Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sneaking up on the Renaissance in Strasbourg

The cathedral at Strasbourg is very unusual. Although it is Gothic by every definition of the style, it is also an architectural radical. In Strasbourg Cathedral you can see the Gothic era on the very edge of tipping over into the Renaissance, when the human body and spirt stepped away from rigid religious conventions and became, well, human. I've used two particular images from Strasbourg in teaching for years, so it was very exciting to see them in person. There were surprises - first of all the cathedral is red - I think I must have known this, but it still came as a surprise. As with all medieval buildings it was built of local stone, and the stone available was what looks to be red sandstone (Strasbourg has many buildings of the same stone, called gres rose.) Being used to the golden/gray cathedrals in central France, including Notre Dame de Paris and Chartres, the effect is startling at first. The stone varies in color from a deep, almost blood-red to a light red gray, so it has a patchwork quality that is both distracting and wonderful. The stone also looks to be relatively soft - many of the most important sculptures on the facades are, in fact, copies because the originals suffered so from degradation of weather and pollution that they are now in a museum across the street. The most remarkable thing about the Strasbourg Cathedral is how it twitches with life, a sure sign that the human mind and spirit are on the move away from stiff conventions. The work on it began in 1277 and continued for about 200 years; it is a masterpiece of very late Gothic, called Flamboyant, bristling with the 'frozen lace' that is the signature of the style. The sculptures are the real revolution, however; Biblical scenes that are the staple of medieval architecture are here true theater, with the actors practically shifting and moving before your eyes. Saints and other full-length human figures live under their clothes, straining to step off the architecture and mingle with the watching crowd. The horsemen high up on the towers are another radical feature in that they are contemporary rather than religious, astride lifelike horses that you believe will step off the building if you blink. The last surprise of Strasbourg was that the gargoyles were not fantasy monsters as they are on Notre Dame and other central cathedrals, but comically drawn animals, gripping their mouths with a little paw to help ease the spout for the rainwater.

1 comment:

Karen Murphy said...

I really like those gargoyles.