A church crawl (and more mice). The conclusion of the piece written yesterday.
It was time to leave Del and Ruth and head North towards home. Goodbye Provence.
Betty’s favourite thing was having visitors to stay in her home…her second best was staying as a guest with her friends. I am a bit anti-social. My favourite thing was anything to do with art in all it’s forms. Since my encounter with the stone carvings at the abbeys in Malmesbury and Dorchester at art school one of my my passions was Romanesque stone carving and all things medeival. This was going to be my part of the holiday.
The library at Corsham had all the expensive monographs of the day such as Skira and Thames and Hudson and Phaedon. I had seen photos of the great early abbeys and cathedrals in France so I had a notion of where I wanted to go. Number one was Autun and I was bowled over by the capitals (still am!) their directness, simplicity, brilliant capacity to fill a given space and the feeling of sincerity. Anonymous stonemasons telling stories that mean something to them.
Autun. The three kings sleeping has the same sweeping shape as the sculpture in the porch at Malmesbury. It is like a bas releif. In the journey to Bethlehem the mason moves away a bit from the flat representation so that you get carved sides as well. I love them both. I have had a huge photo of the Three Kings on a bedroom wall ever since that time.
The incredible power of simplicity. You can feel the building itself as a great sculpture, no frilly decorations to detract from the form and the sense of space. It feels like a place of significance, the stones seem to hold the memory of hundreds of years of prayer and worship.
So many significant abbeys concentrated in one area…extraordinary. The masons must have been in great demand. The great solid walls of Cluny almost like a fortress.
They obviously knew what they were doing when it came to grapes, well it is Burgundy This carving is a bit unusual in the deep chiselling away of the background, a bit on the wild side too, maybe he was under the influence of the grape. Not half cut.
Well, we had one more night of camping. We arrived at a site to see a vast camping area but all the tents and caravans were huddled together at one end. Strange. There were lots of small holes in the ground such as tent poles might make. We thought there must have been a large tented group there that had just left, We chose a nice spot and pitched tent. We had a clear plastic ground sheet. Someone passed by, wished us good day then grinned and said mulots. Betty didn’t know what it mean’t and I certainly didn’t. We were both exhausted and collapsed and went fast asleep on our camp beds. I woke up first, glanced down at the floor and under the clear plastic groundsheets there were scores of mice running about and coming up over the edges. I let out a scream and ran outside closely followed by Betty. The man sauntered over to us with his dog. He grinned again and said the French equivalent of ‘My dog will deal with them’ With a dramatic gesture he came to the deserted tent and let his dog off the lead. Immediately his dog ran away whimpering! To be fair human nature kicked in again and people helped us to re-pitch in the crowded mouse free area. Mulot is not the usual word for mouse if he had said souris we might have stood a chance. I expect they were all tittering at the mad English and waiting for the inevitable.
Such a peaceful place, the Cistercians certainly knew how to pick a good spot. I believe they were trying to find remote sites. It ceased to become an abbey and was bought by a family. They have done a spendid job of looking after it and showing it off in a sensitive way, it radiates a feeling of quietness and calm set in its well kept grounds. The buildings are made of pale stone perfectly constructed. In these abbeys each building had a purpose refectory, dormitory, cloisters etc and it was obvious that the architects or master masons had clearly understood their brief but also added beauty into the equation. What a harmonious space, it induces a feeling of calm and the way the light comes in helps.
Paray le Monial. The apsedal end reminds me somehow of Charlemagnes palace at Aachen. A solid little building with the intriguing side chapels.
Finally Vezelay. Now you’ve really got to put in some hard work here because it is in a commanding position position at the top of a hill, and you know when you’ve walked up to the top, but it is certainly worth it. The first thing you see is the powerful typanum over the entrance. Christ in Majesty with the sinners and saints. Christ is elegantly angular. I always get the feeling that masons and stained glass artists revelled in the sinners. The frieze at the bottom and the separate little scenes on the curve give some good licence for observations of daily living. Who would we put in someone on a mobile, a car driver, a rock guitarist, the list is endless but it would take real artistry to produce something so fine.
Postscript. Years before when I was an art school it was stone carving I longed to do but it wasn’t offered in the sculpture dept. It didn’t really make much sense to me that I was studying the bas relief at Malmesbury and the stone carving of the knight in Dorchester and then rendering them in clay. It’s a completely different process in clay you are building up and in stone you are cutting away. Even when I am using clay I am happier cutting away leather hard clay. I’m a cutter away not a builder up. So I longed for the day when I could work with stone and that years later that day came. I went to Tout Quarry on Portland and did three weeks stone carving and loved it. It was helped by the fact that I had lovely digs and the landlady and I became close friends. I had taken my keyboard in the car so we had some excellent parties. She was a Portlander, they are very proud of their traditions. I also had my bike so I could do without my car, cycling to the quarry every day felt more natural.
Happy, happy with Chesil Beach behind me.