Day 7 – Saturday
Really? It’s Saturday. We’ve been in Paris for a whole week, and we are starting feel at home. At least as home as you can feel in a tiny hotel room with only one chair and a shower you cannot turn around in – and your ability to speak French is exceeded only slightly by your ability to name all of the stars in the sky. In other words, we’ve gotten comfortable with the Metro and the RER trains, and can find all of the major tourist spots, and have eaten French food every meal save one. Today the weather was again cold and rainy. The brief bit of sun we’ve had the past couple of days decided to leave us while we were at Versailles. So it was a good day to spend at the Museé d’Orsay. It is in an old railway station, which does not begin to describe what a beautiful building it is. It was one of those stations that were cathedrals to the modern engines of transportation and commerce. I liked the building almost (but not quite) as much as the art. I am particularly fond of the clocks, especially the large exterior clock that you can stand behind. There is just something fascinating about the effort to mark the minutes and hours of the day, knowing that nothing can stop the progress of time.
The art is wonderful. It is the largest collection of Impressionist and post-impressionist art in the world. People whose works I’ve admired for years, like Monet and Manet, and some I hardly knew like Sisley. I wish I could remember all the things I see in these museums. It is so wonderful just to wander through or better still to wonder through them. There was a special exhibition of Rousseau, and it was fascinating to watch his progression as an artist. I liked most of the pieces, even the earlier “amateur” ones, but the late “jungle” pieces are astonishing in person. Of course, we had to visit the Van Gogh room. There aren’t that many pieces, but they are beautiful. The self-portrait is so much more beautiful in person. I don’t know why he moves me more than any other painter. It is in part the paintings and in part the fact that he never lived to know that he was great. To do so much, so beautifully without having anyone other than Theo affirm him and support him is so profound. Many years ago I saw Don Mclean on some talk show, probably Dinah Shore, singing Starry Night with images of Van Gogh’s artwork. “And on that starry starry night you took your life, as lovers often do, but I could have told you Vincent, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.” But it was. It is we who destroy the beauty and those who long for it. This week I have looked at face after face of people who sat for artists, hoping that the artist would give them a bit of immortality in exchange for a fee, and yet we remember the artists and not the patrons. We remember the creators of what is beautiful. And perhaps that is as it should be. That we remember the Creator of all that is beautiful as we marvel at what has been created.
After the Orsay, Julie and I parted ways. She went to do some shopping for people we care about back home, and I took the Metro up to St Denis to see the Basilica. It is built on the site that legend says was the burial place of the first bishop of Paris, St Denis or Dionysius, whom legend confuses with other Christians named Denis or Dionysius. The Merovingian kings built the first Benedictine monastery and abbey church on the hill where he was buried. I saw a foundation stone of one of the pillars that was laid when Charlemagne was a young warrior and not yet King of the Franks. It was at St Denis that the Carolingians were crowned and where most of the kings of France were buried through the centuries. St. Louis had effigies carved of all of his predecessors, and his successors had their own carved. The kings are no longer there. The Revolutionaries opened the crypt and threw their bones into a common grave, hoping to end the monarchy forever. But the church survived. I went to see it because of Abbott Suger. He was Abbott in the days of Peter Abelard and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and he was deeply interested in the theology of Dionysius, a sixth century mystic who was mistakenly identified with the Christian martyr whose bones lie under the abbey. Dionysius wrote movingly about Light as the first creation and the best image of God in the world. Light helps us see the truth and it gives life, but we can never see the light itself. So it is with God. Suger hoped to build a church that was based on light instead of stone and earth. So he, with the help of some brilliant 12th century engineers and architects, invented a way to create tall thin walls supported by a forest of pillars and exterior buttresses. This allowed him to have walls that were almost entirely windows, which he then filled with stained glass. He said that the cobalt blue windows cost more than the stone of the basilica. It was Suger who in essence created the Gothic style of church architecture that became the defining style of public buildings for the next five hundred years. I can almost forgive him for evicting Heloise and her nuns from their convent. Almost. I think my Christian Tradition students are going to be seeing a lot of pictures of St Denis!
When I got back to the room, Julie had bought wine, pâté, cheese, and baguette for our supper from the local market. It cost less than our usual breakfast croissants, and was very good. Tomorrow is our last day in Paris, and it is a holiday (May 1). We are hopeful that the weather will be dry and warm. We are planning to end on the boat-bus to see all the usual tourist sites: Champs-Elysees, Arc de Triomphe, etc.