Thursday, November 4, 2010

Toulouse, Cathédral Saint-Étienne

It is believed that the first church built on the present site of the Cathedral of Toulouse was founded in the 3rd century, but it is not known when this church became a cathedral or when it was dedicated to Saint Stephen.  The first written mention of it dates from 844.  A larger edifice was built, starting in 1073, but what now stands dates from the 13th onward.  The 13th c. saw a burst of activity which bequeathed us essentially two connected but remarkably different structures.  The first was undertaken (or rebuilt?) by Bishop Foulques. Funding massive building projects is unbelievably difficult, and so, like many other such projects, this was built section by section, as funding permitted.  Clearly, funding never enabled the faithful of Toulouse to complete their cathedral as once envisioned.

By about 1270, when Toulouse was again safely within the influence of the King of France, Bertrand de l'Isle-Jourdain restarted construction, but on a more grand plan which echoed the style of cathedrals surrounding Paris.  The new choir was twice as large as the old.  The original idea was to tear down parts of the former cathedral in stages, as the building of the new building progressed, ending with a massive cathedral not unlike that at Amiens.  But as time passed, later workers then changed these plans, in part because of funding difficulties.  The plan was to leave appropriate parts of the original building standing until they were replaced by their counterparts in the new building.  Once the old part was no longer needed, it could be torn down.  But as reality finally hit, it was decided not to complete the much larger building, and instead, they would connect the two buildings as logically as their two different axises allowed.  This would incorporate two very different styles and different sizes.  A disastrous fire in 1609 destroyed much of the provisional wood construction and the elaborate choir stalls carved of wood.  This story is utterly complicated; hopefully the photos will help us.

We begin with several pictures showing both of the 'two interiors', which are obviously connected.  As we enter the cathedral from the western doors, we see that the first part that we meet is somewhat dark and quite modest with its vaults going only about 28m high, whereas the apse/choir (which appears more white in this photo) has vaults which soar to 40m.  You can enter from the back (main western) doors, and if you keep going down the central aisle in a straight line--and keep going, you will enter the southern aisle (right hand side) of the apse.  In order to enter the proper apse and its choir, you have to jog a bit to the left.  In my experience, this is a unique structure, utterly fascinating, and yet it must work.

This is essentially the same view as the first, but now we are looking through the final archway of the western nave while standing in the nave's center aisle.  We see that the white grand pillar at the corner of what was supposed to be the transept (crossing) is nearly dead center as far as the smaller western nave is concerned.  On the far right (of the 2nd photo below) we see the elevated pulpit with the obligatory canopy, whose inner flat roof focuses the speaker's voice, reflecting it back to the congregation.  Otherwise, voices really do get lost in the vaults.

 Just before turning left to enter the apse, there is an altar facing east on a marble platform surrounded by a wrought iron perimeter. 

Now (below) we see the magnificent choir, the area within the apse which followed the monastic and collegiate ideal of dividing the cathedral's monastic choir into two halves, the cantores and diacones, those sitting on the cantor's side and those on the deacon's side.  When chanting Psalms, the two sides of monks would take turns, verse by verse, which saved one's voice a bit.  After all, one would be singing for about 5 hours/day.  The choir stalls were beautifully carved of wood.  At the top of the wooden choir stalls you can see wooden railings.  These protect the walkways which were reached by beautiful spiral wooden staircases.  As a singer, I would love to position singers around these upper passages, but I have no idea what they were used for in the middle ages.  The rows of wooden chairs we see in the foreground are actually located under the transept.

The next photo shows the top half of one of the wooden spiral staircases leading to the special passageway above the choir stalls.  Even higher, you see the wonderful windows laced with stone and the passageway with smaller arches directly below the windows.  Workers needed to have access throughout the cathedral, both when building and when repairing it.  The passageway actually goes right through the upper stone columns.  My dream is to get into one of these, somewhere, with my camera.  I would imagine that the smaller doors in the upper passageway lead out to the roof--or possibly to the area between the lower vaulted ceiling (barely seen above the wooden choir) and its roof.

This gives a partial view of the choir stalls, but I could not get access to them (or the other side of the apse) because there was a wedding in progress.  Originally, each monk had his assigned seat and would sing from that stall for 9 services a day until someone older died.  Then every monk who had entered after the deceased brother would move one stall closer to the altar.  This was a way of honouring seniority and a powerful reminder that your turn will come.

I have now walked down the small nave's central aisle and gone straight ahead, coming to the large wooden doors which once prevented laity from entering the apse with this choir.  This is now open to the public except during Mass.  We see the much taller vaulted ceiling straight ahead.

I have passed the open wooden door and paused to turn around and look back at the newer and much smaller nave and its rose window.  You can hopefully just see the spiral wooden enclosed staircase on the right, just past the wooden doors, giving access to the top of the wooden structure enclosing the choir stalls.

Now I have turned around again and am looking east, from the wooden doors toward the eastern end of the apsidal southern aisle.  Some of the columns have been richly painted in red and gold.  It is thought that most cathedrals were originally intended to be painted throughout but that most of the paint disappeared ages ago.

You can see that painted plaster should be covering the original brick structure.

Toward the far eastern end of the apse one usually finds the most elaborate chapels, some of whose stained glass windows can be seen from the choir.

I mentioned that access to parts of the cathedral was closed, and rightly so, because a wedding was scheduled to take place in the apse.  I could not resist photographing these three young men, brimming with confidence.  Was one possibly the groom?  I had no programme and frankly hadn't a clue as to what was happening.

Here the Catholic priest and possibly the Protestant minister have gone all the way to the back of the church to greet the bridal party.  The cathedral's large doors have just been opened. In the good old days, this would be done only when the bishop or archbishop was present, so he may indeed have been there, I simply don't know, but colours were white rather than red.

Now more guests have entered the smaller nave.  Nobody is seated there, the upper lights are not brightly lit, but the center aisle has been nicely lined with lighted candles. Groom's parents?

The bride, her father and four children then made the long walk down the central aisle of the empty nave (see the rose window at the back).  They were beaming broadly in anticipation of seeing all their friends in the apse.

By this time, they have jogged to the left so they can approach the apse where most of their guests are seated.  You can see the beginning of the old wooden choir stalls on the right.

Now they are ready to pass the communion railing, where the faithful would normally have knelt when receiving the communion wafer. 

From the southern and hidden apsidal aisle, I found I could use my 135mm to get some photos of the wedding without being seen or in any way disturbing the religious ceremony.  Colours were wonderful.

I was stunned to see that the official wedding photographer was right up front, photographing and checking her camera during the singing of the hymns.  No class.

I wanted to go out to hear the service, particularly since it seemed to be a wedding joining a Protestant and Catholic in marriage.  On the way, I took another shot or two.

This is looking eastward, toward the high altar in the choir.  The empty chairs are in the transept/crossing.

High altar, in the ornate Baroque style.

Now (below) we are standing in the southern aisle of the apse, looking back toward the west.  The organ pipes are on the wall which marks where they stopped constructing the larger part of the cathedral.  You can see a complex series of ceiling vaults turned in various ways, holding up the ceiling at the crossing and abbreviated transept.  Again we see the wooden spiral staircase leading to the top of the choir stalls. If you enlarge the photo, you can just see a thin metal railing adding a bit of safety to any worker walking on the open stone passageway above the peak of the larges arch (seen just above the wooden choir stalls). 

The interplay of light and darkness in cathedrals is always intriguing, and a photographer's challenge.

Entering any cathedral is always a pleasure for me and a surprise as I make the transition from the outside noisy world to the quiet contemplative inner spaces of the sanctuary.  I am always filled with awe, no matter how many times I enter those doors.  Leaving is less pleasant as I reenter everyday life, its pressures and busy schedules.