The first thing I saw was the majestic spire piercing the clear sky, bathed in icy sunlight. My gaze immediately fixed on the gray, imposing stones and numerous, evocative carvings, and it was difficult to tear my eyes away. Stepping off of the bus, I barely noticed the other buildings or the merciless wind that would eventually numb my feet. All I could think was, “Wow, this cathedral is old.”
Just listening to all of the dates and names associated with the cathedral was a dizzying experience, even though our guide recited them matter-of-factly, as if they were as simple as the ingredients in a croque monsieur. The structure we saw has existed since the 1”th century, and was the site where the kings of France were crowned. As I stood there admiring the delicate rose window and the soft light floating through it, I marveled at how much the world had changed even when the cathedral remained. Those walls had stood erect for centuries, witnessing baptisms, marriages, coronations, funerals, and regular Sunday masses. As the world passed from the middle ages into the dawn of modernity, the cathedral’s imposing shape didn’t budge from the Reims skyline. I glanced at the stone where my feet were planted, wondering how many other people had stood there too. I had never felt so connected to the history of a place.
But as we made our way towards the back of the cathedral, I paused, confused, as my gaze fell upon a stained-glass window that definitely did not look medieval. Its vibrant tones and graceful, flowing lines could not have looked more out of place next to the orderly and subdued style of the rest of the cathedral. The guide explained that it was designed by Marc Chagall less than a century ago. Somehow, though, the sanctity and peace evoked by the cathedral’s soft echoes and beautiful, but somber colors seemed to emanate from the modern stained-glass, too. The elegant, smooth silhouettes of the biblical figures looked almost fluid, and their pastel hues seemed to blend into each other like water colors. The glass was beautiful in a different way than the cathedral’s gothic architecture was, but both styles triggered in me the same type of awe, and didn’t seem to undermine each other.
Soon after we left the cathedral, I realized that I had had experiences like this before in France—this was not the first time I had seen a tasteful, harmonious balance of contemporary and old artwork. Images of the sharply-angled glass pyramid juxtaposed with the embellished architecture of the Louvre, as well of the golden ceilings of the Rennes Palais de Justice and its modern desks for everyday use flashed through my mind. One of the reasons I find France interesting is that its modern cultural identity seems tightly connected to its rich history in a way I don’t always see in the US. The French seem to have such a profound respect for their past that they constantly try to preserve it and apply it to the present. Old hôtels aren’t always simply turned into museums and barred from the passage of time; they’re also used as offices, government buildings, and other functional spaces, and thus play a role in today’s society. Last weekend I visited the Fragonard Perfume Museum, which is housed in the apartment once inhabited by the famous opera singer Maria Callas on Rue Scribe. The delicate Haussmanian molding and high ceilings signified the class, elegance, and refinement popular during its decoration, but it also reflected the grandeur we associate with the legendary singer and the timeless sophistication of the Fragonard company. My experience in the Reims cathedral was just another experience of this pattern of integrated cultural signifiers, which I’m sure I will continue to notice as the year goes on. However, each time I see them, my appreciation and understanding of France’s unique history, culture, and intellectual mentality skyrockets. Who would have thought that just one look at a building could provoke such a meaningful learning experience? I’m definitely not complaining.
Caitlin Ross (Haverford College)