A day spent in churches

We saw two major cathedrals on Monday, and these were not just your ordinary 15th century medieval marvels.

Having spent the night in Amien, we started our day off early at their lovely Cathedral of Notre Dame. This is a 13th century creation, and it is fabulous. Besides being the largest and tallest of any French cathedral, it has spectacular stone and  polychrome sculptures that are just breathtaking.

It also has an amazing labyrinth at its center, which was supposedly a mini-pilgrimage to take to its center, if you couldn’t travel the route of Santiago de Compostela. Many also know the Weeping Angel of Amiens, a cherub with its hand upon an hour-glass to symbolize the brevity of life, and its elbow resting on a skull symbolizing death, pictured on a popular postcard sent by soldiers on the Somme during WWI.

We also saw the home of Jules Verne, who moved here after he made his first pile. It has been modernized in many places and allows no photos, but they did have some beautiful first editions of his books.

Then it was off to Rouen, where the glorious half-timbered buildings reign. If some of them are restorations, they are quite well done.

And then there is the cathedral. A church has been on this site since the 4th century. The present church dates from the 12th century, with many additions and amendments in the intervening years. The interior holds the remains of Rollo, as well as the heart of Richard the Lionhearted. Big stuff. Rollo was a Viking of the 1st century who was the first ruler of what would become Normandy. He is the great-great-great-grandfather of William the Conqueror, and through William he is one of the ancestors of the present British royal family, as well as an ancestor of all current European monarchs.

The church was quite damaged in the last war. They seem to have done a wonderful restoration job – looks good as old to me.

But of course the main story is the glorious exterior, painted with so many variations of light by Monet. It is wonderful to see in any light.

We happened upon a spooky oddity – the Plague graveyard.

When the Black Plague struck Rouen in 1348, it wiped out three-quarters of the city’s inhabitants. To accommodate the dead, a new cemetery was built near the Church of Saint Maclou. Without regard to social standings, all bodies were dumped into the mass grave.

Once Rouen recovered from the Black Death, shops and homes surrounded the little cemetery and many of these half-timbered medieval buildings still survive.

The plague returned in the 16th century. All the bones remaining in the Atrium of Saint Maclou were exhumed and placed into a cloister surrounding the cemetery, so that the ground could be reused to bury the new dead. This time, two-thirds of the surrounding parish succumbed to the Black Death. The cloisters, begun in 1526, were decorated with skulls and grave-digging implements, including spades, mattocks, and coffins.

The cemetery itself was closed by royal decree in 1781. The area became a designated historical monument in 1862. Today the lovely, macabre courtyard remains as the only medieval ossuary still in existence in a European city center. Some use it today as a pleasant place to escape the crowds and have lunch.

And of course, there is Joan of Arc. Rouen is the city where she was imprisoned, tortured, put on trial and then burned at the stake. Some welcome for the future patron saint of France.

But as before, we saw little homage to her, and sad treatment of what remains. There is the tower where she was locked up and tortured, but just about the only remaining authentic aspect is the window seat original to this 12th century tower. Perhaps Joan was allowed to sit there in 1431. Just as depressing is the apartment building planned for next door. Sigh.

They marched Joan down the road to the place where she was burned at the stake. Paltry memorials here too. Of course it wasn’t till the mid-19th century that her legend became revitalized. But surely more can be made of these sites…

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