Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Notre Dame, or Mary Goes to the DMV

Well, it's time for literally the mother of all Gothic cathedrals, Paris' Notre Dame. It's on the Ile de la Cite, the center of ancient Lutetium and medieval Paris. In 1160, the Bishop of Paris decided to build a new church to Mary using the new, cutting-edge Gothic style. Notre Dame is an early Gothic church, so it isn't as big and pointy and airy as the later cathedrals. (The Basilica of St. Denis, where French kings and queens are buried, is an even earlier Gothic, but we'll get to that later.)

You can see how solid and imposing the front is; it still feels a little Romanesque. Benny, Ron and I sat on bleachers in the sunny square while I read out loud about the facade. You've got a big rose window that looks like a halo on the Virgin and Child statue in the middle. Below that is a row of 28 kings of Judah, Mary and Jesus' ancestors.

Portal of the Last Judgment.
Then we have three large portals. The center portal is the Last Judgment — Christ is in the center, and Michael weighs the souls of the dead and assigns them to heaven or hell. The souls to Christ's right head off happily to heaven in an orderly line (Medieval artists had a huge thing for orderly lines) wearing little crowns and looking at Christ. The damned souls are shoved off to Christ's left by nasty demons, all clutching a chain. This led to all kinds of uncomfortable questions from Benny, many of which would require two theologians and a Bible to answer properly, but Ron and I did our best.

The right portal featured Mary sitting in state like a queen, with a crown and sceptre and the baby Jesus. The left portal shows Mary's death, her ascension into heaven and her crowning as Queen of Heaven. Throughout this cathedral are numerous depictions of Mary's life, from birth to motherhood to death and ascension, over and over. I half expected carvings of Mary doing laundry, making dinner, going to the DMV, etc.

Little boats in the fountain at Luxembourg Gardens.
We actually didn't go inside the cathedral that day. The place was mobbed and it was just too bright and sunny that day. Instead, we walked around the Left Bank and had a picnic in the Luxembourg Gardens. That place was a just heaven for young children: they could sail model boats on the fountain, play on the playgrounds and the carousel, ride ponies and more.

An ominous cloud front over Paris.

The next day we rose early and started the 20-minute walk to Notre Dame. The skies were ominous and as we crossed a bridge into the Isle de la Cite, the clouds burst open and it just poured. We arrived at the cathedral soaked to the skin and squishing with every step.

And so we had a dripping look around the Cathedral: the incredible nave and various statues of the Virgin and Child. Outside was a severe statue of Mary, stiff and Romanesque. The central statue is 19th-century, showing a new mother juggling a baby on her hip. Finally we have a romantic statue of Mary, all sweet and windblown with a cherubic Jesus.

Here's a shot of the high altar, and the modern bronze altar by Jean et Sebastien Touret, another example of how Europe incorporates modern art into its historic sites.

After a while we became tired of dripping water all over a priceless religious and historical site and left, sloshing through the downpour back to the Rue de Rivoli. We swam along the Rue de Louvre to the post office, where I mailed some sodden postcards and a package. (I forgot the word for air mail and hand to flap my arms to get my point across.)

Then we had a quick lunch and returned to the apartment. Ron and Benny were finished for the day — we were flying out of Charles de Gaulle the next morning and the apartment was just trashed. But then the sun came out and I thought there was time for one more medieval church. But that's a story for another post.

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