The downside of France having a monarchy for so many hundreds of years is that its citizens were (literally) royally screwed. You probably read about their French Revolution in the 18th century, when virtually all of France’s nobility met untimely ends. After touring the opulent palaces of Paris, it is hard to shed a tear for the nobility when they at last had their comeuppance. Even after visiting the Conciergerie, the haunting prison in Paris where thousands of people (including Marie Antoinette) were barbarically executed, it was hard to feel sorry for a class so out of touch with their citizenry.
The upside of the centuries of royalty is that they left the country with many incredibly opulent estates for future generations to gawk at. Eighteenth century France in all its opulent excess is best viewed at the King’s “summer home” in Versailles, which is on the western outskirts of Paris. Those French Kings were clearly unafraid of living large.
Above, for example, you can see just one the many marvelous ceiling paintings in the Palace of Versailles. There were so many ceilings to dress up. For a French King, just applying a coat of Benjamin Moore would not do. Famous European painters found plenty of steady employment courtesy of the King of France. It must have taken many decades just to paint these ornate ceilings. Of course, it is not just the walls and the ceilings that needed an artist’s touch, but everything in the rooms. Statuary abounds in Versailles, along with marble floors, enormous stone columns, exquisite hand constructed furniture and enough gold plate to fill Fort Knox. The rooms just go on and on and seem endless. The King’s stables alone are bigger than most apartment buildings. His gardens stretched for miles. Naturally, what summer palace would be complete without an inside church that looks more like a cathedral, and an opera house for a few hundred of the King and Queen’s guests?
There must have been many top-notch French painters and sculptors though, because Paris is awash in spectacular painting and statuary, as well as Gothic churches. The obvious place to view much of it is in Paris’ enormous museum, The Louvre, which takes up several city blocks. The Louvre is the largest museum in the world. Unless you just want to sail past the exhibits, there is no way to appreciate everything in the Louvre in one day. A proper visit to the Louvre would take a week at least. Someone with a history and art bent could easily spend a month taking it in. There is so much artwork in some rooms that paintings hang above paintings that hang above paintings.
If writers are encouraged to write about what they know, then it is obvious that French painters painted what they knew, which was Europe. There likely were not many Encyclopedia Britannicas in those Renaissance and post Renaissance times. It is not surprising then that so many paintings of the time had religious figures in them. Painting Biblical scenes as if they occurred in France and populating the Holy Land full of Anglo Saxons though does become amusing after a while. You have to look hard for someone who looks Semitic among all those paintings. As depicted by the artists of the time, the Holy Land of Biblical times were full of flaxen haired Europeans in 14th century garb. Baby Jesus was apparently overfed and obese, as were many of the women. Speaking of women, as depicted by the artists of the time, they were not very modest. I was amazed by how many women went around with one (or more) perfect breast exposed to the air. Men too were often traipsing around with full genitalia on display. Many artists painted variations of Da Vinci’s famous painting The Last Supper. In these newer versions though, Jesus invited a few more people to the table. You can find paintings of The Last Supper containing many a French nobleman or King breaking bread with Our Lord.
For me the glory of French art was not in its paintings, nor its statuaries, nor even in the opulent excess of its palaces. Fittingly, ecclesiastical art is where the art of its age reached its zenith. For a damned secular humanist like me, it was impossible to slip into a basilica, church, chapel or cathedral in Paris and not feel the presence of the sacred. Everything in these churches was meticulously designed to inspire reverence. There is no question about it: no one does mysticism better than the Catholics. What unwashed peasant would not want to convert to Christianity after entering a cathedral like Notre-Dame? We inspected three churches in Paris. The most jaw dropping of them was a simple chapel: Sainte-Chapelle, with glorious stained glass windows dating to the 11th century. Amazingly, they are still intact today and, as this picture shows, of such magnificence that no contemporary art can come close to matching it. It is ironic that a church of such beauty casts a shadow on the courtyard of that bloody prison, the Conciergerie.
A proper visit to Paris requires a trip to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. This cathedral’s construction began in the 12th Century. For a structure so old, it remains in very good shape. This is thanks, no doubt, to centuries of maintenance. I had heard that Notre-Dame was over-hyped. Thankfully, my sources were incorrect. Sainte-Chapelle is magnificent but relatively simple. Notre-Dame is enormous but ornate, as the picture of just some of its engraved statuary demonstrates.
Despite more than eight centuries of use, the inside of the cathedral remains awe inspiring, holy and reverent. While we were there, a Mass began. You can watch this short movie (4.7 MB). My daughter recorded it from inside Notre-Dame. You can hear the ethereal voice of a mezzo-soprano singing inside the cathedral. More than a week later, it still sends a shiver up my spine. What you can see, but of course cannot smell, is the incense. My daughter, who professes to be Wiccan, exited Notre-Dame as dazzled as I was. “I have never been in such a holy place,” she said in a humbled tone that belied her sixteen years.
Each church had rows of votive candles. In each, I spent a few euros to light a votive candle for my mother, who passed away last year. I am sure she would appreciate the thought. I also suspect that she would be amazed that her secular son lit a candle in her name in such holy spots.
My wife has some friends in England who came to visit with us for a few days while we were in Paris. With them, I climbed to the top of Notre-Dame, inspected its belfry but did not find Quasimodo. I took many pictures of its numerous gargoyles. It is amazing how well-preserved most of them remain, in spite of so many centuries of being exposed to the air.
We also visited a relatively recent church, the Basilique du Sacre-Couer, which is not too far from the morally dubious Moulin Rouge area on Paris’ right bank. As in Notre-Dame, we ascended into its upper levels via many a winding and vertically challenging staircase. Once near the top, we enjoyed this somewhat occluded view of Paris from its highest point.
I will detail more of the museums we visited in my next entry.