main street carcassonne

carcassonne panoramaLooks can be deceiving: Carcassonne is not a castle. Surrounded by almost 2 miles of fortifications it’s the largest walled city in Europe. The first signs of settlement in this region of Languedoc date to about 3500 BC, but things didn’t take off until the Romans identified the hilltop site as strategic and started building fortifications. Next came the Visigoths, who expanded the fortress into a fiefdom – until the Papacy stuck its nose in. Pope Urban II arrived to bless the foundation stones of a new cathedral and turned the growing city and its environs into a secondary seat of church power – all the better to launch a crusade against the pesky Cathars, a religious group which rejected Catholicism as the Church of Satan. Holy war, as we all know, is very good for business. More ramparts went up, dungeons were built, and towers were erected to house the Inquisition. Carcassonne became a border citadel between France and Spain that remained unconquered until the 17th century, when an economic revival under Louis XIV trumped the city’s military significance. In truth Carcassonne wasn’t so much conquered as absorbed into a burgeoning colonial empire. Cite de Carcassonne, as it’s now called to distinguish it from the modern-day town of Carcassonne down the hill and over the river, is no longer a functioning city – technically. Yet it’s been restored to varying degrees of authenticity in an example of artistic simulacrum. Populated with shops, hotels, and tourists eating ice cream at outdoor cafes, the city appears at first glance authentic. But not unlike Disneyland’s Main Street USA, it’s all a facade. And yet I have to give someone serious props because it’s an awfully good one at that.
carcassonne main street



live blog: but first ….

A pit stop at the ancient town of Lindos, on the southern coast of Rhodes opposite the Old Town. Once one of the most important cities in classical Greece, Lindos grew to prosperity under the Knights of St. John. So much of medieval Lindos has survived that the town has been declared a national landmark; the streets a maze of continuous buildings with ornate carvings and pebbled alleyways which windingly bring you – almost imperceptibly – to what I’m most excited to see: the ancient acropolis.


live blog: knights of the rhodes table

The biggest medieval city in Europe, the picturesque old town of Rhodes is an unexpected delight. A rabbit’s warren of narrow streets and buildings of traditional architecture, much of the town as it appears today was built by the Knights of St. John at the end of the Byzantine era. Following the conquest of the Holy Land by Islamic forces, the crusading Knights retreated to Rhodes, over which they claimed sovereignty, fortifying the northern tip of the island with the castle, towers, bridges, and gates that still stand. The Knights would later move again, weathering a name change and establishing a more famous state on the island of Malta. What they left behind saw an invasion of the Turks, who built mosques, public baths and mansions for the new patrons, followed by Italian colonizers after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and British bombs during World War II. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988, it’s a minor miracle so much of the town’s architecture has managed to survive 700 years of relentless give and take. For that, the flaneur in me was quite grateful this afternoon.


full of sound and fury, signifying nothing

Now an ecumenical church, Iona Abbey, is of particular historical and religious interest to pilgrims and visitors. For one, it’s the most elaborate and best-preserved ecclesiastical building surviving from the Middle Ages in Western Scotland. Though modest in scale compared to medieval abbeys elsewhere in Europe, it has a wealth of fine architectural detail, and monuments of many periods: in front of the Abbey stands the 9th century St Martin’s Cross, one of the best-preserved Celtic crosses in Britain; the ancient burial ground, called the Rèilig Odhrain, contains the 12th century chapel of St. Odhrán and a number of medieval grave monuments. The abbey graveyard holds the final resting place of kings from Ireland, Norway and France, as well as a number of early Scottish Kings, including Malcolm, Duncan, and Mac Bethad mac Findlaích, better known as MacBeth.


the cloisters

The neo-medieval architecture of The Cloisters in upper Manhattan’s Fort Tryon Park provides a perfect context for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collections from the Middle Ages.  The unique setting allows for works of art to be incorporated into the fabric of the building itself, often installed in a manner suggesting their original functions and situations.  Nothing benefits more from this enhanced perspective – and natural daylight – than the museum’s superlative collection of stained glass.


in mourning at the met

The Mourners are the most famous elements of the tombs of John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy,  and his wife Margaret of Bavaria.  Constructed in the 15th century at the monastery of Champmol, they are now preserved at the Musée des Beaux Arts in Dijon.  Lucky for us the museum is undergoing an extensive renovation and the 39 alabaster mourners have been removed from their cloistered tomb and are briefly on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 23, before touring a number of museums across the country.

In Dijon, reclining statues of the duke and his wife lie atop the tombs, encircled by angles, as the statues – each approximately 16 inches tall – unfold like an eternal funeral procession underneath the finely carved base.  What’s so fantastic about The Mourners here is that they have been stripped of their regal surroundings.  There is no tomb, no portico, no immediate context:  just two lines of mourners dramatically lit in front of the great choir screen in the Medieval Sculpture Hall.  You could touch them if you wanted to – though I would not recommend trying that – there is so little distance between the figures and the public.  You can get up into their faces and see that they are characterized, but not individual portraits – each figure shows sadness, whether through an expression, a gesture to a neighbor, or the folds of their magnificent drapery.   What this exhibition makes so exquisitely clear is that the emotion these medieval figures carry is common to all men and to all times, and it still touches us today: following the funeral procession, crying, praying, singing, gathering together, letting ourselves be overrun by sadness, consoling our neighbors – grief is a collective experience.


live blog: cluny, not george

The Musée de Cluny is one of those curious museums I’ve always intended to visit but never quite got around to checking out.  I say curious because while partially housed in late 1st century Roman baths, it’s actually France’s National Museum of the Middle Ages.   Even more idiosyncratic, its whole raison d’etre comes courtesy of a collection compiled by an enthusiastic 18th century amateur.  This trip, I made a point of visiting and my curiosity, as it were, was amply rewarded.

The sole structure remaining  from the baths is the frigidarium, or cold room, whose recently restored vaulted ceilings reach up some 48 feet.  It  also turns out to be the most important Gallo-Roman monument north of the Loire.  The adjoining 15th century Hotel Cluny is the first example in Paris of a private mansion in the middle of both a courtyard and garden.  And though restored, it remains a prime example of the flamboyant Gothic architectural style.

The collections themselves are a bit of a hodge-podge of 12 century stained glass, sculptures and facings from Saint Germain des Pres and Saint Genevieve, and copious religious goldsmithing on display over two floors.  One of the more interesting rooms contains what I kept calling the “headless chorus”:  a dozen or so large sculptures from Notre Dame -  along with twenty one (unrelated) monumental heads located nearby.

The museum’s piece de resistance, however, is a series of six millefleurs-style Flemish tapestries known as The Lady and the Unicorn. – seen below in very dignified manner on the side of a shopping bag available for purchase in the gift shop.  Each panel represents one of the five senses:  Taste, Sight, Touch, Smell, and Hearing, with the title of the sixth panel alluding to yet another sense – “To My Only Desire.”  The complexity of the allegory makes each panel a universe unto itself.  Displayed together the effect is almost hallucinogenic.  How the complete set survived untouched  in a chateau for almost 500 years seems not only improbable, but downright curious.


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