Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Notre Dame: Elle t'accuse!

Notre Dame de Strasbourg is an active place of worship, but it is also something of a museum. In the north arm of the transept (behind the St Lawrence Door) there are a number of Medieval and early Renaissance altarpieces on display, most of which come from other churches in the region.

The largest item in this section of the church is the carving of the scene at Gethsemane, where Jesus asked his Dad to get out of his chores. He got his answer shortly thereafter, when the Romans arrived to arrest him.

The statue used to be in the cemetery near St Thomas’s Church, but was brought into NDS for protection from the elements (also, I suspect, because St Thomas went Lutheran). It’s huge, as you can see.

It shows Jesus praying to an Angel, while his Apostle-posse get some shuteye. From behind, the soldiers pour through a gate, led by Judas carrying a sack with the 30 pieces of silver he was paid to betray the Big Guy.

In addition to its scale, this sculpture is particularly powerful not for the principals, all of whom are rendered pretty much as you would expect. It’s for the people in the mob trailing behind Judas.

Jesus and his Apostles are all dressed in robes, as per usual. But the soldiers and citizens coming to arrest, flay and crucify him are dressed as Strasbourg citizens, carrying 15th century weapons, wearing the hats of the local merchants and burghers, and the helmets of the local militia.

It would be easy to dismiss this as historical illiteracy on the sculptor’s part, but the opposite is true – it’s a mark of artistic sophistication. The contrast with the clothing of Jesus is deliberate. Remember, the belief at the time was that we sin every day, pretty much by breathing. The artist’s goal was to drive this home, and grab the viewer by the lapels and shout at them: “You too would be part of this mob, you too would call for his arrest. You would betray him then, just as you continue to betray him every day with your sin.” (Grim, I know, but look, it can't all be puppies and Robo-Jesuses around here).

Facing this rather depressing spectacle is a 14th century Baptismal font. Nowadays, babies in the Catholic church are baptized with a few drops of water on the forehead. Back then, however, they were dunked in their entirety into baths like this one.

Of course, the Cathedral is chilly even in summer, and water sitting in a stone tub – even one as elaborate as this one – would soon be freezing. Any baby submerged in it would have had a heck of an unpleasant introduction to the world: “Well, you survived! Welcome to the club!”

Next! I don't want to give away what comes next!

I apologize for the poor quality of the images here. This is what I get for attempting this with a steam-powered camera.

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