Category Archives: Cathedrals and Churches

Heartbreak at Notre Dame in Paris

I’m shocked to see the images of Norte Dame burning today. I was just there in December, and I took it for granted that it would always be there whenever I was lucky enough to return to Paris. I would not dream of visiting Paris without going inside to be awed once again by the majesty of Notre Dame.

But it appears that a fire started under the spire and spread rapidly. When I visited, I could see scaffolding around the spire; I understand major repairs were going on. The image above is a picture of a TV picture.

Now the news is that the entire roof has collapsed.

It is just unthinkable that a place of such beauty and spirituality is on fire. After all, the Cathedral of Our Lady was built between 1160 and 1260, and has stood through all the centuries of tumultuous French history since then.

I always think of Gothic churches as sort of fireproof because they seem to be made of stone. But actually much of the structure is wood.

Who knows whether Notre Dame can be rebuilt, or even whether the fire can be put out before it’s reduced to a pile of rubble. We can only hope the cathedral has guardian angels watching over it.

St. Hubert’s Chapel at Amboise: A Resting Place for Leonardo da Vinci

The Gothic Chapel of Saint-Hubert was built between 1491 and 1496 during the reign of Charles VIII.

It’s perched right at the edge of the wall surrounding Chateau d’Amboise, towering over the town far below.

The chapel is tiny but exquisite. The facade tells the story of St. Hubert. He seems to have been an actual person, born around 656 to 658 in Toulouse. By the time he died on May 30, 727, he had become the first Bishop of Liege.

Hubert was a courtier living the good life of feasting, wearing fine clothes, and hunting in the vast royal forests of various parts of France. But when his wife died in childbirth, it seems he had a sort of midlife crisis. He chucked his royal duties and turned his back on religion. Instead he spent all his time hunting, all by himself.

On Good Friday, while everybody else was in church, he was out hunting alone as usual when he had a miraculous vision. A magnificent stag appeared with a crucifix in its antlers. A voice told him to mend his ways and get back to religious life, which he did. He became known as the “Apostle of the Ardennes,” devoted himself to all manner of good works, and died peacefully in old age.

Hubert became the patron saint of hunters (of course). He was much venerated in the Middle Ages for being able to cure rabies. The cure involved using St. Hubert’s Key, a fearsome metal nail-like brand that was heated red-hot and applied to the spot where an unfortunate person was bitten by a rabid animal. I suppose it worked at times, but I’m betting Leonardo da Vinci could have improved on the method if he’d set his mind to it.

St. Hubert has his very own club today in the UK. It’s dedicated to deer and wild boar management.

https://www.sainthubertclub.co.uk/who-was-st-hubert/

St. Hubert’s story is very similar to that of St. Eustace, but it does seem they were different people who had the same vision. I first encountered the crucifix-in-antlers story on a visit to Canterbury Cathedral in England, and wrote about it. Eustace did not fare as well as Hubert, though. Legend has it that Eustace, his wife and children were eventually roasted alive by the Emperor Hadrian.

https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2016/04/29/st-eustace-in-canterbury-cathedral/

St. Hubert’s chapel is lovely and peaceful inside even when there are a lot of tourists visiting Amboise. People duck in to see Leonardo’s tomb, but they don’t linger.

The chapel is a nice resting place for Leonardo, who died just up the street in his last house, Clos Luce, in 1519. And I’m sure he appreciates the visitors from all over the world.

Winchester Cathedral, Jane Austen’s Resting Place

When Jane Austen died in 1817, she was not famous. She was buried as a gentlewoman beneath the floor in the north aisle of the nave of Winchester Cathedral, with no mention of her as a writer. She had published four of her great novels while living at Chawton, but readers did not know her name. The title page read, “By a Lady.”

I finally made a visit last spring, after visiting Jane’s cottage home in Chawton and the “great house” that played a big part in her most productive years.

No doubt Jane knew the medieval cathedral well, having lived the last eight years of her life in nearby Chawton Village. She spent the last eight weeks or so of her life in Winchester, undergoing treatment that didn’t work. (Theories about her illness include Addison’s disease and Hodgkin’s lymphoma, among others).

Jane lies underneath the stone floor. Her brothers James and Henry arranged the burial. Her tombstone refers to “the extraordinary endowments of her mind,” but the emphasis is on her qualities as a proper Christian gentlewoman, not her genius as a writer and satirist. Only four people attended Jane’s brief funeral service in 1817. She has much more company now.

I’d like to think Jane was familiar with the Holy Sepulchre Chapel.

The chapel’s wall and ceiling paintings date from the 12th and early 13th centuries.

Even more, I’d like to think Jane once stood and gazed up at the exquisite ceiling of the Guardian Angels Chapel, dating from around 1240, by Master William, the King’s painter.

That would have been King Henry III. The ceiling was restored in 1959, so Jane may not have seen it at its best. But I like to think the guardians angels watch over her anyway.

The cathedral has a nice display about Jane on banners and signs in the north aisle.

One sign explains that by around 1850, as Jane’s identity as a writer came out and her fame began to grow, visitors were coming just to see her grave.

In 1870 Jane’s nephew published a memoir about her and used the proceeds for a brass plaque on the wall near her tomb.

By 1900, a public subscription paid for a memorial window above the brass plaque.

Aside from the Jane connection, Winchester is a fascinating cathedral. The building was finished and consecrated in 1093, after all. It still functions as a church, and it’s possible to wander without crowds of tourists.

The beautiful illuminated Winchester Bible, used by the 60 to 80 monks in residence in the 1100s, is worth a visit all by itself.

I especially like the huge heavy “flying” buttresses that hold up the cathedral walls from outside. They form a sort of secular cloister which locals use all the time. I like to imagine Jane attending a service, then hurrying home with a new plot twist or turn of phrase. Maybe, for instance, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Jane lives on!

Fontevraud l’Abbaye

If I didn’t already believe in ghosts, I’d be positive they exist after visiting Fontevraud Abbey in France. I was looking forward to seeing it again on my last trip to France. I last saw it years ago, and expected it to be more developed for visitors now. It is, but not in a good way, at least not for me.

The Abbey was begun in the 1100s and for centuries was the home of generations of nuns.

Many of them were noblewomen who either chose monastic life or retreated to the convent when they were widowed or retired from public life. Also, quite often women who were in disgrace were packed off to convents so that everybody else could feel better about them. An exhibit in the cloisters earnestly uses this fact to argue that monastic life was similar to prison life. Much is made of uniforms and hierarchies. I don’t buy the argument.

There were actually four different orders of religious people at Fontevraud, one of them made up of male monks under the authority of the nuns. Fontevraud was very unusual in that respect. It was set up as a kind of utopian community run by women. I’m all for that! But there’s very little information posted about the history of the Abbey.

Eleanor of Aquitaine retreated to Fontevraud in her old age and died there. Eventually, her husband, Henry II of England, was buried alongside her in Fontevraud Abbey. Life in the convent was dignified and refined. Eleanor’s effigy shows her peacefully reading a book, probably Scripture (but I like to think it was something racy).

Eleanor and Henry’s son, King Richard the Lionheart, was buried in the same place, along with his sister-in-law Isabelle of Angoulême. Life went on placidly in the convent for centuries.

Then came the French Revolution. The Abbey was deconsecrated and the nuns were unceremoniously turned out.

Sacred images were smashed. Treasures were hauled off. Gold crosses were melted down. Only a few religious images remained, high up on walls.

Then in 1804, after all that was over, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the creation of a high-security prison which soon held as many as 2000 unfortunate men at a time. (I think the prisoners were all men). It became one of the harshest prisons in France, and remained so for over 150 years. The cavernous spaces were filled with cells and workrooms.

Guards patrolled the cloisters where generations of nuns once walked.

Today, an exhibit explains prison life. I think the photo above shows prison authorities. There were some photos of prisoners, but I could hardly bear to look at them. During World War II, resistance fighters were imprisoned at Fontevraud. Ten of them were shot on the grounds.

Prisoners did forced labor in complete silence, never allowed to speak even to each other. They were subject to terrible abuse. They worked day and night with very little food or rest. Life expectancy was 8 months.

I felt chilled and fearful the entire time I was in the Abbey. I felt certain that the place was haunted by the thousands of prisoners who suffered and died there. The prison finally closed in 1963.

Today, there is very little visible information about the royal tombs. Actually, what is visible is probably just the effigies. The tombs are very likely elsewhere.

The huge nave is cold, empty, and unconsecrated. Only a few fragments of wall paintings remain. There’s nothing much to look at except a kind of desk off to one side, where one person can sit and look at computer images. A small group was huddled over it and I could not even get close. And the building was really cold, even on a sunny day in May. It felt like more than just a physical coldness.

I’d have to be a much bigger fan of Romanesque architecture to venture through the Abbey doors again. But I won’t make it that far anytime soon. Entry to the Abbey is through a modern annex that somehow feels prison-like, with automatic sliding air-lock-type glass doors. I didn’t see any free guide brochures, and for once I didn’t feel like springing for a guidebook. Entry fees are stiff, too, and nobody is especially welcoming. Signs directing visitors are few and far between, and confusing.

I know there are other buildings in the complex that I missed. But most of the buildings seem to be closed.

Parts of the complex still seem to be under renovation or off-limits for other reasons. Back in the entry/exit/bookshop, I paged through a guidebook. I couldn’t find anything that tempted me to go back inside.

Maybe I lack imagination when I look at empty ancient spaces. Maybe I just wasn’t persistent enough. But I couldn’t wait to escape Fontevraud. I blame the ghosts.

I left and rushed to the nearest chateau, Usse, where I got in just before it closed for the day. If there are ghosts at Chateau d’Usse, they are friendly, welcoming ones. I know that a lot of people love Fontevraud. But it left me cold. And I don’t think a warm coat would have helped much.

For Halloween: These Are a Few of My Favorite Tombs

Since Halloween is historically about honoring the souls of the departed, I’m paying a virtual visit to some of the most memorable resting places I’ve seen on my travels. Above is the tomb of Catherine Parr, the only one of Henry VIII’s wives who managed to outlive him. She rests in St. Mary’s Church on the grounds of Sudeley Castle, where she lived part of her turbulent life. Previous posts about Catherine are at:

https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2013/08/12/visiting-sudeley-castle/

https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2013/08/05/sudeley-castle-home-of-three-queens/

Here’s the churchyard of Eyam Parish Church in Derbyshire, England.  Eyam was a remote village when the bubonic plague struck in 1665. Everybody know the disease was contagious, but nobody knew exactly how it spread. (Much later, it turned out it spread via fleas that fed on rats). Under the leadership of the rector, Reverend William Mompesson and the Puritan minister, Thomas Stanley, the villagers chose to quarantine themselves for the fourteen months of the outbreak.  Only about 80 of the villagers survived out of the 350 who lived there. Geraldine Brooks wrote a wonderful historical novel about the plague village, “Year of Wonders,” 2001.

Haddon Hall is a well-preserved medieval house in Derbyshire. Its St. Nicholas chapel dates from the 1400s or earlier. The chapel contains one of the most beautiful and touching memorials I’ve ever seen, a marble effigy of young Lord Haddon, who died in 1894 at the age of 9.

His mother, Violet, Duchess of Rutland, designed it in his memory.

A nobleman whose name is lost to me has one of the best resting places I know of. His tomb is in a side chapel of the Augustinian Church in Vienna. It’s the parish church of the Hapsburg royal family, connected directly to their Hofburg Palace. The tomb’s occupant has his own personal perpetual mourner to keep him company when things are quiet.

But for November and December, he has plenty of company. The church ladies run a charming little Christmas market with handcrafted items. And they serve homemade cakes and coffee. It’s a cheerful resting place.

https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2014/04/11/a-cheerful-resting-place/

Where I live in the mountains of Colorado, Halloween is a weeklong party. Everybody in town takes every opportunity to dress up as somebody else.

But November 1 is All Saints’ Day, celebrated in many churches as a day to remember “all saints, known and unknown” who are no longer with us. Sadly, we also need to honor all those lost in the senseless violence in our country and elsewhere. Wishing one and all a Halloween full of laughter and an All Saints’ Day full of remembrance.

Anne of Brittany at Langeais: A Secret Royal Bride

At daybreak on the morning of December 6, 1491, the fourteen-year-old Duchess Anne of Brittany married the 21-year-old King Charles VIII of France in somewhat-rushed ceremony that had to be kept secret until the ink on the wedding contract was dry. And when the provisions of the wedding contract were revealed, there was general shock and awe. The wedding changed the map and the history of France.

The dramatic tableau of life-sized figures in the Great Hall of Langeais Chateau is one good reason to make a stop there, but it’s not the only reason.

The late medieval chateau of Langeais towers above its pretty town on the banks of the Loire. The location has been in the thick of French history since around 992, when Foulque Nerra, Count of Anjou, built a wood-and-stone keep.

The keep is now a ruin in a pretty park above the medieval chateau.

The elevated ground overlooking the River Loire, where the smaller River Roumer feeds into it, was a prime defensive spot because from its heights, whoever held it could fend off any intruders. And there were plenty of intruders.

The Counts of Anjou and Blois were constantly trying to grab chunks of each other’s lands.

According to the chateau guidebook (written by Jean Favier of the Institut de France), whoever held Langeais controlled the middle part of the Loire. Langeais changed hands several times in the years before Foulque died in 1040. His son had to defend it against Blois, just as his father had before him. The Counts of Anjou and Blois were far more rich and powerful than the King of France at the time.

In the 1200s, the Counts of Anjou expanded their territories through judicious marriage (maybe they learned something from the Hapsburgs, who were past masters of this handy skill). Geoffroi Plantagenet extended his territories northward into Normandy. His son, Henry II, married Eleanor of Aquitaine and became King of England.

Beginning in the early 1200s, Langeais became less a military stronghold and more a prize given by the French Crown to various noblemen. The Loire Valley was “discovered” as prime second-home property–which it still is today. Nobles began building bigger and grander chateaux, far beyond the time when they were needed for defense.

Starting in 1495, Louis XI built the castle we see today. By this time, everybody who wanted to do battle had gunpowder and long-range cannons, so high walls with places for archers to hide were of no use against a determined enemy. There were no such enemies, but still, a new castle had to look a certain way. No self-respecting chateau would lack an intimidating drawbridge.

Elegant doorways were required inside the courtyard.

Round towers with pointy roofs grandly topped things off.

Inside, though, the castle deteriorated as centuries went by. It was abandoned during the Revolution. Then it went though a succession of owners who found it a bit much to maintain. In 1838, the town came close to buying it, to house a school, the town hall, and a jail. But it went instead to first one and then another rich owner.

Finally, in 1886, Jacques Siegfried bought it. He was a fabulously wealthy businessman who had already explored the world. He was ready to settle in Langeais and restore the chateau to a Victorian/Romantic idea of a princely late-medieval home. Monsieur Siegfried consulted the best historical experts, so most likely his ideas were pretty accurate.

He commissioned beautiful glazed tile floors based on old designs.

He located beautiful old tapestries for the walls.

Monsieur Siegfried filled the rooms with authentic furniture–most of it portable, as furniture was in the days when nobles and royalty traveled from castle to castle.

I think some of the furniture was built from old illustrations, like this high chair and baby walker.

Medieval castles were drafty; the rich had elevated beds draped with cozy textiles. They also had big bolster-like pillows on which they slept nearly sitting up. There was a belief that lying down all night might cause death. (Presumably the servants and poor folks were too exhausted at the end of the day to have this worry).

The bride on that cold winter morning in 1491 was the “It” girl of her time: Anne of Brittany, heiress of the vast and wealthy lands of Brittany. The groom was the young King of France, Charles VIII. All over Europe, princes and nobles wanted to marry Anne. She was actually married already, by proxy, to Maximilian of Hapsburg, who was in line to become Holy Roman Emperor. But he was busy dealing with revolts in his lands; he dragged his feet in getting together with his bride, and the political winds shifted. Charles VIII did not want to be encircled by his enemies. He was already betrothed to Margaret, the daughter of Maximilian. But Charles’ people talked to Anne’s people, and a deal was struck.

The prize was Brittany, and the French Crown needed it–permanently. So the marriage contract stated that if Charles died without male heirs, Anne would marry his successor–who was also present at the wedding, looking eagle-eyed at the contract. And well he might. He was Duke Louis d’Orleans, who would actually become King Louis XII and marry Anne within a few years.

Of course Anne’s proxy marriage and Charles’s betrothal had to conveniently disappear, and the dispensations had not yet arrived from Rome. But the deed was done once the marriage contract was signed. (Nobody talked about the fact that the bride’s magnificent wedding gown of cloth of gold, trimmed with sable, had been a gift from Maximilian).

A few years after the wedding, Charles was rushing to a tennis match in the Chateau d’Amboise: he whacked his head on the lintel of a door and died. He had no heir. His cousin, the Duke d’Orleans, was already married, but he readily obtained an annulment so that he could marry Anne, as spelled out in her wedding contract. (I have to wonder whether Anne might have secretly thought she was off the hook on the agreement to marry her husband’s cousin. But political needs were stronger than anyone’s personal needs. The inconvenient wife was sent packing in short order, and the new royal wedding took place).

Anne dutifully spent her life trying to produce a male heir, first with one royal husband, then with another. She never succeeded. One report says that she was pregnant about every 14 months, but only two daughters survived to adulthood. (One daughter was Queen Claude, wife of King Francois I. If anything, her royal life was even more trying than her mother’s, and she died at age 24). A touching 19th century enamel, above, depicts one of Anne’s sons, who died as a small child from measles. Anne died of a kidney stone attack at age 36, worn out from constant pregnancies.

Langais was given to the Institut de France in 1904. The dramatic figures of the wedding tableau were made by sculptor Daniel Druet and costume designer Daniel Ogier. I’m not sure when they were made, but I first saw them about ten years ago. Now, the display seems even more impressive.

Four times an hour, the Great Hall darkens, images are projected on the wall, and a narrator tells the dramatic story. It’s in English once every hour. Hopeless Francophile that I am, I went back and listened again, to the French version. Somehow it seems even more dramatic in French.

Langeais is a very pretty town with nice shops and restaurants, plus the beautiful Church of St. John the Baptist.

The church was founded in the fourth century by St. Martin of Tours–the soldier who famously cut his warm cloak in half to give to a naked beggar. The present building was begun in the 900s and modified over the next few hundred years. It still functions as a parish church, and I think it hosts concerts as well.

Langeais would be a good base for another trip to the Loire Valley! Hmmm…

If It’s Friday, This Must be Fontainebleau

I’m continuing a brief rundown of my 9-day chateau blitz in France, with individual posts to come! Above is Chateau de Chambord, which I think of as The Really Big One With the Spiky Roof.

Francois I built Chambord starting in 1519 and naturally stuck his emblem, the flame-spouting salamander, all over the place. It’s a little short on charm but long on history and the Wow Factor.

Chateau de Langeais is a restored medieval chateau/fortress in a delightful town.

Langeais is most famous as the site of a secret wedding that changed French history: Anne of Brittany married King Charles III, uniting her coveted vast lands with the French crown. And she agreed in writing to marry his successor if Charles died (which he did). A dramatic tableau in the actual wedding hall (with narration every 15 minutes, in English once every hour) explains the characters and why this wedding was a very big deal.

Chateau de Villandry is most famous for its gardens, but the chateau has fine art, too. That’s a bust of Francois I in his armor above.

Chateau de Chaumont was the consolation prize given to Diane de Poitiers after Catherine de Medici kicked her out of the sublime Chenonceau. (See previous post, “Diane de Poitiers vs. Catherine de Medici). Diane hardly stayed at Chaumont, but shrewdly developed and farmed the estate to her great profit.

Later, Chaumont became a regular haunt of nobles and artists like Marcel Proust.

Today, Chaumont has fantastic gardens and art installations. When I visited, the chapel was filled with branches, flowers and beautiful found objects.

Chateau d’Amboise towers over the lively town of Amboise, right on the River Loire. Francois I brought Leonardo da Vinci here from Italy, to keep him company during the last 3 years of Leonardo’s life.

Leonardo died in 1519 at the mansion Francois I gave him, Clos Luce, just up the street from the chateau. He was buried on the chateau grounds.

Chateau de Gaillard, down a side street near Clos Luce, is really more of a mansion. But it was the home of the master gardener Charles III brought from Italy to do up his chateau grounds.

Dom Pacello was a monk with a serious green thumb. Among other great ideas, he brought orange trees to France. After Charles III died, Dom Pacello served his successors, Louis XII and Francois “The Builder” I. Today, the family renovating the estate is cultivating many of the 60 varieties of citruses grown by the gardener monk.

Vaux-le-Vicomte was the place that inspired Louis XIV, the Sun King, to go all out in building the Palace of Versailles.

Well, truth be told, it was more appropriation than inspiration. Louis was furious that his Lord High Treasurer, Nicolas Fouquet, had nicer digs than anything the King had at the time. So after a particularly grand blowout party in which Nicolas pulled out all the stops to amuse Louis, Louis turned around and had him arrested and imprisoned for life (overruling the court that failed to convict him). Then Louis made off with the great architect Louis le Vau, the painter and designer Charles le Brun, and the landscaper Andre le Notre, along with all the furniture. He even dug up the bushes.

Nearby Fontainebleau has been the home of French kings for centuries. There’s always renovation going on. But I really could not see the point of a short section of ugly fence right in front of the famous double staircase where Napoleon Bonaparte spoke to his troops after he was forced to abdicate. I think the fence was put there just to discourage selfies.

Napoleon especially liked Fontainebleau. There’s an absorbing series of rooms about him on display right now. Is that one of Napoleon’s outfits above? No. It’s just how he dressed one of his more important servants. The Emperor had style, for sure.

My very least favorite sight on this trip was the Fontevraud-l’Abbaye, where nobles and royalty once retreated to the monastic life. I saw it years ago, and expected it to be more developed for visitors now. It is, but not in a good way, at least for me.

The whole site was a fearsome prison for 150 years, only closed in 1963. The cavernous spaces were filled with prison cells for all that time.

Prisoners did forced labor in complete silence and were subject to terrible abuse. Life expectancy was 8 months. A series of exhibits in the cloister claims all kinds of similarities between prison life and monastic life. I don’t see it. Monastic life was usually (of course not always) a free choice of nuns and monks, and it was based on prayer and contemplation, not subjugation and punishment. I found the exhibit offensive and felt like the place was haunted by the thousands of prisoners who suffered and died there.

It’s true that Eleanor of Aquitaine spent her last days at Fontevraud-l’Abbaye, when it was a very pleasant place, and died there in 1204. Her effigy lies with those of her husband, King Henry II of England, her son, Richard the Lionheart, and Isabella of Angouleme, wife of King John of England. But the monastery was dismantled during the Revolution, and these may not be the actual resting places. Anyway, the space is cold, empty, and unconsecrated.

More serious fans of architecture could spend hours studying the Romanesque abbey, but I probably would not go back.

Kings, queens, nobles and assorted favorites acquired serious real estate over the centuries. Every chateau and abbey and church is one-of-a-kind, like the people who built and lived and worshipped in them. The ones I visited on this trip are just the most famous ones.

I’d like to take another whole trip going to lesser-known and farther-afield chateaux, and also to the churches I didn’t have time for. But I would always carve out a morning to gaze out the leaded-glass windows of beautiful, magical, sublime Chenonceau, draped like a necklace across the River Cher. The kitchens at Chenonceau are even beautiful, and they have that river view.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!