The Battle of Good and Evil in Metz

The railway staff at Nancy station have been kind and helpful with my queries over the past couple of days, helping me to change a ticket to Paris and with some other things. Yesterday a woman with blond hair and an oversized SNCF coat helped me. The railway workers have smart uniforms here in France. They are dark – possibly navy blue – with a red trim. She wore a peaked hat with a red band. If I had thought about it I could have completed all my transactions at one. But I didn’t think about it so here I am again.

Today it’s a young man with dark hair who helps me. I want to buy a ticket to Metz but I’m not sure how a day return works. He patiently explains this to me. There is a train in five minutes. ‘Will I catch that one?’ I ask, ‘only if you run’, he says, looking at me with a question in his eyes; could this old guy run that fast? I was expecting to catch the 10.20 anyway so it doesn’t really make any difference.

I explored the two newsagents at the railway station and looked at magazine covers and newspaper headlines. War in Ukraine, the Roman Empire, secrets of mythology, Vanity Fair, a Playboy special edition. Computer magazines, war magazines with pictures of Hitler, now in triumph, now destroyed. All the world in print underneath the same homogenised electric light.

The train indicator board shows that the 10.11 train to Paris Gare L’est will leave from platform 3. Individuals who have been scattered all over the station start to move together, form into a crowd, and en masse take steps down into the underpass and then towards the platform. The train to Metz will depart from platform 1.

The countryside of the Moselle valley is adorable. Thick green deciduous woods that cover the low but steep hills, trees that tumble down to the water’s edge of the river, vine yards on the steep slopes, a knitted blanket of fields of crops.

The train passes a large factory, a mass of capital, where workers make steel pipes. The pipes are painted blue or black and are stacked up across a large tarmac yard ready to be loaded onto trains. Some are already on low railway flatbed trucks and will be pulled away and then to the ports and on to ships and moved across the seven seas. The workers inside the factory cannot be seen, nor the processes and functions they undertake at the point of production. It is here that the exploitation of labour takes place, the production of exchange value and surplus value. These things are never just abstractions.

Metz became part of the German Empire following the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. The railway station was part of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s plan to ‘Germanify’ the city and there are buildings nearby which are in the Gründerzeit style. The crazed notions of Emperors. When will the world be rid of such people?

Metz railway station – industrial gothic

I can’t find a map in the station nor any signs indicating where the centre of the city might be. It would be too easy to look on the phone so I just start walking in the general direction of where I think the centre might be. I was half-expecting to be able to see the cathedral and use that as a marker point. But the buildings are higher than expected and the cathedral is not sat on a hill above the town as it is in Laon.

There are several streets which look promising, but they go off in opposite directions. People are moving off in opposite directions too. There is nothing to suggest a centre but through a little trial and error I find some pleasant streets and squares and then the cathedral itself.

I slowly push the glass door to enter and almost gasp out loud at the powerful sensation of walking in to this space for the first time. There is a high ratio of glass to stone and this gives an overwhelming impression of glass and slender but powerful columns. As with many cathedrals it’s been bashed about through the centuries; wars, the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, the French Revolution, the First and Second World Wars, a couple of major fires, changing fashions and tastes (not just in architecture but also in liturgy and church activities) and the occasional collapse of sections of walls (faults perhaps of the extent of scientific knowledge and technical abilities).

In general the building has come through all this rather well and retains a powerful presence of of its 13th century origins, which feel as if they are the core essence of its physical self.

There is something gloriously organic about this building. It is like an ancient tree. Huge boughs have been blown off by hurricanes and gale force winds or exploded by lightning strikes. Ivy has grown up the trunk and mistletoe in the higher branches. Old birds nest have added some adornment and the impact of snow, wind, ice and sun have twisted parts of the fibres into unexpected decorative features. The darkened stone suggests something from centuries ago but the stained glass expresses something very much alive.

The prophet Daniel – 13th century

Some of the glass is from the 13th century and rest of it is from just about every century since. There are new, modern additions including some fabulous work by Marc Chagall. Not only can the history of stained glass be read, but so too the history of Europe in high level detail.

The thirteenth century is of the piety of Christ in religious terms. but the cathedral and its glass express the new power that accumulated in the towns, building on what the American medieval scholar Charles Haskins called the twelfth century renaissance.

To build such an artefact as this cathedral today would cost a great deal of money and would any property developer consider the expense of this level of craft skill, or the decades that would be needed to complete such a work? No, of course not.

The idea of making something this big, essentially using skilled hand labour would be impossible within contemporary capitalism. By considering the question of the cathedral in this way helps us understand what it represented in its own time.

Virgin and donor

All cathedrals are expressions of both the political, social and economic power of the Church and the burghers of the town. They were also intentionally objects of civic pride, to be placed at the centre of the town and the community. The cathedrals expressed the idea of judgement day; of a final reckoning, of good against evil. They were built as a homage to God, the idea of a deity that was all powerful, all-seeing, all knowing, with the power of eternal salvation or damnation and the promise of an after-life. As such, they represent great philosophical questions.

There is something about Chagall’s work which I find simultaneously playful, delightful, haunting and disturbing. I don’t know enough about his life or work and perhaps these initial impressionistic views will change.

But in some of his work I find strong references to the holocaust, of people brought together and then subjected to terrible crimes and violence and destruction. There is life in his glass work too and when I look at it for long periods of time it feels as if all of life and death is there. It is profoundly moving.

It’s lunchtime. There’s a patisserie with a queue coming out of the door. I am served by such a lovely young woman with black hair and a black polo neck jumper and red lipstick and a white apron. There is a crowd, almost a melee. You have to be quick when ordering. I manage to procure a baguette. When I get to the front of the crowd at the till I notice something called an ‘escargot’. It looks like a huge cinnamon bun with ‘praline and caramel sauce’. I catch the girl’s eye as she waits to get through the crowd of shop assistants trying to get to the till. I ask in French if I can have one of those too. She smiles, I put the coins into the machine, it’s all done, she smiles again and wishes me ‘Bon Journee’.

Nearby is a shop called Metzel where everything is a Metz variation on pretzels. I buy a metzel with goats cheese on it. These are eaten in the square outside the cathedral. Slowly.

Before returning to the cathedral I decide to have a look around the nearby local museum. It was a genuinely weird experience. In brief. I was followed around the eighteenth century art by one of the attendants who kept explaining specific paintings in great detail, even though I made it clear my understanding of French wasn’t up to art criticism. It felt as if I escaped from him by taking a lift to a different floor.

This went down into the basement. Here a different attendant loomed towards me. He stood in front of me so I couldn’t easily get past him. A bit like the doormen of posh hotels who know how to block your way if they suspect you’re not a guest, but do it in such a way that if you are a guest no offence can be taken. This completely threw me.

Some of the malign spirits at work in the museum

But was I in the basement? I walked up several flights of stairs but seemed to be no higher up but in the rooms displaying the Roman history of the town. Where was the way out?. When I was a child I would have a recurring nightmare of being in a room that was impossible to get out of because there were no doors.

A memory of this dream now re-appeared in my mind for the first time in decades. I was now walking down stairs again. But how had I missed the exit? Eventually I found the gallery with the eighteen century art again. The attendant started to move towards me and I found myself adopting the persona used when confronted by aggressive street drunks; not impolite but avoiding eye contact and deliberately not engaging in conversation but muttering some barely discernable words.

The stairs which led downwards – but there was no way back up

Perhaps it was the experience of the museum. I was unsettled. I can sit for hours in a church or cathedral and meditate on all sorts of things. Being, consciousness, universal spirit; stuff like that. I closed my eyes and only images of war would come and the stench of the strange gas-breath from the people who crowd the world leadership stage.

Meditation would not come. This unsettling air in the world is unsettling all the people. I walked around the whole floor plan. Looking at the paving stones, looking up at the glass. The sun was now stronger than at any point during the day. The great west rose window was shot through with brilliant bursts of sun glow. The glass in the apse was on fire. The figures in the high windows coming to life, the final battle, the judgement day, redemption, revelation. Along the bays roundels and lancets, swirling shapes, kaleidoscopes about to start moving.

A young woman sitting in the front row of chairs closest to the alter, hands together, in great distress, praying. There might not be a God but the power of praying has been proven to help people. Another young women, high boots, short black skirt, long blond hair, black hat; approaches the altar. She kneels and bows and crosses herself.

A man with a looping walk, he talks too loudly but the man he invites to shake his hand does so. Here, the meek, the despised, the wretched of the earth. Here, the baroque counter revolution, but here too the communistic message of Jesus and the early Christians. Contradictions, change, turmoil, physic energy, suppression, repression, emancipation, liberation. From what, and to where?

I lost any sense of how many times I walked around the floor of the cathedral. Along the naves, into the corner of the transepts, into the side chapels. Aware of the light and colour and the pictures and abstractions in the glass, the soaring curves of vaults and arches, the nature of gothic.

Everywhere, light and colour, life and movement, people. A sense of an immense space, perhaps infinite, the atmosphere of a thousand years past, as if floating, a transcendence, brilliant reds, blues, yellow and greens. A sense of totality, of being in this space and walking into the eternal light.

The moment is exhausted. It naturally ends.

Artefacts such as Gothic cathedrals could never be built today. All buildings now represent at core, an expansion of capital. That is the primary purpose of a building in the twenty first century. As exchange value, as monry, as profit.

And in the these built environments that capital creates we cannot find our souls.

%d bloggers like this: