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Travelogue H21

May 25, 2016

I would like to think that, at some lull or other in the conversation, my thoughts went back to the St. Stephanerkirche. But this would amount to little more than narrative fabrication, engrossed as I was by the stories being shared around me. Only later did the idea grip me that there was perhaps more to the building than I had glimpsed and that it merited going back. Yet at no point during my stay did I return.

I would later read of the church’s history and learn much that I had been able to garner from my first inspection, which I had rushed at the priest’s urging. So did I find that the church’s current structure descended from the late medieval period and issued from the Gothic hall church tradition, meaning only that the side galleries and quires rose to the same height as the central aisle. Though the interior had remained largely unchanged from its 13th century appearance, later additions were made to the exterior in the form of a 15th century Gothic cloister on the southern side and a Baroque reworking of the outer face from roughly the same period.

So did the church give off a sense of an unending present in which my companions of a moment had basked. Yet that sense, as often proved the case, resulted as much from restoration work as from careful preservation. The outer Baroque elements of which I read had disappeared with the explosion of a civil powder magazine in 1857; the cloister collapsed beneath Allied bombs and only underwent a thorough rebuild in the late 1960’s. The church’s roof had also suffered to the point that the restoration’s lead architects could no longer envisage keeping the vault’s supporting arches and replaced them with a dark, though otherwise unadorned, wooden roof.

Further reading led me to the conclusion that the hall church, despite maintaining the same height between vault and ground in all passages, was less uniform than one might suspect. Indeed, the western quire sported one unique feature which set it apart from the rest. For outside and above the vault rises an octagonal belfry, dressed in white, trimmed in red and helmeted with shingles. A miniature rotunda in red sandstone sprouts from the belfry’s peak and so marks the highest lookout on the highest hill in the Mainz Altstadt.

Despite its age, the belfry would otherwise pass unremarked, were it not for one year in its history. For the better part of 1813, the belfry had housed a semaphore, likely due to its location on the highground, and served as the beginning post on the Mayence-Metz optical telegraph line put in place by Napoléon. The related article featured a map on which a red line snaked from Mayence to Metz and depicted with dots the twenty-two stations then constituting the line. As it happened, that red line ran in and out of the path which I myself had followed from Metz to Mainz some two hundred years after the Prussians had thought to wipe a telegraph line from the face of the earth.

In my own path, I therefore found that line’s survival under another form, a survival speaking to the difficulty which we encounter when the time comes to remove a line traced on the map, even one by our own hand. Running my eyes from Metz to Mayence and back, I could for one instant convince myself, much to my delight, that I had already made the journey, my body broken down into a set of easily communicable signals which had been transmitted, via extendable arms, from hilltop lookout to the next, until their reconstitution and embodiment at the Metz Palais de Justice, the line’s last station. Before that hulking yellow courthouse, my journey to survey the extent of a contagion came to its natural end, an unexpected compendium of reconstructed experiential categories, forced discourses and architectural experiments in memory ready for future use.

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