The death of cathedrals

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Orange and Lemon Games, 1999


Book excerpt Pastichos and Miscellany by Marcel Proust[I]

Let us suppose for a moment that Catholicism has been extinct for centuries and the traditions of its worship have been lost. The only ones that remain are the cathedrals, monuments that have become unintelligible, of a forgotten belief, in disuse and mute. One day, scholars manage to reconstruct the ceremonies that were celebrated there in the past, for which these cathedrals were built and without which they were no more than a dead letter; when the artists, seduced by the dream of momentarily bringing back to life these great ships that had fallen silent, want to recreate for an hour the theater of the mysterious drama that unfolded there, amid songs and perfumes, they undertake, in a word, to mass and cathedrals, what the happy[ii] achieved for the Orange theater and ancient tragedies. Certainly, the government would not fail to subsidize such an attempt. What he did for Roman ruins would not fail for French monuments, for those cathedrals which are the highest and most original expression of the genius of France.

So, then, here are scholars who have managed to rediscover the lost meaning of cathedrals: the sculptures and stained glass windows regain their senses, a mysterious odor floats again in the temple, a sacred drama is played out there, the cathedral begins to sing again. The government rightly subsidizes, with more reason than the performances of the Theater of Orange, the Opéra-Comique and the Opéra, this resurrection of Catholic ceremonies, of such historical, social, plastic and musical importance and whose beauty only Wagner came close to. if, imitating her, Parsifal.

Caravans of snobs go to the holy city (be it Amiens, Chartres, Bourges, Laon, Reims, Beauvais, Rouen, Paris), and once a year they feel the thrill they once sought in Bayreuth and Orange: savoring the work of art in the setting itself that was built for her. Unfortunately, there, as in Orange, they can only be curious, dilettantes; Whatever they do, the soul of the past does not live in them. The artists who came to sing the songs, the artists who play the role of priests can be instructed, they can have penetrated the spirit of the texts. But, despite everything, one can't help but think how much more beautiful these festivals must have been at the time when it was the priests who celebrated the services, not to give the cults an idea of ​​these ceremonies, but because they had the same virtue in them. faith of the artists who sculpted the Last Judgment in the tympanum of the portico, or painted the lives of the saints in the stained glass windows of the apse. How much the entire work must have spoken louder, more precisely, when an entire people responded to the priest's voice, bowed, kneeling, when the elevation bell tinkled, not as in these retrospective representations, with cold and indifferent extras. style, but because they too, like the priest, like the sculptor, believed.

Here's what we would say if the Catholic religion were dead. Now, it exists, and to imagine what a 13th century cathedral was like, alive and in full exercise of its functions, we do not need to make it the scene of reconstructions, of exact retrospectives perhaps, but frozen ones. We only have to enter at any time while a service is celebrated. Mime, psalmody and singing are not entrusted to artists here. It is the ministers of worship themselves who officiate, with a feeling not of aesthetics, but of faith, and therefore more aesthetic. We couldn't ask for livelier and more sincere extras, since it's the people who take the trouble to do the acting for us without suspecting anything. It can be said that, thanks to the persistence in the Catholic Church of the same rites and, on the other hand, of the Catholic belief in the hearts of the French, cathedrals are not only the most beautiful monuments of our art, but the only ones that still live their life integral, those that remained in relation to the objective for which they were built.

Now, the rupture between the French government and Rome seems to bring the discussion and probable approval of a bill closer, under the terms of which, at the end of five years, churches could be, and often will be, put out of use; the government will not only stop subsidizing the celebration of ritual ceremonies in churches, but will be able to transform them into whatever it wants: museum, conference room or casino.

When the sacrifice of Christ's flesh and blood is no longer celebrated in churches, there will no longer be life in them. The Catholic liturgy forms a unity with the architecture and sculpture of our cathedrals, because both derive from the same symbolism. We saw in the previous study that there is almost no sculpture in cathedrals, however secondary it may seem, that does not have its symbolic value.

Now, it's the same thing with cult ceremonies.

In an admirable book, Religious art in the 13th century, mr. Émile Mâle analyzes the first part of the feast of Holy Saturday, from the Rationale of divine offices, by Guillaume Durand:

“In the morning, we begin by turning off all the lamps in the church, to mark that the old Law, which illuminated the world, is now repealed.

“Then, the celebrant blesses the new fire, a figure of the new Law. He makes it sprout from the flint, to remind us that Jesus Christ is, as Saint Paul says, the cornerstone of the world. Then, the bishop and the deacon go to the main altar and stop in front of the paschal candle.”

This candle, teaches Guillaume Durand, is a triple symbol. Extinct, it symbolizes both the dark column that guided the Hebrews during the day, the ancient Law and the body of Jesus Christ. Lit, it means the column of light that Israel saw at night, the new Law and the glorious body of the resurrected Jesus Christ. The deacon alludes to this triple symbolism by reciting, in front of the candle, the formula of the Exsultet.

But he insists above all on the similarity of the candle and the body of Jesus Christ. He remembers that the immaculate wax was produced by the bee, chaste and fertile like the Virgin who gave birth to the Savior. To make the similarity between the wax and the divine body visible to the eye, he sticks five grains of incense into the candle that resemble both the five wounds of Jesus Christ and the perfumes bought by the holy women to perfume him. Finally, he lights the candle with the new fire and, throughout the church, the lamps are relit, to represent the spread of the new Law in the world.

But this, one might say, is just an exceptional celebration. Here is the interpretation of an everyday ceremony, the mass, which, as we will see, is no less symbolic.

“The deep and sad singing of the Introit opens the ceremony; affirms the expectation of the patriarchs and prophets. The choir of clerics is the very choir of the saints of the old Law, who sigh for the coming of the Messiah, whom they should not see. The bishop then enters and appears as the living image of Jesus Christ. His arrival symbolizes the coming of the Savior, expected by the nations. On the great feasts, seven torches are carried before him to remind us that, according to the word of the prophet, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit rest upon the head of the Son of God. He advances under a triumphal canopy whose four bearers may be compared to the four evangelists. Two acolytes walk to his right and left and represent Moses and Elijah, who appeared on Tabor alongside Jesus Christ. They teach us that Jesus had the authority of the Law and the authority of the prophets.

“The bishop sits on his throne and remains silent. He does not appear to participate in the first part of the ceremony. His attitude contains a teaching: he reminds us with his silence that the first years of the life of Jesus Christ were spent in obscurity and retirement. The subdeacon, however, goes to the pulpit and, facing to the right, reads the Epistle aloud. Here we glimpse the first act of the drama of Redemption.

“The reading of the Epistle is the preaching of Saint John the Baptist in the desert. He speaks before the Savior begins to make his voice heard, but he speaks only to the Jews. Then the subdeacon, image of the forerunner, turns to the north, which is the side of the old Law. When the reading ends, he bows before the bishop, as the forerunner humbled himself before Jesus Christ.

“The song of the Gradual that follows the reading of the Epistle refers again to the mission of Saint John the Baptist, symbolizing the exhortations to penance that he addresses to the Jews, on the eve of new times.

“Finally, the celebrant reads the Gospel. Solemn moment, because it is here that the active life of the Messiah begins; His word is heard for the first time in the world. Reading the Gospel is the very figure of his preaching.

“The Creed follows the Gospel as faith follows the announcement of truth. The twelve articles of the Creed refer to the vocation of the twelve apostles.

“The very costume that the priest wears at the altar”, adds Mr. Mâle, “the objects that serve the cult are also symbols. The chasuble that is worn over the other garments is the charity that is superior to all the precepts of the law and that is itself the supreme law. The stole, which the priest passes around his neck, is the light yoke of the Lord; and as it is written that every Christian must love this yoke, the priest kisses the stole as he puts it on and takes it off. The bishop's two-pointed miter symbolizes the knowledge he must have of both Testaments; two ribbons are tied to it to remind that Scripture must be interpreted according to the letter and according to the spirit. The bell is the voice of the preachers. The structure to which it is suspended is the figure of the cross. The rope, made of three twisted strands, signifies the triple intelligence of Scripture, which must be interpreted in the triple historical, allegorical and moral sense. When someone takes the rope in their hand to swing the bell, they symbolically express this fundamental truth that knowledge of Scripture must lead to action.”

Thus, everything, even the smallest gesture of the priest, even the stole he wears, is in harmony to symbolize it with the deep feeling that animates the entire cathedral.

Never has a comparable spectacle, such a gigantic mirror of science, the soul and history, been offered to the eyes and intelligence of man. The same symbolism even encompasses the music that can be heard in the immense nave and of which the seven Gregorian tones represent the seven theological virtues and the seven ages of the world. We can say that a performance of Wagner in Bayreuth (and even more so of Émile Augier or Dumas on a subsidized theater stage) is very little compared to the celebration of a solemn mass in Chartres cathedral.

Without a doubt, only those who have studied the religious art of the Middle Ages are able to fully analyze the beauty of such a spectacle. And that would be enough for the State to have the obligation to ensure its perpetuity. It subsidizes the courses at the Collège de France, which, however, are intended for only a small number of people and which, compared to this complete resurrection that is a great mass in a cathedral, seem quite cold. And alongside the performance of such symphonies, the performances of our equally subsidized theaters correspond to very petty literary needs. But let us hasten to add that those who know how to read openly in the symbols of the Middle Ages are not the only ones for whom the living cathedral, that is, the sculpted, painted, singing cathedral, is the greatest of spectacles. This is how it is possible to feel music without knowing harmony. I know that Ruskin, showing that spiritual reasons explain the arrangement of chapels in the apses of cathedrals, said: “you can never be enchanted by the forms of architecture without knowing where they came from”. It is no less true that we all know the fact of an ignorant person, a simple dreamer, entering a cathedral, without trying to understand, giving vent to his emotions, and experiencing a more confused impression, no doubt, but perhaps equally strong. As a literary testimony to this state of mind, certainly very different from that of the scholar we spoke about earlier, who walks through the cathedral as if he were in a “forest of symbols that observe him with familiar eyes”, which, however, allows himself to be found in the cathedral, at the time of services, a vague but powerful emotion, I will quote Renan’s beautiful page called “The double prayer”:

“One of the most beautiful religious spectacles that we can still contemplate today (and that we will no longer be able to contemplate, if the Chamber votes on the project in question) is the one presented at dusk by the old cathedral of Quimper. When shadow fills the lower sides of the vast building, the faithful of both sexes gather in the nave and sing the evening prayer in the Breton language in a simple and touching rhythm. The cathedral is lit only by two or three lamps. In the nave, on one side, the men are standing; on the other, the kneeling women form a kind of motionless sea of ​​white caps. The two halves sing alternately, and the phrase started by one choir is completed by the other. What they sing is very beautiful. When I heard it, it seemed to me that, with some small transformations, it could adapt to all states of humanity. This, above all, made me dream of a prayer that, with some variations, could suit men and women equally.”

Between this vague reverie which is not without charm and the more conscious joys of the “connoisseur” of religious art, there are many degrees. Let us remember, for the record, the case of Gustave Flaubert studying, but to interpret it in a modern sense, one of the most beautiful parts of the Catholic liturgy:

“The priest dipped his thumb in the sacred oil and began the anointings on her eyes first… on her nostrils greedy for warm breezes and loving perfumes, on her hands that delighted in soft contacts… on her feet, finally, so quick as they ran to satisfy their desires, and that now they would no longer walk.”

We said before that almost all images of a cathedral are symbolic. Some are not. They are those of the beings who, having contributed their money to the decoration of the cathedral, wanted to preserve there, forever, a place to be able, from the balusters of the niche or the recess in the stained glass, to silently follow the services and silently participate in the prayers. , in saecula saeculorum. Laon's own oxen, having climbed the hill where the cathedral stands in a Christian way with the materials used to build it, were rewarded by the architect by raising their statues at the foot of the towers, from where they can still be seen today, to the sound of the bells and the stagnation of the sun, raising their horned heads above the holy and colossal ark to the horizon of the plains of France, their “inner dream.” Alas, if they were not destroyed, what did they not see in those fields where every spring only tombs come to bloom? For animals, placing them outside like this, emerging as if from a gigantic Noah's ark that would have stopped on Mount Ararat, in the middle of the flood of blood! More was granted to men.

They entered the church, took a seat, which they kept until after death and from where they could continue, as in the time in which they lived, to follow the divine sacrifice, either because, leaning out of their marble tombs, they turned their heads slightly to the side of the gospel or on the side of the epistle, being able to observe, as in Brou, and feel around their names the close and indefatigable entwining of emblematic flowers and adored initials, maintaining, even in the tomb, as in Dijon, the brilliant colors of life ; be it because, at the bottom of the stained glass, in their mantles of purple, ultramarine or blue that imprison the sun, they catch fire, fill their transparent rays with colors and suddenly release them, multicolored, wandering aimlessly in the middle of the nave, that they dye; in their bewildered and lazy splendor, in their palpable unreality, they continue to be the donors who, for this very reason, have won the concession of perpetual prayer. And they all want the Holy Spirit, when he descends from the church, to recognize theirs well. It's not just the Queen and Prince who wear their regalia, crown or golden fleece necklace. The bankers were represented by checking the title of the coins, the furriers selling their skins (see the reproduction of these two stained glass windows in Mr. Mâle's book), the butchers slaughtering oxen, the knights supporting their coats of arms, the sculptors carving capitals. From their stained glass windows of Chartres, Tours, Sens, Bourges, Auxerre, Clermont, Toulouse, Troyes, coopers, furriers, grocers, pilgrims, workers, armorers, weavers, bricklayers, butchers, basket makers, shoemakers, money changers, listening to the trade, will not hear plus the mass that they had guaranteed by donating their best money for the construction of the church. The dead no longer rule the living. And the living, forgotten, fail to fulfill the wishes of the dead.

*Marcel Proust (1871-1922) was one of the most important French writers. His best-known work is in search of lost time, which was published in seven volumes.


Marcel Proust. Pastichos and Miscellany. Translated by Jorge Coli. Unesp, 258 pages. []

[I] Under this title [The death of cathedrals], I once published in Figaro a study that aimed to combat one of the articles of the law of separation [of Church and State]. It is a very mediocre study; I give here a small excerpt just to show how, a few years away, words change their meaning and how, in the curved path of time, we cannot see the future of a nation, any more than that of a person. When he spoke of the death of cathedrals, he feared that France would become a beach where gigantic chiseled shells would seem to have washed ashore, emptied of the life that inhabited them and no longer bringing to the ear that would pay attention to them the vague rumor of the past, mere pieces of museum, frozen in themselves. Ten years have passed, “the death of the cathedrals” is the destruction of their stones by German armies, not of their spirit by an anticlerical Chamber that has closely united itself with our patriotic bishops. (AT)

[ii] Members of Félibrige, a cultural movement in Occitania, created in 1854, which included the great poet Fréderic Mistral. They were the ones who revived the great Roman theater of Orange with their Chorégies d'Orange (Coregias de Orange), a festival created in 1868, which still exists today, and dedicated mainly to the performance of operas. (NT)

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