Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Notre Dame and the apocryphal puppy

The Cathedral is so enormous, and I have so many things to say about it, that I am having a little difficulty in determining exactly how best to begin describing the highlights. I’m going to start with the outside, with the St Lawrence Door, so named for its proximity to the St Lawrence Chapel inside the building.

Notre Dame de Strasbourg (NDS) is, like almost all Cathedrals, shaped like a cross (†). The St Lawrence entrance in at the left-most (north) tip of the short arm – the façade with the main entrances are at the bottom, western end.

The entrance has a fairly impressive curved gothic portico, sheltering a statue depicting the martyrdom of St Lawrence* over the actual door. On the right side are statues of various saints.

It is the statues on the left that always grab my attention. It depicts the Three Kings/Wise Men/Magi of the Nativity story (along with one of their servants) presenting their gifts to the Baby Jesus, held by his mother. The statues are late gothic – you can tell because the faces are not particularly lifelike and the folds of the clothes appear rigid, rather than flowing.

I like it nonetheless because of the way Jesus is depicted: normally painters and sculptors of the era have the infant appear very solemn, often holding his hand up to bless onlookers. However, this artist chose to show him grabbing at his Mom’s robes, just as an actual baby would.

Everyone knows the story of the Three Kings – Melchior, Balthazar and Gaspar – guided by a star, arrived in the manger to present gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Newborn King. Now, I’ve always thought that a baby boy – Son of God or no – might appreciate the gold for its shininess, but perfume and embalming fluid were probably of zero interest to him. On the other hand, what little boy wouldn't want his own puppy?

I’m not absolutely certain why the sculptor decided to give Balthazar a canine friend, but I have it on reasonably good authority that the sculptor screwed up, and little Fido was originally supposed to be a Royal Foot. Or maybe the guy just really liked dogs.

* Incidentally, St Lawrence was martyed by being tied to a grill and set afire. Miraculously, the fires did not burn his flesh and he is supposed to have said to his tormentors at one point "Ok boys, I'm done on this side, you can turn me over now." Thinking I was being funny, I would always solemnly intone for guests "And today he is the Patron Saint of barbecues." Turns out I was half right: he's the patron saint of chefs.

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