Beauty in stone
ASHRAFI S. BHAGAT
A visit to the French cathedrals leaves one wondering at the artistry and engineering skills that were pooled to create these spiritual abodes.
Dominating the skyline: The towers of Amiens Cathedral.
FRANCE evokes images of romance, history, poetry and an art. The country was a cradle of Medieval Gothic architecture as well modernity in art and literature. Millions of people visit France every year and their preferred destination is Paris and its suburb of Versailles to see the Royal Palace built by Louis XIV. But few tourists are aware of the beautiful cathedrals located within 200 km from the capital at Chartres and Rouen and Amiens.
Today we wax eloquent about the wonders of technology and its applications in different areas of life. But look at Gothic architecture, which began in the 12th century with Abbot Suger, we can't help wondering at the marvels created with the most fundamental tools at their disposal. Even today we are left wondering at the artistry and engineering skills that were pooled to create these awesome spiritual abodes.
Replacing the round arch with a pointed one, and reinforcing it with a flying buttress on the exterior, the Gothic builders created a skeletal framework, dissolving the walls and filling them with windows. These stained glass windows representing biblical stories are the marvels of Gothic architecture. The light-filled interiors make the worshippers feel uplifted and create a mystical ambience. In the hands of medieval glaziers, glass took on a jewel-like quality that was all the more impressive for the ancient simplicity of its technique sand transformed by fire.
To visit the Chartres Cathedral, we drove in the comforts of our Mercedes Benz bus. Paris' thick traffic gave way to a pristine and manicured countryside. Under a bright sun, the gently undulating plain, with a mustard crop in full bloom, was a golden carpet. This lasted for an hour and half till the towers of the Chartres Cathedral were sighted dominating the sleepy town. Since buses were not allowed in the vicinity, it was a long walk to the Cathedral. After passing quaint houses with creepers on the brick walls and flowers in planters, the weathered brown stone cathedral loomed majestically before us.
Officially known as the "Cathedral of Our Lady in Chartres", it is ranked as one of the finest examples of Gothic French architecture. The original structure dates back to 1145 and was rebuilt in 1194 after a devastating fire. It was completed over a 26-year period. The cathedral was consecrated under King (Saint) Louis and Pope Alexander IV on October 17, 1260.
The 106 stained glass windows, including the three rose windows, are its crowning glory. Made during the Middle Ages and dating from the beginning of the 12th century, they cover an area of 3150 m. Standing before the strange beauty of a Gothic cathedral, one cannot but appreciate the artistry, skill and sacrifice of the medieval stonecutter. The stone has weathered with vicissitudes of Nature making the monument more romantic.
Rouen, "City of Hundred Spires", is also the seat of the Archbishop of Rouen and the capital of Normandy. Looming over the quaint town with cobbled streets and an air of quiet and leisure is the tower of the Notre-Dame de Rouen or the Rouen Cathedral considered the highest spire (490 ft.) in France. It contains the tomb of Richard Lion Heart. The English burnt Joan of Arc at the stakes in 1431 at Rouen and an elegant church was built in remembrance.
The city, including the cathedral, was heavily damaged during World War II, but was rebuilt later. In 1894, the artist Claude Monet completed a series of 40 oil paintings of the cathedral. For two years, the aging visionary kept peculiar hours, rising before dawn and retiring just after twilight, in order to capture the transient effects of light and atmosphere on this great old church.
Amiens, north of Rouen, is a big town with a small population. As one approaches, spires seem to dominate the skyline. The first sight of the cathedral is breathtaking as one is dwarfed by its awesome size, the largest and most Classical of French cathedrals. Built in 1152, it stands majestic beckoning the visitor to step beyond into its interior. The space inside engulfs and drowns the ceiling is 42.3 m high compared to Chartres, which is 37 m.
The solemn majesty of these cathedrals with their soaring spires, the experience of space within, the ingenuous flying buttresses, the artistic rose windows, the monumental soaring lines and the sculptured procession of saints in their regalia make them an exhilarating and awesome experience. One does not simply walk out of the cathedral saying one monument over; rather its experience lingers to create a mental serenity and aspiring for another experience.
Chartres is about 110 km southwest of Paris and can be reached by car or train Frequent trains run between the Gare Montparnasse in Paris and Chartres; the journey taking 50-75 minutes depending on the speed of the train. Conveniently, Chartres tourist office (e-mail email@example.com ) is right in front of the Chartres Cathedral.
Rouen is about 140 km northwest of Paris By road the journey is little more than an hour. Trains from the Gare St-Lazare, Paris take pretty much the same time. Flights from Paris to Rouen are also available. Check www.rouentourisme.com for more details.
Amiens is also about 140 km north of Paris. By air, there are regular flights from the Charles de Gaulle international airport. By road, it is around an hour's journey on the A16 motorway. By train, an hour's journey from Gare du nord See www.amiens.fr for more details.
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