Friday, July 10, 2009

Notre Dame: You lookin' at me buddy?

As a general rule, the interior structure of NDS is not nearly so elaborately carved as the exterior. The Pillar of Angels is a major exception. It was carved in 1230 and is a masterwork of carving.

Unlike the depiction of Judgment Day outside, here there are no Elect and there are no Damned. Matthew, John, Luke and my buddy Mark stand on the bottom rung, faces serious but sympathetic. Above them a quartet of Angels, sounding the trumpet, above which are another three Angels. Sitting above this is the Star of the Show, JC himself, his throne positioned in such a way as to allow him a good view of the congregation in the cathedral’s nave.

The artist who carved this pillar knew that he had created something special. But it was not the custom, in the 13th century, for artists to sign their work. Nor would that be strictly appropriate in a church,

Nonetheless, he was proud. And so, on the balustrade that runs on the gallery behind the pillar, he carved a figure of a man leaning on the railing, gazing in wonder at his creation.

Now, I have a confession. For everyone I’ve taken on a tour of the Cathedral, I always point to this carving, claiming that the artist carved himself, admiring his own work. To tell you the truth, I don’t really know that for sure. But I want to believe it.

Last year, I went to an exhibition of Matthias Gunewald paintings in the German city of Karlsruhe. Grunewald was a regional painter of the Middle Ages, and his subjects were primarily religious, as was pretty much all art prior to the Renaissance. But the men and women –whether Saints, Angels or Allegorical characters – had a deep-rooted personality. They weren’t the bland-faced, interchangeable and characterless non-entities that populated much of the paintings of his contemporaries: they looked like real people.

That was because – I was surprised to discover – they were real people. There were a number of sketches from Grunewald’s papers, preliminary to his paintings, that were clearly still-lifes of living models. Meaning that the Christ in Grunewald’s depiction of the Passion may well have born the face of the local baker.

This revelation really struck me: all of this seemingly repetitive, otherwordly Gothic religious art actually represented real people. Suddenly, the scenes of St Sebastian being shot through with arrows became not some semi-mythical tall tale, but a portrait of a magistrate’s son, or a young farmer, who thus achieved immortality denied perhaps even the local princes.

Much of the art that decorates that Cathedral is wholly the work of a sculptor’s imagination. But not all – some of the faces, the figures, came from real life, just as in Gunewald’s paintings. They were local merchants, workers, wives and daughters.

The face on the balcony is definitely one of these. He has a pronounced squint, probably from years of fine chiseling in gloomy workshops forcing stone into shapes that it does not want to take. He looks at the Pillar of Angels with an appropriate expression of pious wonder, but an unmistakable hint of pride. And who can blame him?

Though my photos for this post are truly terrible, I saved this as my last Notre Dame posting because of this little guy who, for me at least, represents all of the people who made this amazing structure possible. When this man carved his pillar, and his cheeky self-portrait, Notre Dame’s completion was still two centuries away. The vast majority of the artisans and brute labour that designed and built this wonder had no hope of seeing it completed in their lifetime, their children’s lifetime, or their grandchildren’s lifetimes. Almost all of them – even some of the most talented of the artists – are lost to history forever. The Cathedral’s size, age and beauty are of a scale that are designed to make the beholder ponder eternity, but this man remains in his corner, slyly murmuring: “Don’t forget me!”

Next! The Strasbourg tour continues, with a completely church-free week! I promise!

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