European Cathedrals and Travel

German City of Cologne

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When the Prussian emperor Frederick r stormed Milan in 1 162, his major accomplishment– for residents of Cologne at least-was the “liberation” of the relics of the Three Magi from the bell tower of a Milan church. These precious relics that, according to legend, had been in Milan for eight centuries (having been sent there from Con­stantinople by Constantine the Great) were carried off to the German city of Cologne by a splendid procession, depicted in Augustin Braun’s seventeenth- century drawing at left.

Rugged desert life seemed to agree with John the Baptist, who did not mind the “raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins” or the fare: “His meat was locusts and wild honey.” Preaching baptism as a means of repenting sins, the saint, pictured at right, would duly douse his listeners in the river Jordan. Once in an instance of mistaken identity. John was referred to as Christ, and he humbly explained, “I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh.. . . He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire.” Beheaded in the year 29 at the whim of Herod’s daughter, John’s remains were burned much later. Since the growth of a saint’s cult depends on the number of his relics or on miraculous per­formances, and since John could meet neither qualifica­tion, the martyr’s followers supposedly abetted his cause by rescuing his bones from the furnace. On their worldly travels these relics appeared to possess miraculous regen­erative properties. By the late Middle Ages, the church claimed twelve heads (the most coveted relics) and sixty fingers. Baptisteries alongside cathedrals were consecrated to John, as was the cathedral at Turin. The faithful in­voked the saint’s assistance to cure throat maladies and epilepsy and to prevent suffocation. Carrying a plate decorated with an engraving of Saint John’s head was considered an effective antidote for migraine headache.

Henry Adams was not often at a loss for words, but even he hesitated to describe the stained glass of Chartres (whose north rose window is shown opposite) : “One be­comes, sometimes, a little incoherent in talking about it; one is ashamed to be as extravagant as one wants to be; one has no business to labour painfully to explain and prove to one’s self what is as clear as the sun in the sky; one loses temper in reasoning about what can only be felt, and what ought to be felt instantly . . .”

A succession of fires and wars in the following centuries necessitated building and re­building, much of it following faithfully the original Romanesque de­signs of the eleventh century. The exceptional additions of Corinthian capitals and mosaic inlays were the work of Italian craftsmen em­ployed by Henry and his successors to embellish the austere interior. Around 1700, a number of Baroque elements were introduced when a new western section was added to the already immensely long (432 feet) nave.

In the beautiful fai;ade of Laon, one of the chief beauties is the setting of the rose under a deep round arch. The western roses of Mantes and Paris are treated in the same way, although a captious critic might complain that their treatment is not so effective or so logical. Rheims boldly imprisoned the roses within the pointed arch; but Amiens, toward 1240, took refuge in the same square exterior set­ting that was preferred, in r2oo, here at Chartres: ana :v. the interior of Amiens the round arch of the rose is the vault of the nave, seen through a vista of pointed as it is here. All these are supposed to be among the beauties of the Gothic fa~ade, although the Gothic it( tect, if he had been a man of logic, would have lines, and put a pointed window in his front, as in ta” he did at Coutances. He felt the value of the rose in arr. and perhaps still more in religion, for the rose was Man ~ emblem. One is fairly sure that the great Chartres rose the west front was put there to please her, since it was r~ be always before her eyes, the most conspicuous objm she would see from the high altar, and therefore the rno»r carefully considered ornament in the whole church outsi,~r the choir. The mere size proves the importance she ~•avc it. The exterior diameter is nearly forty-four feet. . . . “l h~­nave of Chartres is, next perhaps to the nave of An~er:_ the widest of all Gothic naves; about fifty-three feet .

Caro­lingian Renaissance was more a renaissance of intent than of accomplishment, it did usher in an age of cathedral building that was to pass through a magnif­icent Romanesque period and to cul minate in a series of soaring German cathe­drals, such as the double-spired edifice at Regensburg (shown in the photograph below)–cathedrals that rank with the greatest Gothic structures ever built.

Eight German rulers were buried in the vast Romanesque Cathe­dral of Speyer, and two of France’s most illustrious leaders, Louis xm and Napoleon Bonaparte, so admired the massive, highly original sandstone structure that they gave express orders to their conquering troops to protect the edifice if they could (those of Louis xm could not, and the building was gutted in 1C89).

The architect has managed to deceive our eyes, in order to enlarge the rose; but you can see as plainly as though he were here to tell you, that, like a great general, he has concentrated his whole energy on the rose, because the Virgin has told him that the rose symbolized herself, and that the light and splendour of her appearance in the west were to redeem all his awkwardnesses.

Of course this idea of the Virgin’s interference sounds to you a mere bit of fancy, and that is an account which may be settled between the Virgin and you; but even twentieth-century eyes can see that the rose redeems every­thing, dominates everything, and gives character to the whole church….

With London in ruins, he was commissioned to lay out a plan for the rebuilding of an entire city. His bold blue­print for London-delivered in less than a week–was not accepted, but he designed many of the new buildings, including, among others, the Custom House, the Temple Bar, a theatre, more than fifty churches, and the new St. Paul’s. Because of the enormous costs of reconstructing London, it was thought at first that St. Paul’s would have to make do with a limited repair job. Wren believed this a poor idea and was not surprised when, during the restora­tion, a column caved in and convinced the authorities that the cathedral should be rebuilt from scratch. “Reverend Sir,” he wrote the dean of St. Paul’s, “I . . . must comfort vou as I would a friend for the loss of his Grandfather by saying in course of nature you could not longer enjoy him, so many and so evident were to me the signs of its ruin, when last I viewed the building.” And so, what re­mained of the old structure was torn down-a difficult task because the molten lead had fused the stones together much more effectively than cement. Wren offered two striking designs, which were rejected, and then a third, which was accepted in 1675. He was given permission by the king to amend this “Warrant” design as he went along-which he began to do immediately. The corner­stone was laid in t675. By then Wren had been appointed surveyor-general to the crown and had been knighted. Despite his work for the king and his other building projects in the city, he managed to visit the cathedral regularly and toward the end was hauled up to the top of the structure in a basket, the better to oversee the work.

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