These past few days have been a study in contrasts. Top priority was to visit Notre Dame de Paris cathedral, the one Victor Hugo made famous in his novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Hugo’s book (like the subsequent movies based on it) did not provide our motivation. We didn’t need it. For any visitor to Paris this is a must!
The 12th century master-piece has lost none of its drawing power. Myriads of sight-seers and worshipers throng the building and environs—and this was not a particularly busy day, we were told. Having the opportunity to gaze at the stained glass windows is reason enough for standing in line, but everywhere the eye turns there is more to take in: the statuary, the individual chapels, the soaring walls, the flying buttresses, and yes, the gargoyles on duty scaring off the evil spirits.
Signs request silence in the sanctuary and, surprisingly, people honor the request. I couldn’t help thinking, “This is holy ground.”
My own response piqued my curiosity. As I’ve noted before in this blog, I’m from a non-liturgical, free-church tradition. We don’t do statues and stained glass and edifices that will survive for centuries. We consider such extravagance a waste of money. (We don’t mind spending that much for football stadiums, but surely not for churches!) Yet even after a lifetime of conditioning, something in my soul still pauses to appreciate, to contemplate, to pray. And to thank God for the visionary souls of centuries ago who raised Notre Dame and other churches like it “to the glory of God.”
The contrast? The Georges Pompidou Center, named for the French president (1969-1974) who commissioned it. It houses Europe’s largest museum of modern art; it’s another must-see monument in this city of must-see monuments. I’ve been here before but wanted to return, to see whether it really is as ugly as I remembered from that first visit. It is. The best analogy I could think of for the design of this monstrosity is the brief late teen fad of wearing underwear on the outside. At the Pompidou you see it all. It’s totally utilitarian, with nary a nod in the direction of beauty, no exterior facing to hide the guts of the construction. The structural beams, the ductwork, the wiring, the joists and joints and nuts and bolts—all are on display.
With my earlier impression confirmed, I didn’t need (and Mike didn’t care) to pay the price to go inside to see the art works which I found so uninspiring last time. Brian was with me then and couldn’t stop commenting on one painting. It was all white except for a blue dot in the middle. It’s title? Le Bleu Dot. You remember an experience like that one.
OK, you expect this from the “clergy.” Here’s what’s missing in the Pompidou. In Notre Dame the movement is upward. The walls soar skyward, the long narrow gothic windows come to a point at the top, like multicolored tapers; the roof is steeply pitched. The eyes are directed heavenward. You can’t help it. God is the unifier of the architecture. But the Pompidou has nowhere to look, no destination for the eyes. God is dead, human intelligence rules and has no sense of direction. Pragmatism rules: this is how this thing works and that’s enough. Observe the machinery. Note how the building settles itself on the ground, leads your eyes up a few stories but brings them right back down. Cathedrals have spires that point to the eternal; the Pompidou does not aspire so it does not inspire.
We’re glad we saw it, though.
I’m going to skip our tourist bus ride around Paris because the report would be so, well, touristy. I want to tell you about dinner. Mike found us a cozy Parisian café for an authentic French meal—I had (unsurprisingly) beef afloat a creamed pate de foie gras and he had the best roast duck I’ve ever tasted (yes, we shared). But that wasn’t the best part of the meal.
That was an enjoyable conversation with the young couple in the next table (about four inches separated our tables). Rodrigo and Karine are from Montreal, enjoying a second honeymoon. They came to Paris from Barcelona. Their enjoyment has been enhanced by her French and his Spanish (he’s originally from Chile), but these two would enjoy any adventure because of their positive spirit and friendliness. I warned them I’d post this picture Mike took. They are a good example of the consistently friendly, interesting, even charming people we’ve been meeting. I wish we lived closer to Rodrigo and Karine.
Our major visit the next day was the Louvre. Again we felt our poverty of time. This world-famous museum deserves our whole week; we gave it less than half a day.
You who have come to the Louvre know what I’m talking about. For you who haven’t, let me encourage you to check out Google images.
You’ll discover some of the art world’s most famous works here, including the one that we, like all other visitors, had to see, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. She still smiles her enigmatic smile, still entices the most visitors to the Louvre . She may be the star, but the whole supporting cast of art works also deserve a viewing.
If we get back to Paris, I hope to devote parts of many days to a more leisurely, intentional study of these masterworks.
I should have mentioned that of the many salons and galleries and interesting rooms in the Louvre, my favorite is Le Grand Louvre. It serves an excellent Caesar salad.
Well, this post must come to an end. Mike is sitting across the table from me, sending me a few of his favorite pictures. Too many for our limited space. So we must stop and say adieu. When next you hear from Lawsons on the Loose we’ll be in Dublin. Thanks for listening.