Thursday, March 26th 2015
Today is our first full day in the capital of Alsace and, armed with our book of museum tickets we have a particular visit to make. The first transaction is to find breakfast. We do not have breakfast at the hotel because experience has shown that hotel breakfasts in France make little or no concession to vegetarians and that it is therefore better to find a pleasant cafe where you can enjoy coffee and croissants.
I mentioned yesterday that the hotel is in the Ponts Couverts district which takes its name from the city fortifications of which parts still remain. In the 13th and 14th centuries, Strasbourg, still an independent city within the Holy Roman Empire, was expanding and needed more space to house the influx of new inhabitants. Its expansion took its border across the river and its fortifications were accordingly extended. These included bridges and four tall and robust towers. The bridges were of wood and provided with a wooden roof (hence the name Ponts Couverts, ‘covered bridges’) but those early bridges have long since been replaced with unroofed bridges of stone. The four towers,of which three are visible in the photo, no longer needed for defence, have at various times been used as prisons, an isolation hospital and for other purposes.
Strasbourg, like any city, has walls which have been decorated with graffiti or street art, though this is not nearly as prevalent as in London, which is fast becoming a gigantic gallery of street art. We spotted this portrait on a telephone junction box. It is signed by Dan23, who is also known as Daniel Bussière. Such a painting apparently takes the artist about 15 minutes to complete and I would say that the speed of execution adds to the vigour and spontaneity of the work.
Strasbourg is known for its many beautiful old beautiful old buildings which date from various periods of its history. Most have been well cared for and are still in use, though perhaps not the use they were intended for originally.
Strasbourg was, and is, a wealthy city. It was a centre for trade, culture and the administration of the area. Rich merchants and manufacturers spent money beautifying their own establishments and therefore the city as a whole.
I do not know of any French equivalent of the English Heritage list of worthy buildings in the UK, though there may well be one, and I have therefore not researched the above three examples. That is the reason for the lack of captions.
This building, however, is famous. It is called the Maison Kammerzel (‘z’ pronounced as ‘ts’) and was completed in its current form in 1589 as the home (and perhaps business premises) of a cheese merchant, Martin Braun. The ground floor is of stone (sandstone is plentiful in the region and was widely used as a building materiel), and the upper floors of wood. The upper part of the house is lavishly decorated with sculptures representing scenes and figures from history and from religious stories. It is a unique and uniquely beautiful construction of both historic and aesthetic value.
The Maison Kammerzel is on the corner of the Place de la Cathédrale (Cathedral Square) and it was the Cathedral that we had come to visit or, more specifically, something inside it. Because of its size and the closeness of other buildings, it is impossible to get a photo of the whole cathedral from the ground so we could only take partial shots. If you look on the Web, though, you will find aerial shots such as this one.
La Cathédrale de Notre Dame de Strasbourg (The Cathedral of Our Lady of Strasbourg) as we see it today is about the third building of that name. It was built between 1176 and 1439 and was never actually finished: the North Tower was duly completed (and was, between 1647 and 1874, the world’s tallest building) but the South Tower never materialized. This gives the cathedral its unique appearance and accounts for its becoming the symbol of Strasbourg.
We had come particularly to see the Astronomical Clock, considered a marvel in its own right. Publicity information said that it performed an interesting display at twelve noon daily. This is the third clock built for the cathedral. The first was made in the 15th century, the second in the 16th century and the current clock was completed in 1843. For more details of the history of the cathedral clocks, see here.
In addition to telling the time, the clock performs a number of functions such as showing the configuration of the planets and the phases of the moon and calculating the date of Easter.
As well as the dials showing the time and astronomical information, there are figures that supposedly move when the clock chimes.
We knew that there would be a lot of people visiting the clock for the display and we therefore entered the cathedral in good time. Even so, we found ourselves at the back of a large crowd which made it difficult to get good photos of the clock. Nothing happened for a long times though the lights were on and we could see the clock clearly, if at a distance.
Suddenly the lights clicked off, leaving us in semi-darkness and a film began to be shown on a nearby screen. Each section of commentary was repeated three times: in French, English and German. The film was agonizingly long and told us nothing that we could not have found out from many other sources. It was also larded with religious babble which did not help me contain my patience.
To our relief, the film eventually ended and the lights came back on. We waited a few more minutes while the hands of the clock moved towards 12 noon. When the moment arrived, a bell was struck and at the top of the clock there was a parade of the Twelve Apostles before Jesus. I have to say that the whole thing was a damp squib and didn’t match up to the publicity about the clock. We agreed that we were glad to have seen it but wouldn’t be in a hurry to repeat the experience.
I admire the knowledge, engineering skill and sheer cleverness of the maker of the clock, Jean-Baptiste Schwilgué, and mechanism is a true wonder. It would be better, though, if less extravagant claims were made about its displays to avoid the disappointment that naturally follows a visit.
Light levels are fairly low inside the cathedral, and it was a challenge to get photographs of the interior. The above photo and the following one give some impression of this.
On the other hand, the resulting photos can be quite dramatic and colourful. The lighting is not even but comprises brighter spots and areas of dark shadow, creating interesting contrasts.
After viewing the clock, we explored the interior of the cathedral and above and below are a few of the photos that I took.
Here is the conventional church view, looking towards the main altar. The human figure in the central aisle gives some idea of the scale of the building.
This is the contrary view, looking back towards the rear of the building and it also shows a portion of the arched ceiling.
Above us, half hidden in shadows, a stone man seemed to be keeping watch on everything we did…
Attached to pillars along the nave are rows of figures, presumably saints whose various postures no doubt identify them to the faithful.
The large size of the cathedral allows space for a huge installation representing Christ on the cross, complete with soldiers and spectators.
As you might expect, there was an abundance of stained glass and though I am no expert most of it seemed very fine to me. While the above shows the patron of the cathedral, St Mary, with Jesus on her knee, the one below…
…shows four emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, Otto I, Otto II, Otto III and Conrad II and thus harks back to a time when Strasbourg was an independent city state within that empire.
Exposed above the nave is the most gorgeous set of organ pipes that I have ever seen. One source dates them to 1385. The detail shown on the right is the lower decorative element, apparently called a pendentive, and shows a man riding (or struggling with?) what appears to be a headless lion. Quite a remarkable piece of work. (Update: For a plausible interpretation of the pendentive, see WOL’s comment below.)
After visiting the cathedral, we went on a ramble of the city without any particular route or destination. At one point we found ourselves in Place Broglie, a principal square which contains a number of important buildings and monuments. Here too is celebrated the fact that France’s national anthem, La Marseillaise, was composed here in Strasbourg by army officer Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, a fact of which the city is proud. One of the afore mentioned important buildings is the Opéra National du Rhin. Destroyed in the Franco Prussian War in 1870, it was rebuilt to the original plan in 1873.
A more recent work is the Fontaine de Janus (the Janus Fountain) which was designed by Tomi Ungerer for the Millennium. One one side, an inscription reads ‘ARGENTORATUM MM’ and on the other ‘STRASBOURG 2000’. You can probably guess from this that Argentoratum was the name of the city (then just a military outpost) under the Romans.
In the centre of the fountain is a gigantic head with two faces. This, of course, is a representation of the god Janus, who looks both forwards and backwards, and is the ‘god of beginnings and transitions’ in the felicitous phrase of the Wikipedia article. You might also guess, correctly, that Janus is used here to recall the dual German and French history of Strasbourg.
Later in town I saw the sculpture I would have taken home, had I been able to. Not inhabiting a noble monument, it was on the front of a shopping centre. I assume it is modern though it could reside quite happily on the front of the Cathedral of Strasbourg.