Flashback: Arles

After leaving Freiburg in August of ’16, and dropping Randall off in Geneva to fly back to the US, Carol and I continued on to France, to stay with our very kind and excellent friends Greg and Mari (and their cool little boy, Ayden) in Toulouse. On the way, we spent an afternoon in Arles, a sun-drenched city in the Camargue area of Provence. Even feeling as low as I did in the wake of Randall’s sudden departure, I was still beguiled by this beautiful old Provençal gem.

Sited on the Rhone River, Arles is the largest city in France by area. It was an important commercial and cultural center in the western Roman Empire, and already an established Christian bishopric in the 1st Century CE. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Arles features a well-preserved Roman theatre and arena, tightly enmeshed within a network of narrow, bustling streets. Their deep shadows and cool stone provide some refuge from the summer’s heat.

A little more recent in origin is the twelfth century Cathedral of Saint-Trophime. I was eager to see the church, featuring prominently as it did in my Art History studies. Saint-Trophime’s deep, handsomely adorned portal adumbrates many features found in later Romanesque and Gothic churches; and a casket on display inside offers one of the best-preserved examples of late Roman figure carving. The church faces onto the Place de la Republique, the city’s governmental hub, which is organized around a soaring obelisk salvaged from the ancient Roman circus.

Arles is also famous for its association with Vincent Van Gogh, who lived and worked there in 1888-89. He featured one of the town’s many night spots in his famous Terrace of a Cafe at Night, now in the Kroller Muller Museum. The cafe is still open, by the way, in the Place du Forum. You can see it, dressed up in yellow paint and awnings, in one of our street photos.

Visit our Arles gallery »

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ABCs

One of the things that I, as a former Art History grad student, looked forward to most ardently about living in Europe was all the medieval masterworks I would see: cathedrals, abbeys, castles and chateaux, altarpieces — you get the picture.

The first great castle I saw — Conwy in Wales — I couldn’t stop taking pictures. Visiting the amazing, quirky Romanesque church of Anzy-le-duc — one of the rock stars of medieval architecture books — was like meeting Elvis (or at least Ian Anderson). And the hits kept coming: Autun, Vezelay, Salisbury, the Tower of London….

But after a while, something odd happened. I could no longer get myself out of bed in the morning to go see a cathedral, unless maybe there was a serious patisserie on offer as part of the deal. What I had come to find is that, in a great many European towns and cities, you almost literally can’t swing a dead cat without smacking a thousand year old building. Or as Garrison Keillor might say, over here miracles of medieval craftsmanship are no more rare and wonderful than rocks.

In our family we’ve even coined a term to describe this satiation on ancient monuments: ABC — “another bloody cathedral” (or castle).

At times, though, there yet comes the occasional architectural gem to shake me out of my torpor and restore my sense of wonder. And today’s destination was just such: Strasbourg Cathedral.

The foundations of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Strasbourg were laid in 1015 AD. It was built over a period of more than 400 years, reaching from the Romanesque through the early and late Gothic periods, and harmoniously incorporating elements of all those styles. For over 200 years it was the tallest building in Europe, and is indeed the tallest building built during the medieval period. And does it soar!

Chancel of Strasbourg Cathedral showing Romanesque influences Column with figure sculptures at Strasbourg Cathedral Stained glass window from the south aisle of Strasbourg Cathedral

Influences from the Romanesque period, as well as perhaps from early Christian and eastern empire churches, can be seen most clearly in the wide, handsome chancel (left, above). The round, gold-painted dome with its hieratic tableau overlooks echelons of painted figures, and rounded arches, as opposed to narrow and pointy ones.

Elsewhere, the church wears a pretty familiar array of style cues from the early and high Gothic, but there are some wonderful surprises as well. The large chamber to either side of the chancel, for instance, features a soaring central column supporting the vaults high above. In the south chamber, the column is fantastically bedecked with holy figures (center, above).

But the true glory of Strasbourg Cathedral is its glass (above, right). Respendent in brilliant reds, mystical dark blues, and a vibrant palette of supporting hues, the windows impart a richness to the church that photos unfortunately are inadequate to capture.

For more pictures of Notre Dame, as well as the lovely, lively old town that surrounds it, check out our Strasbourg gallery.