Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Cathédrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg (Alsace)

Alsatians are justly proud of their magnificent Cathédrale Notre Dame.  Following an ancient European tradition, the cathedral stands on the high ground, a site which one featured a roman temple.  Like so many other cathedrals, this one has needed to be rebuilt.  The original Romanesque structure, begun in 1015, succumbed to fire.  Renovations at the end of the 1100s were undertaken by stonemasons already familiar with the new Gothic style from their work on the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres.  The rich red stone came from the Vosges mountains.

For about 400 years, the soaring tower (142 meters) was the tallest structure in Europe.  The waning light at the end of the day enhances the redness of the stonework.  Unlike most Gothic churches, this has only a single tower.  The French Revolution, inflamed by fervent anti-religious fervour, nearly succeeded in causing the tower to be dismantled, but an enterprising locksmith cleverly saved the tower by designed an enormous Phrygian metal cap (one of the symbols of the new citizens of the Revolution) to sit on the tower, proclaiming the Revolution in a new way.  I wish I could find a drawing of that hat perched up above the city.

Strasbourg was a free imperial city, a place of refuge for religious reformers of various stripes during the early and mid 1500s.  During that time, the cathedral became a Protestant church, but by 1681 Louis XIV brought Strasbourg back under stern French control, Catholicism was restored to its cathedral, which was now dedicated to Our Lady, Mary.

The cathedral suffered limited damage during the brief Franco-Prussian War (1870).  Alsace reverted to German rule and the cathedral was refurbished.  Allied bombing in 1944 then caused further damage, but everything has now been wonderfully restored.


We now enter Notre Dame de Strasbourg from the west door and pause to look toward the distant apse and its altar.  A tour group also just entered, reminding me that although people come and go, the cathedral outlasts us all.  This also reminds me that very few people take the time to be in the cathedral's atmosphere for hours on end, absorbing, learning, seeing new details, taking another 15 steps forward before pausing to look all around, yet again.  One should not 'do' a cathedral this wonderful in 20 minutes.

Although the presence of an organ was mentioned in 1260, the oldest bits of the present organ case were likely built after 1385.  The only way the organ case can be seen these days is by shining spotlights on it, but it is magnificently restored, its reds and blues imitating the colours of the medieval and Renaissance stained glass windows.