The Strasbourg Cathedral is a big blob of exquisitely sculpted pink stone – a feat of engineering and a work of art, like most cathedrals which have stood this long. Sculpted laboriously out of grès rose des Vosges (a pink powdery sandstone from the surrounding Vosges mountains), the Romanesque Gothic melange evolved over 4 centuries, from 1015 when the first stone was laid on the ancient basilica, to the icing on the cake – the completion of the spire in 1439.
Thus the current hype about the Cathédrales big 1000 birthday bash “1015-2015: the eternal Cathedral” – an exceptional show”. The church was destroyed by fire at least a couple of times over in the course of time (the Romanesque crypt remains among other bits).
Notre Dame de Strasbourg rises over the city like the skeleton of a giant insect – an oeuvre of medieval statues, sculptures and symbols – its ever-present 142 metre spire chiselled with thousands of figurines (dogs, gremlins, sires etc.) in the distinctive smudged, charcoalled pink stone.
The Gothic wonder surges up from the Place de la Cathédrale – the “place of all places” to borrow Victor Hugo’s words – the throbbing, pulsating heart of this history dense world heritage city.
Thanks to that mighty spire, it was until the end of the 19th century the highest building in Christendom. Even Ronald Regan had the presence of mind to proclaim “this church is Europe” on seeing it in the late 80s. He did not however follow the steps of Goethe, who as a student at Strasbourg’s prestigious University forced himself to climb to the platform on the cathedral’s roof to cure his fear of heights! Brave man. Little wonder he described the city as one which “put the soul in motion”.
Which it does. Strasbourg is anachronistic in this modern world, with its mass of Grimm’s fairytale houses and oriel windows and swans swooning on the river. Every time I return I feel I have entered the pages of a picture book. The cathedral captures and sets off that mystical, otherworldly feeling – the striking contrast of now and then – and sends its sky high. As mobile phone wielding tourists whizz about the behemoth taking selfies, it’s presence is gripping, uplifting and dizzying – “a skilful combination of monumental size and delicateness” as Victor Hugo said of the spire.
The cathedral is very much alive with the breath of an animated city. In summer locals and tourists throng to the Place de la Cathedrale to sip on Riesling or espresso at the surrounding brasseries – portrait artists work into the cooler hours – musicians play Spanish guitar and ancient harps – and theatre companies perform folklore pieces in traditional Alsatian dress.
The light spectacle at the Cathedral – a synchronised show of organ music and coloured laser beams – is held every evening from July to September. This year the illumination has taken on an added dimension – the cathedral is dressed up in celebratory birthday dress for a big night on the town thanks to the work of Skertzò – a Paris based “master of dreams” who boast of their ability to cast heritage in a new light – with “pertinence and sometimes impertinence” (watch!)
A whizz-bang light show is always impressive – especially when the background is a 1000 year old wonder. (4 years ago US architectural firm Axis Mundi concocted a dramatic new virtual look for the Place de la Cathédrale which also cast the cathedral in quite a different light).
Art and architecture have always gone hand in hand in the best of buildings. Built on the site of an ancient Roman camp, Argentoratum, the edifice harnessed in some of the best talent of the Middle Ages – the maîtres-œuvres masters of medieval design.
High among them Jean Hultz for the famous flèche – the spire – and legendary “Erwin” – Erwin von Steinbach – one of the principal architects whose apogee was achieved with the rosace – the startling, stunning peacock plumed rosette.
(A while back I saw an incredible documentary about the building of the cathedral heavily focused on Erwin’s efforts, and apparently the DVD is now available online with English subtitles – or just watch the extract).
The artist tradition at the cathedral continues in many ways with exhibitions held in its chapels, or in the immediate environs … such as the current exhibition of larger-than-life sculptures by German artist Christel Lechner. (For some video art see this cool 3D clip incorporating old etchings by local AVagency Amopix).
Then there is the gaggle of portraitists who huddle around its base every summer sketching tourists. Among them my permanently charcoalled artist friend Joseph. I can stand and watch him for hours, lapping up his skill – the spontaneous sizzle of the caricaturist in action – at the same time as the magic ambiance of the cathedral which wafts out in every direction, through every cobblestoned street and alleyway.
It’s a wonder which I have lived with and marveled over constantly in my 15 years of on and off again life in Strasbourg. It’s no minor detail having such a monument adorn your daily existence. It’s a blessing.
You’re best port of call for all information on the cathedral, including the events calendar and in-depth cultural and historical background is either the tourism office (site in English) http://www.otstrasbourg.fr/en/ or dedicated website 1http://www.1000cathedrale.strasbourg.eu/.