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Violets

July 16, 2013

Rue des Clercs funnels pedestrians into Place d’Armes, which is itself somewhat unremarkable. Here you find a hotel, the office of tourism, and, on one side, the marché couvert where the aromas of fruit and cheeses mix. Along the western edge of the place, Cathédrale St. Etienne stands above the rest, twice as tall as the next highest building. Built in the Gothic style, the cathedral was under near-continuous construction from the end of the 11th century to very near the end of the 13th.

You find the stonework particularly impressive. The doors and ledges bristle with saints, cities, mythology, finger-like spires, gargoyles. Even the flying buttresses exhibit the grandeur peculiar to the functional elements of any massive architectural work. The Jaumont shines beneath varying layers of discoloration and pollution. You can determine how recently the restoration work passed by noting the gradation of colors, which range from near-black to a limpid yellow, the same shade as lavender honey. In fact, it seems that the restoration is ongoing. As you round one of the corners, you spy the scaffolding, wedged in a corner, the stairs snaking their way up the wall. It occurs to you that, with such a large surface area, the restoration work must take months, if not years. You find yourself wondering if the work ever does end, or if, perhaps instead, the scaffolding and crews simply make one eternal circuit of the cathedral.

Inside, the nave rises more than thirty meters above you. Few visitors have made their way to the cathedral today. Apart from you and a small German tour group, from which you hear hushed whisperings of “katholische” and “Schwalbennestorgel”, you see no more than seven or eight individuals. In ones or twos, they pause before the chapels, where small candles gutter, dimmed by the immensity of their surroundings. Others sit alone, far from one another, in the hundreds of chairs neatly lining the floor of the nave and transepts.

In the northwestern corner of the church, you come upon a sign that directs your attention to two sets of stained glass windows in the vault above you. As the bolded typeface declares, Chagall created the aforementioned vitraux. And the thick panes exhibit all the characteristic elements of his oeuvre. Aggressive colors penetrate the different figures and scenes, which are themselves drawn almost exclusively from the Hebrew Bible. The faces of Noah and Isaac and Jacob and Moses, though seemingly primitive in design, betray a depth of feeling that is otherwise beyond the ability of artists to capture.

The windows farthest to the right hold an irresistible attraction for you. Here Moses spans the divide between red mountain and blue heaven to receive the tablets from God while, submerged in green waters, David sings, accompanying himself on lyre. Above, the crucifixion of Jesus unfolds in a number of smaller panes, blue, yellow, and white, the representation of his death broken up by the intrusion of numerous stone arcs, themselves the supports for the windows. All told, in the colored glass, four thousand years of history and tradition are condensed to an area of several square meters.

You esteem, however, the vitrail in the bottom right corner above the rest. There, you see the prophet Jeremiah, bathed in blue and blue-violet, stifled by the weight of the violet above. Jeremiah huddles in his corner and holds his cloak wrapped about him. His brow and beard are shadowed. His hands are stark white; they cling to the fabric of his robe. Half-formed cities and faces swim in the upper, violet section, surfacing here and there, visible for one unending instant.

According to the placard, Chagall said of the piece:

“Plus notre temps refuse de voir le visage entier du monde pour n’en regarder qu’une toute petite partie de sa peau, plus je deviens inquiet en considérant ce visage dans son rhythme éternel.”

You are left to wonder if Jeremiah, having looked upon the face of the world and of his time, found there his answers or his woe.

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