Saturday, September 19, 2015

David Warren on Sainte-Chapelle.

Of the various historical sites I visited during my recent sojourn in Paris, Sainte-Chapelle merits special note. Built at the behest of King Louis IX and consecrated in 1248, Sainte-Chapelle is widely considered to be one of the finest Gothic structures in the world; I know some people who would go even further by describing Sainte-Chapelle as the most beautiful church building ever constructed, and, though I tend to be suspicious of unqualified superlatives, in this instance I can certainly appreciate the sentiment.

There are few experiences quite like that of seeing the Upper Chapel of the Sainte-Chapelle for the first time, as one ascends the narrow, winding staircase from the Lower Chapel and suddenly finds oneself in one of the most dazzling spaces ever built by human hands. Toronto-based writer David Warren captures something of this experience in a recent entry on Sainte-Chapelle posted on his blog Essays in Idleness:
Survival is never an accident, in this world. The story of the survival of Sainte-Chapelle, to the present day, nearly eight centuries after its conception, is so tangled that I won't begin. The miracle is that it is still there, right in the centre of Paris, notwithstanding such facts as the French Revolution; that it has been preserved and repeatedly repaired. God is surely mixed up in every turn of this unlikely story.

Tourists still flock through, with the tour guides, trudging the way tourists trudge. Except, the chapel explodes before them, and in the brilliant light of midday they are stunned. Human eyes are not prepared for such beauty: it is like looking into the Sun. They could not have imagined that such a shrine could be built with human hands. They are looking at the product of a civilization almost infinitely greater than their own. It is like an encounter with the extraterrestrial.
As Warren later observes, the survival of Sainte-Chapelle is particularly significant given humankind's generally dismal record in such matters, with iconoclasts of various stripes doing their bit to completely destroy the architectural and artistic legacy of past generations in the name of ideological purity:
It is a bleak fact that most of the great works of art in the highest phases of civilization have been, over time, destroyed — either pointedly and purposefully, or as "collateral" from some larger intentional act of destruction: war usually, or riot. Hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, can be troublesome, too, in districts that are prone to them. But man, as a destructive force, is by far the worst enemy of great art.

"Modern man," in his tower flats and suburbs, who thanks to "progress in education" may not realize that milk comes from cows, needs to have these things explained to him. The grand minsters and shrines whose ruins may enchant him, did not dissolve like cakes in the rain. They were wrecked on purpose, and the missing stone was "privatized." They became stone quarries. For without protection, founded in love, nothing survives.
As I have noted before, iconoclasm kills; efforts to eradicate the physical evidence of the past are usually carried out in tandem with efforts to eliminate human beings whose existence is deeply inconvenient to the iconoclasts. As "extraterrestrial" as Sainte-Chapelle may seem to denizens of a contemporary, secular society, the preservation of such sacred spaces represents an act of cultural defiance, an implicit challenge to radical groups like ISIS who would seek to cleanse the world of cultural artifacts that seem to threaten their vision of the world.

Last month, I was very moved to read the story of Syrian archaeologist Khaled al-Assad, who spent his entire adult life working to preserve the ancient city of Palmyra and was beheaded by ISIS for his refusal to turn over priceless artifacts which the terrorists wished either to destroy or to sell on the black market to finance their activities. The world needs monuments like Sainte-Chapelle and Palmyra to call us back to an awareness of our best selves, and we also need heroes like Khaled al-Assad who are willing to sacrifice themselves in defense of things of enduring value. AMDG.


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