Our pilgrimage continues in Paris…
This morning we went to Notre Dame de Paris, one of the most famous Cathedrals in the world.
Construction of the cathedral began in 1163 during the reign of Louis VII (18 years after Chartres was begun), and was completed about 200 years later in about 1345.
Again, Sr. Eleanor enchanted us before we entered with her musings on Notre Dame, which she called the "Grand Lady" of Paris which belongs to the ages. She talked about how it had been a witness to so much amazing history, and how its construction represents decades of sacrifice for those who built it in the Middle Ages. But as she explained, in that era, that Cathedral gave the people the best sense of what Heaven might be like.
St. Bernard was criticized for having such an extravagance built when the people were so poor, but he felt that it spoke of the power of God and spread the gospel to the illiterate poor masses, and was therefore the right thing to do.(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Notre_Dame_de_Paris)
Sr. Eleanor talked about the distinctive architectural features here at Notre Dame which embody the Gothic style, which she called one of the richest, most imaginative in history and the greatest innovation in the history of architecture.
Notre Dame is famous for its gargoyles, and Sr. Eleanor told us that in the Middle Ages, they were much more than amusing figures. They represented demons, and all the frightening dimensions of the world, but are juxtaposed against the cathedral's famous rose window, which dwarfs them - the triumph of good over evil.
Notre Dame de Paris is located on the Ile de la cite - the birthplace of Paris, and she told us that all distances in France are measured from the Cathedral. Talk about central importance!
Memorial to the Deportation of French Jews
After having filled our senses with the Gothic grandeur of Notre Dame, we walked a few blocks behind the Cathedral to visit the memorial to the deportation of 200,000 French Jews by the Nazis. Built in In 1976, the Memorial to the Deportation was created by sculptor Shelomo Selinger to commemorate the French Jews.
The memorial is built underground, with small passageways, dark spaces, and no view of the horizon or sense of freedom to mimic what it must have been like in the concentration camps. There are ashes of many victims interred here, and a long dark hallway with thousands of small lights representing the lives that were lost.
It moved many of us to tears. Sr. Eleanor told us that when she brought groups of students to Paris, many of them said this memorial touched them more than anything else. We understood why as we stood in silence and struggled to understand the horror.
This afternoon, we visited Sainte Chapelle, which is a magnificent chapel on the Ile de la Cité in the heart of Paris. It was the most amazing sight.
Sainte Chapelle is the world's best example of the rayonnant period of Gothic architecture. ("Rayonnant" - from the French word meaning "to radiate" - describes a small period in the French Gothic architectural style circa 1240-50. Gothic architecture is characterized by light, and Rayonnant takes this to the extreme with buildings being so transparent that they appear lace-like from the exterior, and allow the viewer to see through the walls at many different perspectives..)
The patron of Sainte Chapelle was the very devout Louis IX of France, who constructed it as a private chapel for the royal palace. The chapel was started in 1246 and consecrated six years later in 1248 - incredibly fast construction for a Chapel in the Middle Ages! Louis was evidently a tough task master, and a very good motivational speaker!!!
Louis needed suitable relics for HIS church, and he wanted important relics, befitting HIS importance! Christ's crown of thorns and a piece of the cross seemed like a good place to start (!) Unlike many devout aristocrats who swiped relics, the saintly Louis bought his precious relics of the Passion from the Latin emperor at Constantinople for the exorbitant sum of 135,000 livres. The entire chapel, by contrast, cost less than a third of that - 40,000 livres - to build.
We waited in line to enter for a full hour, some of us grumbling about waiting in line so long, and how our feet hurt! But Sr. Eleanor told us it would be worth the wait, and WOW! Was she ever right. (When is she NOT right????)
We climbed the tiny narrow winding steep stone steps, which were originally the service entrance. We arrived suddenly into the rear right-hand corner of the upper chapel, unprepared for the grandeur we were seeing after the humble entrance, and were rendered breathless.
We were enveloped in violet, blue, and red light - dazzled by the pure transparency and radiance of the windows which gleam on all sides. In the words of philosopher / theologist Jean de Jandun, who is credited with writing the first tourist guide to Paris in the 1300s, we were " ravished to the skies, being introduced into one of the most beautiful chambers of Paradise." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_of_Jandun
In the Upper Chapel, Gothic architecture shows itself at its most sublime: light, color, and space join together in a conjunction of art and religion. Clearly, the architect, the sculptors and the painters lavished all their attention on the interior of the Upper Chapel, since this was to be the shrine of the most holy relics which were contained in a large, magnificently decorated reliquary kept in the apse.
The most stunning and visually beautiful aspects of the chapel, and considered the best thirteenth century glass work in the world, are its huge stained glass windows, which fill virtually all of the wall space. Supported by slender piers, the vaulted ceiling seems to float above these magnificent creations. Sainte-Chapelle owes its fame to them: 6,458 square feet of glass, of which two thirds are still original.
The lofty and elegant structure of the building seems to fade away, leaving only the windows in all their splendor. In these panes, the full biblical story of humanity is recounted in hundreds of scenes, from the Creation to redemption through Christ; Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Judges, Isaiah, the Tree of Jesse, Saint John the Baptist, Daniel, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Tobias, Judith and Job, Esther, the Book of Kings, and the History of the Relics follow one to the next.
Each five-story window is divided into lancets of hundreds of panels, which must be read from left to right, working from the bottom up.
We sat on the benches facing the southern wall and watched the colors of the windows and the light they let in as they gradually changed with the passing minutes. A light and color kaleidoscope!
While we were admiring the windows, and pondering how significant they were since they were the only way to pass on the gospel stories, we couldn't help but thank Sr. Eleanor once again for having the wisdom to lead us to this sacred place.
We had discovered that there was to be a concert tonight right in the upper chapel, which has become somewhat of a home for some of the best classical music performances in Paris. We were excited to have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take in this event in such a sublime setting.
And so after a rest and a bite to eat, we returned to Sainte Chapelle in the evening and watched the Orchestre les Archets de Paris - 3 violins, a viola, a cello, a bass, and a harpsicord - play Vivaldi, Mozart, and Pachelbel in front of the magnificent altar. It was definitely heavenly music in a heavenly setting, and an experience none of us will ever forget.
We continue to thank God for blessing us with this unforgettable and life-changing experience.