bayart is deftly transformed into a lame nag whilst Renaud becomes an unexperienced teenager. Naturally, both horse and rider resume their normal forms and demonstrate their great prowess, winning the race and earning the prize; the King’s crown. It is hardly surprising that Charlemagne is now even less willing to let bygones be bygones nor that his anger fails to subside with time….

Indeed, pretending to propose a truce, Charlemagne attempts to trick the four brothers who resolutely refuse to pledge their allegiance to their king. With King Yvon’s help, Charlemagne ambushes the brothers in the castle of Vaucouleurs, but fails to kill Maugis who is therefore able to save them in extremis. Returning to the castle of Montauban, the injured brothers are finally besieged by the enemy troops and almost die of hunger. Although they eat all other beasts, the brothers draw the line at slaughtering Bayart, and decide to merely drink his blood. All appears to be lost, when suddenly Renaud miraculously discovers yet another tunnel and off they go on one more adventure.

However the prospect of yet another bout of cat-and-mouse pursuit proves to be just too much for all concerned. And so it is that when Charlemagne eventually sets out the two conditions in his offer of peace, Renaud accepts. The knight must not only go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he must also hand over Bayart back to the king. Thus after years of loyal service to the Aymon brothers, the heroic beast is quietly given to Charlemagne who then promptly orders him to be weighed down with a millstone and thrown in the river Meuse to drown! Surely realizing a little late in the day that the ingratitude and cruelty of humans towards fellow creatures knows no bounds, Bayart kicks off these shackles and leaps from the waters.

One of the weirest tree trunks I've ever seen...
Perhaps not surprisingly, the noble beast is no great hurry to resume his rather thankless service under the brothers and is said to have haunted the forests of the Ardennes ever since, his neighing clearly audible during the night of the summer solstice. As for the great Renaud himself, on return from Jerusalem he decides to devote his life to God and therefore becomes master mason in the building of Cologne cathedral. Sadly, he is never to live a peaceful life on this Earth and yet again manages to incite the ire of jealous individuals who kill him and throw his body into the river. Fortunately, in true legendary spirit, even the very fish of such waters are able to recognize a martyr when they see one and promptly decide to float his earthly remains to the surface, surrounded by burning candles and the singing of angels, no less! From then on, the mere Knight Renaud of Montauban becomes Saint Renaud. And so ends the legend of the Four Sons of Aymon...

Grand Horloge of the Institut International de la Marionnette.
The Four Sons of Aymon are to be seen on the clock tower of the Institut International de la Marionnette (IIM) at Charleville where the Grand Marionnettiste operates his puppets – Bayart, Renaud and his brothers – and each hour of the day is marked with one of 12 different panels of the legend.

To get to Bogny-sur-Meuse from Charleville-Mézières, there are cycle paths along the river Meuse that winds its way through the wooded lands. No sign of Bayart, of course, but the landscape is spectacular and there are touches of the magic to be found in Nature; namely the herd of fallow deer and the light that suddenly floods through heavy skies...

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Sainte Madeleine of Troyes and its Magnificent Renaissance Jubé...

Jubé seen from the nave.
I recently returned to Troyes, the magnificent Medieval town of the Champagne-Ardenne region, in the North-East of France.

There I wanted to admire some more edifices that reflect the history of this town, just as the beautiful Middle-Age houses do in the unique ‘Champagne cork’ historical centre.

Below the jubé gallery.
Indeed, the lay-out and architecture – secular and religious – of this centre testify to the evolution of Troyes.

View from behind, towards the nave from the chancel.
From the rule of the Counts of Champagne (950-1316), the fairs of the Champagne region (les foires de Champagne) of the 11th century onwards and the subsequent growth of many industrial trades and financial commerce, the town forged a particular identity and assumed an appearance that reflected and honoured such unrivalled prestige.

Jubé gallery with Saint John.
One such edifice to benefit from the wealth and the spiritual and material aspirations of Troyes’ aristocracy – the noblesse de robe – was the incredible Eglise Sainte Madeleine.

The church indeed reflects a prosperous period during which such rich parishoners, occupying judicial and administrative posts (hence the term nobility ‘of the gown’), were eager to finance ambitious embellishment projects.

Being the wealthiest parish of Troyes, the church of Sainte Madeleine required a grandiose extension.

Stairway to the gallery/loft of the jubé.
Amongst the desire to have a beautiful church in which to worship, there was also the need to have a honorable site to accommodate the tombs of its rich merchants, once they had departed from this world of power and privilege.

As a result, the somewhat modest church – the oldest of Troyes -  built in the 12th century, grew in size over the centuries, but most significantly so from the 15th century.

The interior of the Sainte Madeleine of the 16th century is largely what we still see today.

The exterior has undergone several significant modifications over the centuries.

Indeed, the main façade was altered at the end of the 18th century, whilst the original cemetery was made redundant in the 18th century and ossuary was removed in the 19th.

Entrance to former cemetery of Sainte Madeleine.
The beautiful Jardin des Innocents was inaugurated in 2008; a peaceful garden created in an area that had previously been hidden behind the high walls.

Entrance to the Jardin des Innocents.
Indeed, the calm and beauty of the garden is obscured by its imposing entrance.

Jardin des Innocents with traces of former ossuary.
Within the garden, is the southern entrance to Sainte Madeleine.

This was opened in 1550 to give direct access to the cemetery from the church.

Southern entrance leading from the Jardin des Innocents to the church.
In many ways, this entrance seems incredibly modest in aspect.

Surprisingly sober southern doorway.
The area is dominated by the imposing Renaissance bell tower, composed of three levels.

Renaissance bell tower.
The relatively sober façade of the entrances to the church itself give little indication to the nature of what lies beyond.

Rue Sainte Madeleine.
What distinguishes Sainte Madeleine, not only from all the other churches of Troyes, but also from virtually all those in France and indeed of Europe as a whole, is the presence of its glorious ‘rood-beam' and 'rood-loft'. These, together known as ‘le jubé’, serve basically as an elaborate divider to separate the chancel (sanctuary), with its officiating figures of the clergy, and the nave, with its congregation in worship.

Jubé gallery with the Crucifixion (the 'rood'). 
Setting apart the liturgy from the laity, le jubé (rood-beam and loft) rose to prominence, literally and symbolically during the late Medieval period.

There was, however, little that was basic is its ultimate form or indeed in its practical use. It would be this sophistication that would partly lead to its eventual downfall as it became the target of the zeal of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation zeal that swept across Europe.

Sainte Madeleine.
Considered to encourage superstitious veneration, the jubé were widely demolished, or rendered more ‘palatable’ by harsh measures, with statues smashed or ripped out and the drastic whitewashing of polychrome features.

Le Calvaire - wooden relief from mid 16th century.
And so it is today that very few complete jubé exist in either sculpted wood or stone form in France, except for those of Sainte Madeleine, Saint-Etienne-du-Mont in Paris, Saint-Fiacre of Folgoat in Brittany and l'Assomption de la Vierge at Villemaur-sur-Vanne.

The jubé takes its name from the first word of the Latin prayer “Jube, domine, benedicire"  (“Deign, Lord, to bless me”.) spoken by the Reader before the lessons of Morning Mass. Indeed, this impressive structure served as a gallery from which the Gospel was read and sermons could be delivered to the congregation.

In this manner, the jubé replaced the one or two ‘ambon’ that had traditionally figured in churches; namely the elevated platforms, set onto several steps in the chancel. Following the demise of the jubé, these liturgical functions would be subsequently performed in the lectern and pulpit.

Singing also took place from the jubé, accompanied by a portable organ; hence the origin of the term ‘chantereau’ sometimes used to describe this gallery. Access was provided by stairs to the side of the gallery structure.

Nevertheless, the initial key role of the jubé was to bear the large central figure of the crucified Christ. This statue was known as the ‘rood’ in English, coming from the Anglo-Saxon word – 'rode' or 'rood' – meaning 'cross'.

Christ on the Cross was generally flanked by statues of the Saints Mary and John. The rood and accompanying figures thus faced the faithful, yet were placed well above them, carried by a vast beam - la poutre de gloire or tref – that was set in a transversal position between the arch separating the nave and the chancel.

The elaboration of the simple rood-beam, with its Crucifixion, lead to far more substantial, imposing rood-loft as little by little the beam was widened to accommodate the candles for illumination of the central figures. In this manner, these early transversal structures were also referred to as ‘candle beams’. As this humble beam metamorphosed into the rood-loft, having acquired greater stature and importance in the liturgical rites, the structure began to require greater support, in the form of pillars and columns.

Rather graphic detail on the jubé!
Finally, the jubé went on to incorporate the chancel partitions that had traditionally served to protect the Holy Sacrament and the altar area itself from secular use and/or sacrilegious abuse.

It also functioned as a visual barrier that concealed parts of the liturgy and heightened the spiritual experience and is sometimes likened to the 'iconostatis' (walls of icons or religious paintings) of Eastern Christian churches.

The chancel screens eventually became an integral part of the jubé/loft itself and were known as rood-screens, acting as a backdrop in religious ceremonies. The carving of such screens often included intricate latticework which enabled members of the congregation to look partially into the chancel from the nave.

The History of Salvation.
Indeed, the word ‘chancel’ comes from the Latin cancelli, meaning 'lattice'. Often its structure meant that it was solid as far as waist-level so that those kneeling in prayer would not see the priest, but would catch sight of the elevation of the Host and Chalice during the service; others had ‘squints’ through which this could be glimpsed.

It was this same concealment that drew harsh condemnation of the jubé as it was considered to be inconsistent with the redefined tenets of liturgy which required that the chancel and each part of the service therein be fully visible to the laity. Pulpits and communion rails were consequently deemed more appropriate.

The Stars
In view of such an historical context, it seems miraculous that the jubé of Sainte Madeleine of Troyes should have escaped destruction, but somehow it did.

The World.
It has been said that during the Revolution, those ordered to carry out the destruction of the jubé were led to believe that should they proceed, the whole edifice would collapse, as the jube provided essential support to its pillars. Finally a few fleur-de-lys were smashed, several statues were lost (but since replaced by others), but the whole remained relatively unscathed.

The Sky, the Earth and Water.
On entering the church today, the visitor is confronted by a structure that is nothing short of a visual miracle of highly-skilled craftsmanship that combines great esthetic beauty and spiritual devotion.

Separation of the elements.
The sculpted stone really does appear like frothy lace, with its intricate forms and details that belie the strict architectural mastery involved in its realization. The entire structure is based around the main arch thanks to the use of iron, concealed in the stonework.

The Tree of Jesse.
The sculptor responsible for this incredible work was a certain Jehan Gailde, the very master-mason who had carried out the extension of the church chancel between 1501-1506, but whose project for a new entrance to the cathedral of Troyes had been rejected by the Chapter. In order to assuage his hard feelings, Gailde decided to surpass himself in the realization of the stone jubé in Sainte Madeleine, which was commissioned to replace a former wooden version.

 Work commenced around 1510, and the jubé, sculpted in stone from Tonnere (Yonne region), fully reflects the mastery and determination of its creator, who was eventually buried beneath his masterpiece, with the epitaph indicating that he awaited “Blessed Resurrection, without the fear of being crushed”. On the top of the Renaissance jubé gallery, we can see the different patrons of this work in sculpted medallions, all carried out by a secondary sculptor, Nicolas Halins.

However my favourite details have to be the numerous plants and animals that decorate the whole structure, to the point where your eyes simply do not know on what to focus! Unfortunately, the sculpted wooded partition that originally closed the jubé has been taken to the Musée de Vauluisant which I did not manage to visit…

The stairway leading to the gallery, added around 1514, is still visible. Whereas the jubé appears to us largely as a delicate white, in fact it was initially polychrome, and on closer inspection areas of green colour can still be seen.

Indeed, we seem to assume today that these centuries-old religious buildings bore the uniform, sober tones of masonry, and the only colours available were those of the stained-glass windows, but in fact this was often far from the actual case.

Here in Sainte Madeleine, ‘les vitraux de l’Ecole champenoise’ must have set off the colouration of the once poly-chrome jubé. Nevertheless, it is difficult to describe here the incredible range and depth of colour of the stained-glass of this church and do it justice... It is hardly surprising that these vitraux were an inspiration and model for numerous ecclesiastic buildings in the Champagne and Burgundy regions.

Of the many religious episodes exposed here, my favourite scenes were those of the History of Salvation and the Tree of Jesse, where the colour, luminosity and detail are unbelievable.
In addition, given the relatively low height of these windows, the stained glass can be admired with relative ease and an uncrooked neck! So, if ever you have the chance to visit the magnificent Medieval town of Troyes, make sure you track down the Sainte Madeleine. It took me a little while to find, meandering as I did through all those magical streets, but I enjoyed every moment of that and my destination was just amazing…