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The message of a great European cathedral

The message of a great European cathedral

24 May 2006

5:12 PM

24 May 2006

5:12 PM

On 12 May I sat down at a café on the square, ordered coffee and Perrier, and began to sketch the west front of Strasbourg Cathedral. This was presumptuous: the complexity of the facade would have baffled the skill even of Muirhead Bone, who taught my father to draw, and who was the greatest architectural draftsman since Piranesi. Strasbourg is over 2,000 years old. There was a cathedral on the site as early as ad 550, and the present one, of red sandstone from the Vosges, was more than three centuries a-building (1200–1521). The plans for the west front survive, and are in the marvellous cathedral museum, showing that a dozen different architects, over 200 years, had a hand in the project. Much of it is in the Diaphanous Style, in which vertical stone veils and traceries form a grille of sculptured arches, gables and spirals masking the wall behind and dazzling the eyes with their convolutions. There must be 10,000 sculptured shapes, as well as hundreds of human figures: apostles, prophets, virgins wise and foolish, blessed and damned souls, and everyone in sacred history from Satan to the Queen of Sheba.
If you count the figures within the cathedral, this must be among the largest collections of mediaeval sculpture in existence. Of course, it has been knocked about. The Protestants occupied the building from 1529 to 1681 and destroyed much. The militant atheists of the Revolution descended in 1793 and bashed things about in the name of the goddess Reason. There were sieges and bombardments as the French and Germans fought for possession of the city for half a millennium. And then sandstone is easily eroded by weather, and many statues have been put in the museum and replaced by modern impervious replicas. But the collection has been added to as well: some of the greatest French sculptors of the 19th century contributed to the cathedral, especially the west front, and it stands today noble and proud, not just a sermon in stone but an entire library of theology and cosmology, religious history, ethics, morals and eschatology. You could spend a lifetime studying this one vast wall of art, and here was I, trying to get it down on a sheet of paper in the space of an hour. Well: I tried.

Strasbourg holds all kinds of lessons for us. The superbly elegant figure of ‘Church’ and ‘Synagogue’, dating from about 1230, reminds us of the absurdity of the battles between Christians and Jews, when what they had in common was so much greater than their differences. Louis XIV’s tremendous efforts to seize and hold the city led him to employ his genius of military architecture, Vauban, to build a system of fortifications which still survives. But
to what purpose? The Germans got it back in 1870 and again in 1940. The city flourished best when it was independent, under its bishop, and even the Sun King had the sense to let it keep that status, more or less, when he conquered it. But the revolutionaries of 1793 ended all that, of course. What the history of the city and especially of the cathedral shows is that French and Germans, as individuals, get along perfectly well so long as they are left alone by governments and do not have nationalism and ideo-logy imposed on them. Under the aegis of a common Christianity, gifted, pious and industrious craftsmen worked together over hundreds of years to produce a masterpiece of Franco-German culture. The basic design of the west front is French. Much of the detail is German, and the north spire, the only one to be built, is German too. Yet there are no incongruities. All blends together in the common visual language of a shared faith, just
as the French and German tongues are homogenised in the peculiar Strasbourg patois, said to be spicy and expressive, and an affront to purists of either language. Despite the damage inflicted by a dozen national wars, there are fine buildings left in the city, like the Palais Rohan, a masterwork of the 1730s. What a wonderful place it would be today if it had kept its independence as a city-state!
Instead, in our own time, Strasbourg has become an architectural theatre of the absurd, dedicated to the propagation of the false ideals of multiculturalism, internationalism, federalism, supranationality and Euro-insanity. Every liberal nostrum and fad of the past half-century has found a roosting-place there. These are not homely nests either, fit for doves or pigeons, but gigantic eyries of anacondas, vultures and carrion crows, birds of ill-omen bred from the feverish imaginations of militant utopians who want to build a regimented paradise on earth. Strasbourg was chosen to be the stately residence of the Council of Europe, the original talking-shop now forgotten but still expensively present; since joined by the Palais de l’Europe, the colossal and prodigal seat of the European Parliament. There too is the sinister headquarters of the European Court of Human Rights, and a dozen
other international bodies have found a
habitation in this city, with more coming.

The structures consequentially erected to house these agencies and their enormous tribes of delegates, bureaucrats, secretariats and ancillaries form a dismal anthology of the international modernist style in architecture at its barbaric worst, and indeed of its totalitarian antithesis. One is not surprised to hear that the infamous Le Corbusier was a judge in selecting the development plan of the city, or that in 1941 Adolf Hitler, wishing to expand it across the Rhine, put Albert Speer to work there. Other gruesome spectres from the cemetery world of modern building have taken a hand. Steel and concrete shapes, vast acreages of glass, perspex and chrome, crude zigzags and spiky metal silhouettes cast their giant and daunting shadows on all sides. No doubt there are good bits of building too, if you can be bothered to look hard enough, but if so, they are lost in the modernist maelstrom which surges and swirls into and over the city from the west bank of the Rhine, and threatens to engulf what remains of the old mediaeval centre. The chaotic transformation continues as yet more hideous and soulless erections emerge from the vast, dusty, clamorous building site to house the countless agents, politicians and bureaucrats who continue to invade the city, and the machinery of regimentation and bossiness they are creating. I wish old Pieter Brueghel could be restored on earth to paint the horrific (and pathetic) scene, as a companion piece to his ‘Tower of Babel’.
In monumental contrast there is the cathedral itself: serene, erect, massive, yet of supreme beauty, enormously complex in its sculptural detail yet divinely simple in its grand gesture to heaven. Here is the true blending of countries and peoples, the genuine mixture of cultures and aesthetics, the astounding example of what can be created when the peoples come together under an overarching discipline of belief, duty and love. Christianity, over 500 years, produced in this cathedral a perfect example of European co-operation, a masterpiece of human hands wrought by humble artisans and workmen in a spirit of united service. It was Christianity which created Europe in the first place. Yet the proposed EU constitution deliberately suppressed any mention of Christianity and proposes to advance into the future on
a secure basis of utopian atheism. The one
creative force of permanent spiritual value was left out. No wonder the Muslim warriors view Europe as an easy target.


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