Monday, June 29, 2009
Notre Dame de Strasbourg: A love story
This picture was my very first view of the Cathedral of Notre Dame of Strasbourg, roughly three years ago almost to the day. I hadn’t been aware that we were so close to it, so when I turned the corner to suddenly see it looming over me, it quite literally took my breath away. I remember being so startled by its overwhelming size, that I yelped, and staggered back a couple of steps. It was amazing.
I cannot express how lucky – blessed, even – I was to be able, less than a week later, to be able to sign the lease on the View of the Marching Fishes apartment, a.k.a the apartment of delight. The moment I saw that our front window had probably the best view in the city of what is arguably the most stunningly beautiful cathedrals in Europe, I was hooked, the four flights of stairs between the street and our door notwithstanding.
Over the next two years in that apartment, I came to know the Cathedral better and better, and learned that it has a real personality and character of its own. It shaped my life in real ways. I would awake each morning at 7:00, when the morning carillon would sound, and would time my phone calls home to avoid the dominating tolling of the 10:05 night-curfew bell. Lacking furniture or entertainment, our first nights in Strasbourg were spent watching the light and music show that plays on the Cathedral façade each summer. Since the sidewalk in front of our place was a popular vantage point for tourists, I am certain the top of my head is immortalized in hundreds of Japanese photo-albums.
I was never bored watching it – in fact, I had my parents send me my binoculars that I left in Canada so that I could better explore the intricacies of the façade from my apartment. Depending on the season, and time of day, Notre Dame could gleam, basking in its night illumination, or glow like a burning ember at sunset. Or, it could loom forbiddingly under grey skies, or tease mysteriously through the frequent Rhine valley fogs. It was entrancing.
Over the years I realized that while the Cathedral may be intimidating for it scale and accomplishment, it is far, far more than the sum of its dimensions. It is covered from its heaven-seeking head to centuries-old toe with carvings. These are the expression of generations of sculptors’ dedication – ornamenting nooks and crannies to high and out of the way to be seen by the naked eye, they glorify God, express the wealth and piety of the city of Strasbourg, and the pride of the artist in his accomplishment.
The Cathedral of Strasbourg speaks, communicating both with its bells but also its ancient stained glass and its carvings. It is wrapped in riddles that were clear as day for the medieval burghers for whom they were carved, but are frustratingly elusive to a secular-minded 21st century man. I’ve made it my mission, these past years, attempting to interpret it: every time I look at this building, I see something new, and I am surprised.
The messages are religious, by and large, but not entirely. The Cathedral is universal in its purpose, but resolutely Alsatian in character. As such, like Alsatians themselves, while it may seem cold and forbidding at first, it rewards effort. As you learn more, more is revealed. It speaks of beauty, and moral lessons, for sure, but also wonderment for the mere sake of wonderment.
And it is funny. There are jokes hidden throughout the massive church, and inexplicable extravagances designed merely to entertain and amuse visitors. I know that may be hard for those who remember fidgeting as children through seemingly endless, dry services, but this church manages the trick of being awe-inspiring, amusing, enthralling, and beautiful – a combination of traits I found previously only in Amynah.
This week, I am going to attempt to take you on the tour of the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Strasbourg as I know it. I only hope I can capture, and share, some of what I love about it.