West Virginia University in Vendée, France


Holy Day

2 juin 2011




Today, Catholics around the world celebrate the Feast of the Ascension.  On this holy day of obligation, Catholics commemorate the ascension of Christ to heaven, 40 days after Easter.  This celebration is going to change our plans a little bit, as both our visit for today include churches.  Traditionally, we would begin by a visit of the Saint-Denis Basilica, the first gothic church ever built (late 12th century), and work our way up to Notre-Dame, a much newer building (13th century).  Saint-Denis is closed this morning, but Notre-Dame remains open during masses.  Here, we pause a minute as the priest chants the gospel, while a young acolyte in front of the lectern censes the altar.  We are treated to Gregorian chant during this mass.


But before we enter Notre-Dame, we pause and take a group picture under an ominous representation of the Last Judgment.  No one in the group seems to be concerned about their fate yet...


As we explain the meaning of the scene represented, some troubled consciences among us are now felt trembling.  At the bottom of the tympanum, bodies rise from the tomb, before proceeding to the next level. 

At the second level, Satan and Christ's angel stand in the center and busy themselves with the weighing of each soul.  Good deeds are placed in the right pan (on Christ's right that is), while bad deeds go into the one on the left.  Of course, you will notice that the devil is not playing fair, as a little imp tries to literally tip the scales in his dark master's favor!  Behind the angel, all the just ones line up, while the damned are tied up in chains and lead to hell.

At the third level, Christ reigns, resting his feet on the New Jerusalem, while the communion of saints looks on.


Much of our time in Notre-Dame is spent learning how to read what is called the "Stone Bible."  The original purpose of art in churches was to illustrate biblical stories, as most parishioners were illiterate.  Here, Dr. Orlikoff almost weeps at the poignant representation of water during Christ's baptism.  We also appreciate the painted images that remind us that originally, churches were painted in vivid color to help storytelling.



Although this view of Notre-Dame is not the one we are most accustomed to see, for us students of art, it is a key picture.  There, Dr. Orlikoff has captured for us the "arcs-boutants" (flying buttresses), the technological innovation that made gothic art possible.  By shifting the weight  to these outside pillars, buildings could be erected much taller than before.  In addition, it was now possible to open large windows within the walls, bringing much light into churches that had been until then dark and cold.



As we leave Notre-Dame, we take a picture to reminisce about Saint Denis, martyred around 250 AD at Montmartre (the mount of martyrs).  After having his head cut off, he very casually picked it up, walked across Paris for about 6 miles, preaching all the while.  He finally stopped in a town now named Saint-Denis and expired.  With Sainte Geneviève, he is one of the patron saint of Paris, and is always represented in his most dramatic pose, carrying his ubiquitous head.  Now, that's composure!  This afternoon, we will visit the church that commemorates his life and teachings.


Before going to Saint-Denis though, we take a walk through the most fashionable "quartier du Marais," literally the marsh quarters.  After this part of town was drained and made habitable, King Henri IV decided to have built a new square where nobles could come, live, play and enjoy luxurious shopping.  This ensemble is a wonderful architectural composition in the new "classical" style that would characterize the seventeenth century: symmetry, harmony and elegance.  Here, our group poses in front of the Queen's house, which stands higher than the surrounding lodgings, but not quite as high as the King's house, opposite hers across the square.


Well, it seems that we have lost part of our group during lunch.  We were all supposed to meet at 2:00pm in front of Notre-Dame, but four students were missing!  The group proceeded to Saint-Denis as planned, and now, the faithful get to have their picture taken in front of the original gothic church!  Worry not though, while we were in the subway, the stray students called to say they were on their way and soon met us, some of them with their heads bent in shame...

While we wait for them, notice the much smaller size of the rose windows of Saint-Denis, as compared to those of Notre-Dame.  The technical innovations brought by the arcs-boutants were tested most timidly.  This reserve was well warranted, as too daring elevations or windows could literally bring down the house, such as in Beauvais in 1284.


And here they are...  It's okay, Jenney, we won't tell a soul you were late.


This professional-quality picture lets us appreciate the esthetic qualities that made gothic art so revolutionary and created such awe--then and now.


Because of the legendary repute of Saint Denis (the man) as well as the architectural significance of Saint-Denis (the building), King Louis IX, also known as Saint Louis, decided to choose this church as the seat of the monarchy.  In order to reinforce the legitimacy of his lineage, Saint Louis commissioned gisants, or, as they are most elegantly known in English, recumbent effigies, of his ancestors. 

Burial traditions in the middle ages were quite different from ours.  It was common for kings and queens to be buried in three different places: one for their hearts, one for their entrails, and one for their body.  Each of the three gisants carried the mark of the part of the body it contained: a small bag for the entrails, a heart in the left hand, and no symbol for the rest of the body.   

So, let us now test our readers' attentiveness.  This gisant is

a) a gisant de coeur

b) a gisant de corps

c) a gisant d'entrailles

d) a very tired king


Although you might think at first that French kings and queens (and Dr. Orlikoff) pushed their love of doggies a little bit too far, the inclusion of our barking friends is done all in the name of ... religion, of course. 

Most kings are represented resting their feet on a lion.  An obvious symbol of power, the lion is also a symbol of Christ, as cubs remain blind for three days after their birth, symbolizing thus the three days between the crucifixion and the resurrection.

Queens rested their feet on dogs, symbols of fidelity.  This was important as an earthly representation of their conjugal duty.  In addition, dogs also represented the need for a guide in the treacherous paths of the netherworld.



Making plans for the evening ahead...


It is the quality of born teachers to seize teachable moments in the most mundane situations.  Here, after a day's worth of excursions, the Lastingkoffs know no rest and hurry to the Galeries Lafayette not so much to shop (although, shop they will), but to capture a beautiful testimony to the art of shopping.  A few of the Galeries Lafayette's visitors only come to admire the arts décos.


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