Thursday, July 02, 2009

Notre Dame and the Errant Marine Biologist

Notre Dame de Strasbourg is central to life in Strasbourg. Its bells are heard throughout the old town, and its spire can be seen for over forty kilometers away. When it was completed, it was the tallest church in the world, a (disputed) title it would hold for 400 years. By contrast, the CN tower in Toronto was the world’s tallest building for a mere 31 years. There are still no buildings that I am aware of in the entire region that are taller.

The church itself is a record of local history. High on the façade are horse-mounted effigies of the more notable Holy Roman Emperors that held titular sway over the city – they are accompanied by Louis XIV, a relative latecomer who was politely added to their ranks after he annexed the city in 1681. Cheekily, as if to assert their independence, each of these statues is topped by a carving of a white stork, the emblem of Alsace.

Life in the city literally revolved around the church – in addition to the bells regulating the hours of the day, NDS was the site of the city’s first, now-famous Christmas Market. In the good old days when the city was more-or-less a free republic, all of the citizens of Strasbourg would gather on the first day of every new year, to swear allegiance to the city’s constitution.

All of this would take place under the watchful eye of the statue of Notre Dame in front of the central door of the church. The door is rarely used* – opened only for the High Holidays of Easter and Christmas. Mary and Child are surrounded by their entourage of Old Testament prophets. Directly above, on the tympanum, is an over-crowded depiction of the Passion.

However, it is the archway over the door that is of greatest interest. There are 70 figures curving over Mary, and together they tell all the most important tales of the Bible.

Starting at the bottom left of the rows, there is Old Man God, directly above which is the Holy Spirit, disguised as a bird. One more above that, you have the G-Man creating the Sun and the Moon. Directly next to it you have one of my favourite carvings – Noah’s Ark, shown as a giant barn on the ocean (incidentally, the figure on the bottom left is Mark, who should be busily scribbling away at his gospel. Given how he's clutching his head, he appears to be suffering from writer's block).

Over on the other side, the third row in from the right we have a whole series of gruesome martyrdoms. However, my favourite – which, sadly, my zoom was unable to truly capture – is the second row in from the right, four up (above Daniel wrestling with the lion). From this angle it looks pretty much like a melting gumdrop. In fact, if you look closely, there’s a praying man emerging from the top of it, not unlike a pious stripper bursting out of a layer cake.

This, dear readers. is what the story of Jonah and the Whale looks like when imagined by a man who lived 1000 km from the nearest ocean.

Next! The Devil and Mrs N. Dame

* Although its steps are our favourite place to eat ice-cream and people watch.

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