Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Paris - part deux

When does a tourist become a pilgrim? In this case when he went to Chartres. Whereas the sculptures of Cologne Cathedral betray their Romanticism (one Mary looked just like Cinderalla), every pebble of Chartres exudes Medieval authenticity. Like a rugged French wine, this place is just getting better with age. The windows and sculptures are readable and clear... one might even say "evangelical" in the classic sense of the term: They make plain the Gospel. The place was made all the more beautiful by some very well executed works of abstract art hung all around the cathedral, which admittedly did not exude Medieval authenticity, but still worked.


One of the radiating chapels was, interestingly, dedicated to ecumenism with an icon for the Orthodox, an open Bible for Protestants (though sometimes I wonder if it would be a better representation if closed), and a cross for Anglicanism. The Catholics of course get Chartres itself. There were unfortunately no candles burning at this chapel, whereas there were everywhere else... is Church unity really a lost cause? So I fired one up. If you're ever in the neighborhood, consider keeping the flame alive. Still, if church unity is going to happen, it's gonna take a lot more than candles.

The exciting labrynth is built into the stone floor, rubbed to a shine by millions of pilgrims' feet. It has become the ambition of many to "de-Christianize" these Cathedrals, leading to whispered statements such as
"Did you know the Labrynth actually had a PAGAN origin?" Or... "Look... Zodiac signs!!! Guess this place isn't so Christian afterall."
But keep this in mind: Christianity appropriates. The reason for the Zodiac signs is to symbolize that Christ is Lord of all, and nothing, even the stars, lie outside his domain. And though the Labrynth can admittedly mean anything you want it to me, it is intended (in this case) to be a tool to facilitate communion with Jesus Christ. Pagan precedent? Of course. Christianity won the west by carefully transforming Paganism, not by ignoring it. A task for which a great Scriptural analogy has always been this.

Mo' Museums
Back in Paris I went to Saint Sulpice where the Delacroix murals are a winner. They were one of the last works of his career when, not unlike Andy Warhol, he found himself drifting back to Christianity. In them Jacob wrestles with the angel and is called Israel, meaning "struggle." Relationship with God is not easy. Then to Saint Germain, the oldest Church in Paris where the walls are still painted the way all Cathedrals would have been originally. After this I had a chance to do a "Left Bank" walk to see some contemporary art.

Art History is interesting for it's "famous firsts," but one often finds the best art in galleries by living artists taking advantage of the pioneering steps made long ago. Among other Left Bank sights, I saw Oscar Wilde's hotel where he uttered his last words, "Either these curtains go or I do."

Then to the courtyard of the Rodin Museum (which felt strangely familiar). The Gates of Hell is a greatest hits of all Rodin's work, swirled together with the thinker on top, reminding us all where excessive introspection can lead. Though all of Rodin's figures (with a few exceptions) seem to be tortured in their bodies, the body will not always be a prison, and therefore attempts to capture its beauty and struggle are never in vain.

Then to the Picasso museum. Picasso was, I think, a great artist... who offered his talent on the altar of originality to the god of fame. His interesting initial moves went stale quicky, and he seems to have spent a lot of time coasting on early success. Though there were, I admit, a few places where his abstractions may have captured what more realistic works never can, still I can't shake the conviction that the emperor has no clothes on.

On a similar note, I felt about the same about the exoskeletal Pompidou Modern art warehouse as I did about the Tate Modern. The only thing that redeemed both places were the great views... views that, keep in mind, leave you looking outside the museum, away from the "Art," which these places are convinced is a tool with which to bludgeon the bourgeois. Someone please rescue Rouault from that place.

That night I met up with meine Schwager und Schwagerin (brother and sister in law) tomtastic and the freshly graduated Susie. We stayed near Napolean's tomb... the absolutely massive reminder that if you pretend that you can live without structure in the name of Liberty Equality and Fraternity, you'll get worse than a King... you'll get an Emperor. Summing up this Revolution Wilhelm Roepke wrote,
"The positive aspect of the Ancient Regime, that is, the genuine structure of society, was destroyed, and its negative aspect, i.e., the despostism of the state was maintained in an even more pronounced form."
Nature abhors a vacuum, and by attempting to illiminate structure completely it came back with a vengeance, not unlike the liberation of the proletariat leading to Chairman Mao or an utterly "free" Pentecostal Church who ends up with a frighteningly authoritarian pastor.

The next day the three of us swung to the Mother of all Castles. The interior was impressive, but much of the historic Hall of Mirrors was unfortunately being renovated (yet after comparing the cleaned side of Chartres to the unccleaned side, one doesn't exactly mind renovation work). The moral of these mirrors? Clemency. For the German bitterness spawned by this room gave Hitler all the raw material he would need.

Lest you think us unsophisticated for going to the American Church while in Paris (which we had done that morning), when at Versailles we went to high Latin Mass (with French readings and sermon) in the King's chapel. It was quite the experience. The "chapel" where Loius Quatourze would have worshipped (of course also in Latin) was tastefully Baroque and quite glorious... a fitting tribute to the Sun King's King (he did have one you know).

Would you go to a Latin mass with French sermon for your Schwager?

Incidentally, of the two sermons on the same parable we heard on Sunday, I like this one the best.

Though Versailles is essentil for its being the inspirtation for so many other castles (as well as for the town planning of Washington D.C. et. al.), I kept thinking how much more satisfying Neuschwanstein was.... until seeing the grounds. Even withnout the squirt-factor (the fountains were off), we left impressed.

Barth Day
So... after a combined 3 packed days and 2 nights of sightseeing I was finally at liberty to do something - enjoy Paris. We went to an incredible restaurant (but I think they all are). 1AM on a Sunday and everywhere is still packed with locals of all ages... different. Or shall I say... different.

On the way back I had a sort of Barth homage day. Hostile as he could be to visual art, Barth would use the Isenheim altarpiece as an example of what our role as Christians is, that is, to simply point to Christ. So, at the thankful prodding of my Art History professor who calls it the "best pre-Reformation altarpiece in the world," I saw it. He was right (and that's saying a lot considering the existence of this). Realize that the figures are life size, and there's a level of sculpture even after the two panels. Add Colmar (where the museum is) by the way to Haarlem and Aachen as smaller Eruopean towns worth a return visit.

Barth would also (if I'm not mistaken) use the never finished but still mesmerizing Strasbourg Cathedral as an analogy for his monumental Church Dogmatics, which remain themselves unfinished. Climbing the stairs of the Cathedral can also be as tiring as reading the Dogmatics... and rewarding.

Incidentally, nothing kills one's German like French. I seem unfortunately have only have room in my mouth for one foreign language at a time.