Monday, 5 May 2008

Notre-Dame: more

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Gothic may have been a straining upwards towards heaven; but it was also awe, dread, domination. The force that a cathedral sought to concentrate in one place was powerful and sometimes dark. Notre-Dame would have been terrifying, outside and in, as much as uplifting; what light the stained glass admitted was dark red and blue, and veiled by a haze of incense smoke; church interiors were obscure and mysterious.

But it's perfectly true that Gothic was about light, even if that light could be dark and red.

Barry Bell was a good friend who died last year in an accident that seemed designed to illustrate the callous absurdity of the universe – not that he’d have seen it like that. In Ottawa I sometimes sat in on his fourth year architecture course. In one session Barry asked the group, ‘Are you guys familiar with the work of Dionysus the Pseudo-Areopagite?’ A sea of hands did not shoot up.

Dionysus was an early Christian writer. In medieval times he was confused with St Denis, the patron saint of the first Gothic church, built by Abbot Suger just outside Paris. For Dionysus, there was a continuous graded path between flesh and spirit, not a stark divide; the highest fleshly state that human sensibility could directly perceive was light, which is very nearly pure spirit. So in contemplating light we get closest to the apprehension of God.

Suger accepted Dionysus/Denis’s theory. Hence "the most radiant windows" (his words) of Gothic churches, affording human beings a near-experience of God's light.

But the Gothic cathedral was also about reflected light – building as solar collector:

It was also about the splendour of mathematical (geometrical) order, mathematical forms being ideal and conveying the true nature of the universe, as distinct from messy sublunary contingency and imperfection:

The sheer prolixity of this, on the other hand, seems to be about something different again:

The suggestion of organic growth is unavoidable. I don’t know what the little nodules are called that run the length of the ribs on the angles of the spires, but they too suggest growth to me, in the form of buds. At the same time the proliferation of freestanding upright structures suggests human, or perhaps angelic, figures. (They are normally seen from far below or at a great distance.)

Alternatively: the spires, which seem all to be 4- or 8-sided, have an aedicule on each face, under a pointed arch. An aedicule is a little house, and is said by architectural historians to stand for the whole house, the whole church, or indeed the Church. So (it doesn’t do to be too literal about this) the spires are symbolic buildings, houses of God.

Clearly I need expert help on this. But life’s too short to read everything, and I seem to be interested in more stuff, not less, as I get older.

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