The Cathedral of Saint Etienne in Bourges

There is an early train to Bourges and a mid-day train and nothing in between. The alarm goes off and I go back to sleep. There’s no rush. The alarm clock is one of the great tools of oppression. How I have hated it during a life of toil.

A mental map is slowly being created of Orleans that includes landmarks, locations, short-cuts, obstacles. The cathedral is a useful centre piece. In the medieval period the cathedrals would have been prominent features visible for many miles. In a world without maps they would have provided a useful navigation aid.

The woman at the railway station explains that she doesn’t speak English but my French is rapidly improving and I buy a return ticket to Bourges. It’s not just knowing the words; pronounciation and confidence are key. The latter is an essential part. It keeps the mind lively and focused and instead of panicing and stumbling through the words it’s possible to concentrate and listen properly.

It’s in the everday interactions that new words are learned and because they are in context the words stick. Buying pain au chocolat, coffee, snacks. Shop workers have plenty of experience of dealing with the public and all that means so have sharpened skills in how to explain things clearly.

Buying tickets, asking for directions, asking for maps, how much the entrance to an art gallery will be. These all generate opportunities for speaking and learning. I sometimes stop and ask people questions and for directions just to get some speaking practice. I ask how much the ticket to the museum costs even when its clearly on display and repeat everything that is said to me. The speaker will generally correct mispronounciation and that’s to everybody’s benefit.

As the train pulls out of the station there are large blocks of what is described as ‘working-class’ housing. From where I’m sitting on the train it looks neglected and grim. The housing is too dense and it all looks piled up on top of itself. Beyond the immediate appearances there are questions about quality, costs, maintenance, access to play space for children, amenities, community and much else. Are there children living up on the top floors, separated from grass and gardens and wild space and football pitches and netball courts by creaking smelly lifts? These small details are of immense consequence and importance in peope’s lives. I don’t get excited about the appearance and don’t really care if it’s modernist, post-modernist or post-apocalypse. Starting with the style is to completely miss the point. The starting point is the same as it is for everything; people and their needs. If these are put at the centre of house building then the architecture will follow.

While I was waiting in the queue to buy my train ticket a man and woman turned up and stood behind me. I listened to their American accents as they discussed the next part of their trip. We started talking. There are certain types of American people who have the most charming manners and ways of speaking. They have huge personalities and are warm and friendly. You feel that you’ve know them for years. The woman sat on her red suitcase and the man talked with an assured and confident tone. We exchanged snippets of our travels and then I asked him where they were from.
‘We’re from Los Angeles’, he said, in an American drawl.
Those few words were in a delightful contrast to the world of medieval cosmology and supernatural imagination I’ve been living in for the past few days. The words could not have been more thrilling had he said, in the same accent,
‘We’re from Alpha Centauri’

The train to Brouges is fantastic. It’s a proper train. The seats are stylishly covered in blue and grey fabric and the seat is shaped like a subdued scallop shell. There are wall lights along the inside of the carriage with yellow shades. In the ceiling, small star-like lights. When the train goes through a tunnel the effect is quite magical. It’s like being in a small, hard to find London club. I half expect to see Oscar Wilde sitting in the far corner of the carriage reading LibĂ©ration.He lowers the paper and says to no-one in particular, ‘Hasn’t the world changed for the better yet?’ He raises an eyebrow and goes back to reading the current news.

An dose of crabbiness breaks out at Bourges. There are no signposts. I’ve lost sight of the cathedral after glimpsing it from the train. It’s cold and I don’t have a jacket. Bourges is one of those towns which play muzak in the streets.
‘My baaaaybeeeee has left meeeeee….eee….eeee ‘ thud-thud-thud blah blah thud blah.
It is horrible. Just when you think you’ve moved beyond its scourge you realise it is following you through the streets. I cannot find the Tourist Information Centre or a patisserie, I’m feeling fed up and then…..

….something turns my head to look down a side street and there’s the cathedral about one hundred yards away. It is breath taking.

You don’t need to be much good at drawing to draw. It’s a useful way to get a better understanding of buildings, topography, space. There is a tendency to constantly move too quickly. Personally I think this is all to do with the circulation of commodities and the way this impacts on so much detail of everyday life. But drawing makes a person sit still and the more sitting still there is the more the detail is noticed.

The components of the cathedral are revealed and how they have been put together. The square blocks of stone are noticed, the way the columns are in fact a series of columns built together. The engineering of the columns to support the arches and how the arches are vaulted and support the roof and how the tension of the different components of the building support each other and provide the strength and stability for this great mass of stone and glass.

We don’t have a proper word to describe this. The engineering, the architecture, the craft skills are a single and unified, harmonious expression of a totality. The patrons and supporters of this cathedral, the masons and labourers, the clergy and local ruling class would have been encouraged to think of this totality as ‘God’. Perhaps this can be yet another definition of Gothic.

I sit quietly on a bench against a wall and pull down a straight line from the top of the page of the sketch book. This is followed by a light stroke of the pencil which marks the first part of an arch. Now the other side of the arch and a further arch which can be seen within those two arches and then within this small section of yet another arch and now a great mass of arched shapes.

As I was drawing I realised the power of the geometry and how the shapes and forms repeat without ever becoming boring. The same geometric shape can be repeated over yards and yards of stone but constantly delights with its form. It’s like a double-bass playing the same few notes in an orchestral piece. Over and over again, creating the foundation for which the other instruments play their more complex songs. As in the opening of Das Rheingold.

The architecture and stone work on the outside of the cathedral is more ostentious than inside the building. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of intricate and detailed carvings. Some are small figures and scenes and stories from the Bible. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Noah and the flood. Figures sink into the stone waves, the ark can be clearly seen at rest. The carvings have a powerful modernity. How extraordinary given the many changes between the thirteenth and 21st centuries. Perhaps we should consider continuities as well as change. There certainly seems to be a shared sense of aesthetics over time.

There are several plinths were statues once stood. There are statutes which still stand but lack heads and faces. Smaller stone sculptures depict scenes but all of the characters have been decapitated. Whether it was large crowds or small numbers of people who did this it is not clear. But this isn’t the issue. When the damage was being done there was no local clerical or secular power to stop the attacks.

Was it a peasant mob with hatred for th church because of tithes and taxes? Or was it Puritan Reformers, representatives of the austere wing of the bourgeoisie which wanted to smash the economic power as much as the social power of the church?

A funeral cortege arrives. A woman in black holding the hand of a girl of about six or seven years old who is also dressed in black. Three women take large boquets of white lilies into the church. Undertakers stand around. They wear black frock coats and hold their hands together in front of themselves. There’s a man begging by the door of the church.

I half heartedly try to get round the interior of the cathedral before the funeral service starts but some sort of mysterious historical glue is sticking my feet to the rough stone floor. Why the hurry? The funeral group come in. I stop taking photographs and sit in a chair and wait for it all to finish. I listen to the service and look at the small group of people.

It is sad, in the way that most funerals are. The priest is speaking into a microphone and his words are amplified around the space. He has a nervous cough and this is amplified too. With the numbers in attendance it would have been more human and intimate to have just spoken without the technology and the cough would not have been so intrusive.

The coffin is carried out. The mourners leave. The parts of the cathedral which were closed off are opened up again. A single bass sounding bell continues to toll. And then fades, and is gone.

Groups of people arrive and having missed the funeral know nothing of its presence. They talk, take photographs, point out features to each other.

There are several windows of thirteenth century glass in the church and they are spectacular in their colours, picture images and story telling. A great deal of recent reading falls into place and I can follow the story of the Book of Revelation in some, but not exact detail. I realise I am looking for certain images, and understand others. Christ in a white robe with a sword in his mouth and seven lanterns, the devil encouraging people to worship false gods, the angels with trumpets. Obviously the whole story cannot be told in one window which raises the question who decided what to include and omit and on what basis; and to what extent where those local political questions among the clergy who controlled the cathedral itself?

The very size of the cathedral sent my head spinning in terms of how and why such things were built at all. The cathedrals as expressions of the new urban expansions of the towns from the eleveth century onwards. And what force generated that? Improved agricultural production, crop rotation, the harnessing of oxen, the wheelbarrow, the water mill and so on.

The cathedrals can also be read as expressions of class power and class tensions. Between the land-owning aristocrats and the town-based merchants. Partly perhaps as expressions of the power of the guilds; after all, they were built by the guilds and the furnishings produced by the guilds.

The cathedral – and all cathedrals – can be approached like a film. It is an extended experience, potentially over several hours. The scenes roll and change, new perspectives are revealed in three dimensions. There is no obvious beginning or actual ending. Thus the cathedrals can suggest the concept of infinity through a solid mass of stone and the nothingness of space. A moving dream-like space, like lucid dreaming, the colours of the stained glass, the rainbow affect as the sunlight pours through onto the stone, the constantly changing perspectives of the vaulting as we walk around.

The film ends and it is time to leave the cathedral. Out into the space again, to marvel one more time at the exterior; the buttresses, the overall shape and height. I order an ice-cream and can now ask for the chocolate to be put into the cone first and then followed by the scoop of strawberry. Slowly walking through the medieval streets with their wooden frame constructed houses eating ice cream.

The train to Orleans is delayed. The conductor advises me to take the train to Paris and change at Fleury les Aubrais. I rather like being on the evening train to Paris. I sit in one of those compartments which can seat eight people. The sun is setting in the west, a great orb of fire and changing the colour of the sky with great effect to orange, burnt red, glowing yellow and where the clouds have shadow, turning those to purple and dark blues. I wonder what the medieval peasants thought of such scenes and what their day to day conversations would have been like?

I’m expecting a long walk back but by chance as I leave one train another arrives which will take me to the main Orleans station. It’s getting dark. There is a huge neglected gothic church. Large wooden supports have been added to one wall. There is a steel wire fence preventing access to the front door. Some of the gothic came to the nineteenth century imagination as ruins. The gothic does indeed make for splendid ruins, but it makes for extraordinary building, space and mass when it’s still extant.

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