29 May 2008

Paris, Part Three

On Sunday afternoon, I made the pilgrimage by metro to the Basilica of St. Denis in the northern part of Paris on the outskirts of the Montmartre. The basilica is one of the earliest examples of French Gothic architecture, dating from the early twelfth century, but a church has been on the site since the fifth century, which served as the church for the monastery next door, in which Pepin the Short, father of Charlemagne, was crowned king. Facade of St. Denis.
The effect of entering Saint-Denis is quite different from Notre Dame. The interior is significantly darker than the later Notre Dame and the architecture feels heavier.


Partly because the basilica has received less attention than its more famous counterpart across the city, the piers of the church are blackened from centuries of candle smoke and incense, intensifying the already imposing Gothic architecture. The church is filled with stained glass, most of it reconstructed following the destruction of the French Revolution.

Thirteenth century altar.

The interior lacks the weightlessness and delicacy of later Gothic architecture, but compensates with its feeling of solid imposition.
More rib vaults!

As important to history and art history as the architecture of the church are the graves of many of the kings and queens of France.

Royal monuments.

Tomb of Henri II and Catherine d'Medici.

While the actual remains from some of the tombs have been lost, many of the memorials remain, providing a visual history of royal France. In the crypt under the high altar are the remains of the very early medieval church, including the original stone chapel.

Crypt of St. Denis.

Original, eighth century abbey chapel.

The basilica also contains sarcophagi from the Merovingian period, simple, rough structures sculpted from stone.

Merovingian sarcophagus.

Archaeological remains of the earliest foundations of the church.

St. Denis serves as the resting place for such figures as Charles of Anjou, Henri II and his wife, Catherine d’Medici, some of France’s earliest kings, and holds the memorial (and dubious remains) of Louis XVI and Marie Antionette.

Tomb of Charles of Anjou.

In the evening, we decided to visit the Latin Quarter, so named because of the university located there since the Middle Ages. The students spoke Latin, even outside the University, thus the name of the area, the Quartier Latin. The Latin Quarter is now home to many shops and restaurants, and is still a popular area for students. At a small hole-in-the-wall restaurant, we ordered pizzas, made from scratch and served hot, folded over and wrapped in paper for dinner. For dessert, we sought out Amorino, a famous gelaterie in Paris.

The gelato at Amorino!

By the time we reached the store, it had begun to rain, but the discomfort of being wet was soon assuaged when we saw the colorful, delicious spread of gelato laid out before us. I chose to try the amarena, a vanilla gelato with cherries, the caffĂ©, and a rich, dark, 71% Ecuadorian chocolate. The gelato looked phenomenal and tasted even better! After such an amazing dessert, I could have been content for the rest of the night, but as we made our way back to the hotel along the Seine, now in a drizzly rain, I received amazing views of a number of Paris’ most famous landmarks, multiplied in their beauty by the contrast with the dark sky and the reflection of the light off the wet pavement.

The Eiffel tower from the Seine.

28 May 2008

Paris, Part Two

I spent most of Sunday sightseeing, choosing to focus on three main sites rather than rush through more just to say I’d been there. I arrived at the Notre Dame quite early, with the city still sleepy and quiet, at least as far as cities go.
The west facade and entrace of Notre Dame Cathedral.
The cathedral imposes over its own square, its dual towers rising solidly next to the river. After entering the building, I had to pause as my eyes adjusted to the heavy Gothic lighting before continuing into the church, trying to be unobtrusive since the Sunday mass had just begun.
View of the nave.

It is an experience beyond belief to be standing in the nave of Notre Dame as the kyrie is sung and echoes off the stone of the piers and arches.
Northern side aisle.

Rib vaults!

The cathedral is filled with beautiful stained glass, much of it replicas of earlier originals, and interesting chapels which line the side aisles of the nave.
View from the northern side aisle into the nave.

View of the ambulatory with numerous chapels.

The main rose window is beautiful, and joined by two additional rose windows at the end of each wing of the transept.
The iconic rose window.

The combination of the darkness of the interior with the glow of the chandeliers and candles and the colored light of the windows is sublime.

Gothic style statues of saints next to the main entrance of the cathedral.


My visit to the church came to a close as more tourists filled up the space and I exited the nave, heading across the Ile-de-la-Cité to the Sainte-Chapelle, the royal chapel built by Louis IX in the mid-thirteenth century in the Gothic style within the space of six years and at enormous cost.

Exterior of the Sainte-Chapelle.

I was fortunate to arrive shortly before the building opened, affording me a relatively calm view of the chapel’s spectacular interior. I decided to take in the Upper Chapel first, so I climbed the short flight of spiral stone stairs and emerged into a spectacular space with slender Gothic arches framing soaringly high stained glass windows. Upon entering the space, I felt as if I had entered a completely different world (the intended effect, I suppose), a stone and glass globe encapsulating an ethereal space. Light flooded this miniature recreation of heaven. To describe the chapel as spectacular grossly under represents it. The experience of entering and viewing the space somehow profoundly changes you as a viewer. The thought that the chapel was built in honor of God, and the foundation of faith required for such a commitment to me is intense and moving. I think the Sainte-Chapelle is one of those few places which cannot be described by words or pictures as both of these remove the element of experience. My description and these pictures are nothing more than a taste of the real thing.
The ceiling in the Upper Chapel is quite high, with narrow, Gothic windows running nearly from the floor to the ceiling and filled with colored glass, original to the building which miraculously survived the royal iconoclasm of the French Revolution.

Interior of the Upper Chapel - breathtaking.

The light projected into the chapel through the windows glows with color, illuminating the space in deep blues, purples, and reds.

Apsidal ending of the Upper Chapel.

The height of the windows draws the eye up to the ceiling, spectacularly painted with a deep, bright blue and covered with gold stars. In the few feet below the windows, gilded ornamental Gothic columns and arches decorate the walls against a backdrop of blue and red. At the rear of the chapel, a rose window filled with more glass punctuates the room, below which a vibrantly painted and richly gilded painting depicts Christ enthroned.

Rear of the Upper Chapel.

Descending to the Lower Chapel, which lacks the iconic windows of the space above it, the richness of the wall and ceiling decorations becomes more striking.

Ribbed vaults with painted ceiling decoration and gilding in the Lower Chapel.

This part of the building is defined by graceful vaulting, with columns painted in rich red and green, overlaid with gold castles and fleur d’lis. Like the Upper Chapel, the ceiling of the lower space approximates an exaggerated night sky, this time more pertinent to the viewer because the height difference has been reduced. The combined effect of the two spaces is overwhelming and inspiring.

27 May 2008

Paris, Part One

Since I've gotten behind on posts, I'm going to go ahead and put up my Paris entries while they're still fresh in my mind, and then go back and fill in the missing Bruges and Antwerp pieces.


We left Maastricht early Friday morning for Paris, changing in Liege (with a three hour layover). Our arrival in Paris was hectic at best, but no different from most cities. After taking the metro to the hotel, we checked in and got settled. The hotel was in a great area, near the Champs Elysees and Rue St-Honore and within a reasonable walking distance of most of the major sites, and was very French to boot. After freshening up, we set out for the Louvre, intending to take advantage of the free student admission on Friday evenings.

The Louvre, from the Champs-Elysees.

As we walked down the Champs Elysees towards to the Louvre, it began to sink in that I am, actually, in Paris. The Louvre and the area surrounding it were quite crowded, my least favorite aspect of cities. The group of us found a place to eat at a reasonable price near the Louvre and had dinner, then headed back to the museum for four hours of exploring. The Louvre itself is massive and it’s next to impossible to see the whole collection, even in an entire day.

The Louvre.

I made a beeline for the Italian paintings and was fortunate enough to get to see not only the Mona Lisa (which I find excessively overrated), but three other paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, four by Andrea Mantegna, as well as an altarpiece by Cimabue, one of the artists often cited as marking the turning point in art from the medieval to the earliest beginnings of the Italian Renaissance.

Fresco by Fra. Angelico, taken by Napoleon.

Altarpiece by Cimabue.

Over. Rated.

Beautiful - Madonna of the Rocks by Leonardo.

La Belle Jardiniere, Raphael.

Te Louvre also had a painting by Paolo Uccello and a portrait of Baldassar Castiglione, one of the “big three” writers of the Italian Renaissance.

The man himself, Baldassar Castiglione.

The Louvre is pretty unique among large museums in that they allow non-flash photography, a nice concession, but which runs the risk of tempting patrons to spend more time photographing the art than appreciating it in person, an impulse which I myself had to be careful not to succumb to. After spending an obscene, but not nearly long enough, time in the Italian section, I decided to find the Louvre’s two most famous statues - the Winged Victory of Samothrace, and the Venus d’Milo, both of which are stunningly beautiful in person.

Winged Victory of Samothrace, aka Nike (3rd century BC).

Venus d'Milo.

On the way, I passed two of Michelangelo’s sculptures intended for the tomb of Julius II. The Louvre has two of the “Dying Slaves” which Michelangelo originally sculpted for the grand second version of the tomb which was never brought to fruition and about which he felt slighted for the rest of his very long career.

One of the "dying slave" statues sculpted by Michelangelo for the tomb of Julius II, now in the Louvre.

The French monarchs built the part of the Louvre which now houses the museum’s collection in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but the Louvre originally served as a fortress, begun in the last decade of the twelfth century.
Model of the original fortress.

Remains of the medieval part of the building are still accessible under the later building.
Some of the ruins of the original fortress underneath the current Louvre museum.

The building itself is beautiful and provides a wonderful place to house such a vast and spectacular collection of art.
The museum was almost unbearably crowded when we arrived at 6:30, but within about two hours, the crowds had begun to thin, making for a much more enjoyable experience. We wandered through the Northern European art, where I was ecstatic to see six paintings by Hans Holbein the Younger, including his portrait of Erasmus.

Erasmus of Rotterdam, as painted by Hans Holbein the Younger!

The later (1668) version of "View of the Dam Square of Amsterdam" by Jan van der Heyden.

As we continued through the later Northern art, we encountered some very strange modern art displayed next to the Old Masters, which in my opinion severely damaged the viewing experience as it was distracting and completely inappropriate to have right next to paintings by Rembrandt and his contemporaries.
Sitting by one of the fountains of the Louvre at dusk.

Still, we were able to see paintings by Vermeer, van der Heyden, and de Hooch, among others. Around 9:30, the guards began to usher us to the exits, and we emerged from the labyrinth of the museum to a gorgeous sunset.View of the Eiffel tower from the Louvre, just as the tower began to sparkle at dusk.

The Louvre, with Pei's pyramid, at dusk.