Friday, June 26, 2009

The Church of Saint Jean-Baptiste de Belleville, Paris

As an architectural historian I am, of course, interested in buildings. Additionally, though, I’m intrigued by the representations of buildings in architecture and art, which occur more frequently in medieval times than in other periods. (See my blog entry on the Church of St. Denis in Paris.) One delightful small Gothic church in Paris is the Church of Saint Jean-Baptiste de Belleville, which is in the area of Paris known as Belleville. More on Belleville later – first the church.

According to one architectural historian, “From 1050 to 1350, more stone was quarried and moved in France than at any time in ancient Egypt” (Erlande-Brandenberg, Cathedrals and Castles: Building in the Middle Ages, p. 33). And it’s true – wherever you go in France, including all around the city of Paris, you will see countless versions of the Romanesque and Gothic styles, executed on every imaginable scale from the monumental cathedrals to the small parish churches. (The Church of Saint Jean-Baptiste de Belleville is quite a bit later than 1350, though I don’t know exactly when it was built.)

What struck me most about Saint Jean-Baptiste is this amazing representation of the church within one of the church’s own tympana. (The tympanum is the semi-circular area above a church door, which is nearly always filled in with architectural sculpture.) Here you can see the saint, John the Baptist, standing in front of the church that bears his name. He’s barefoot, an iconographic indication that it is in fact John the Baptist; to the right are two figures who look to me like a bishop and the Virgin Mary. The church in this image is an exact representation of the building, with its two pointed towers in front. Two angels fill the sky on either side of the church.


This church serves the diocese of Belleville, which is an interesting community in itself. There are many parts of Paris that feel like a village; Montmartre is only the most famous, which many people might know only from the film Amalie. Belleville is also like a village, and the Church of Saint Jean-Baptiste sits on a beautiful little square looking out over the neighborhood pastry shops and restaurants. It’s a nice place to walk around, which I know from the experience of having lived here for 4 months in 1996 and again for about 6 weeks in 1999. (My Parisian friend lives in Belleville.)

A historic marker tells us that “Between 1815 and 1859, this community of 3,000 souls metamorphosed into a city of 70,000 inhabitants, making it the third-largest city in France, before being annexed in 1860 into the capital.” Baron Haussmann, who redesigned Paris under Napoleon III and in the process wreaked havoc on its populace, split Belleville into two parts, so it now constitutes the 19th AND the 20th arrondissements in Paris. This split was a deliberate political move intended to “divide and conquer,” so to speak; Belleville had an enormous population of working-class folks who might have been too powerful had they remained an intact political (voting) unit.

Belleville still retains much of its working-class character, despite pastry shops selling some of the gorgeous 5 € confections for which Paris is famous. (Personally I find them too beautiful to eat – and usually not as tasty as they are wonderful to look at. I prefer the simple 2 € chocolate éclair.) Belleville is still home to a lot of immigrants, chiefly Arabs and Chinese. Since my previous visit 10 years ago, though, Belleville is starting to get a bit gentrified; my friend calls it “bobo” – bourgeois bohemian – which is apt. On top of all those identities – working-class, immigrant, bobo – coming to Belleville feels almost like being in the country, because of the vast Parc de Butte-Chaumont. Belleville does not have the enormous crowds of tourists one finds in the Marais or the Latin Quarter; there’s more peace and quiet here. (The drawback to that is the long commute to the center of the city if you have to visit libraries and archives.) Still, I love Belleville, and couldn’t imagine a trip to Paris without spending time here.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Church of St. Denis, Paris

One Saturday morning in Paris I finally made my way to the Church of St. Denis, THE VERY FIRST GOTHIC CHURCH IN THE WORLD. I have been teaching this building in my architectural history classes for the past six years, so it was about time I actually saw it in person. I was fortunate to visit on a very sunny morning, allowing me to appreciate the beautiful stained glass and to see the interior filled with light. (If you visit a Gothic church on a cloudy or rainy day it is not quite as impressive.)

For the story of the birth of Gothic architecture I can recommend a book called The Gothic Enterprise: A Guide to Understanding the Medieval Cathedral by Robert A. Scott. This book makes clear the religious, philosophical, military, political, diplomatic, and other ideological factors that motivated the creation of the Gothic style of architecture by Abbot Suger – head of the monastery at Saint Denis – in the 12th century. This was a very important church, as the kings and queens of France were buried here for centuries.

I knew all about the architecture, having taught it for so long, but one new thing I discovered was an icon painting of the saint, which intrigued me because it included representations of architecture in the two upper corners.

Saint Denis – the patron saint of Paris – was a bishop of Paris in the third century who was martyred around 250 A.D. on the hill of Montmartre, the highest point in the city. The Wikipedia entry provides a succinct narrative of his story:

Denis, having menaced the pagan priests by his many conversions, was executed by beheading on the highest hill in Paris (now Montmartre), which was likely to have been a druidic holy place. The martyrdom of Denis and his companions gave it its current name, which in Old French means ‘mountain of martyrs.’ According to the Golden Legend, after his head was chopped off, Denis picked it up and walked two miles, preaching a sermon the entire way. The site where he stopped preaching and actually died was made into a small shrine that developed into the Saint Denis Basilica, which became the burial place for the kings of France. Another account has his corpse being thrown in the Seine, but recovered and buried later that night by his converts.”

The Saint Denis legend, then, connects him with two points in Paris: Montmartre, where now stands the 19th-century Church of Sacre-Coeur, and the town of Saint Denis (now a Parisian suburb), where stands the church that bears his name. In this icon painting of the saint, notice two buildings in the two upper corners: Sacre-Couer and Saint-Denis. This panel intrigued me because it points out the significance of medieval church architecture not just as a gathering place for religious worship, but as an actual symbol of the person to whom it is dedicated. The depiction of these two structures is a shorthand way of communicating to worshippers the story of the saint’s martyrdom – and I have to admit I find it more tasteful than the usual iconographic representations of the saint carrying his own head!

One of the three tympana on the West Portal shows Denis and his three companions being led to their execution; behind the three chained prisoners you can see the city of Paris represented by a fortified city wall. Notice the non-naturalistic scale that allows buildings to be shown in contexts like these; I really admire the creativity of medieval sculptors.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Le Mémorial de la Shoah (Holocaust Memorial), Paris

Last Saturday my French friend’s mother – my hostess for lunch – asked me directly, “Are you Jew?” – sending her children and her granddaughter into a fluster of embarrassment. (Their excuse: she’s 85 years old.) Madame Cohen’s English is quite good, though of course “Are you Jewish?” might be the preferred idiomatic phrasing. When I answered “no,” she seemed a little disappointed and turned back silently to the photos she’d been looking at. After a minute or two I piped up, “but my husband is Jewish!” as if to redeem myself in her eyes, and received a smile and a cluck of approval. [She was already a bit suspicious that an American might be carrying the swine flu virus into her home; my assurances that I’d been in Europe for the past five months didn’t seem to dissuade her.]

Madame Cohen and her late husband both were Egyptian Jews; they left Egypt in 1950 when, according to my friend / her daughter, “it was clear there was no future for Jews in Egypt.” Soon afterwards the Jews remaining in Egypt were expelled. The plight of European Jews during World War II was not their personal story, but like Jews everywhere, the long history of persecution, eviction, and marginalization suffered in so many countries is one they share.

Documenting the story of the French Jews during World War II, the Shoah Memorial in Paris’ Marais district is a tribute to the 76,000 French Jews who were deported from France between 1942 and 1944. It was opened to the public in January 2005; this was my first time to see it. (Prior to 2005 it existed as a Holocaust documentation center, but was not open to the public.) In the same vein as the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., the Shoah Memorial has a wall (actually walls) engraved with the names of the 76,000 French Jewish deportees, as well as a detailed exhibition of the history of the Holocaust. (To quote the literature: the word “Holocaust” is commonly used in Anglo-Saxon countries, whereas the Hebrew word “Shoah,” which means “catastrophe,” is used in France.) There is also a crypt – a symbolic tomb – containing ashes of victims collected from the extermination camps, with an eternal flame in the center. It’s a very somber, meditative space.

The Wall of Names lists the year of birth of each deportee; what’s especially poignant is the fact that so many of them were children, many quite young children at that. As the mother of a child who is more than one-quarter Jewish (my husband being five-eighths Jewish), I am quite conscious that their fates could have been ours had we been born in a different time and place. One room in the memorial displays 2,700 photographs of French Jewish children who were deported.

France (or Paris, at any rate) has been quite active in remembering and commemorating its victims of Nazi persecution. Also new in Paris since I lived there ten years ago are memorial plaques posted around the town, particularly in the Marais district, where most of the Jews lived. Here are three I found:

A la memoire des 112 habitants de cette maison dont 40 petits enfants déportés et morts dans les camps allemands en 1942.” (“To the memory of the 112 inhabitants of this building, among them 40 small children, who were deported and died in the German camps in 1942.”)

A la mémoire des élèves de cette ancienne école primaire supérieure de jeunes filles deportees de 1942 à 1944 parce qe’elles étaient nées juives, victimes innocentes de la barbarie nazie avec la complicité active du gouvernement de Vichy. Elles furent exterminées dans les camps de la mort. (4 juin 2005 – NE LES OUBLIONS JAMAIS)” (“To the memory of the students of this old primary school for young girls, deported from 1942 to 1944 because they were born Jewish, innocent victims of the Nazi barbarism with the complicity of the Vichy government. They were exterminated in the death camps. Erected June 4, 2005 – never forget them.”)

Arrètés par la police du gouvernement de Vichy, complice de l’occupant nazi, plus de 11000 enfants furent déportés de France de 1942 à 1944 et assassins à Auschwitz parce qu’ils étaient nés juifs. Plus de 500 enfants vivaient dans le 4ème arrondissement, parmi eux les élèves de cette école. (Le 15 décembre 2001 – NE LES OUBLIONS JAMAIS)” (“Arrested by the police of the Vichy government, the accomplice of the Nazi occupiers, more than 11,000 children were deported from France from 1942 to 1944 and assassinated at Auschwitz because they were born Jewish. More than 500 children lived in the 4th arrondissement, among them the students of this school. Erected December 15, 2001 – never forget them.”) (The 4th arrondissement, of course, comprises the Marais.)

I’m not sure these memorial plaques are directly connected with the Shoah Memorial, but both the plaques and the Shoah Memorial reflect an even greater consciousness about the persecution of French Jews than I noticed when I lived in Paris ten years ago. This is a level of consciousness – and of consciousness-raising – that is not so much in evidence in Germany, where I’ve spent the past five months. Of course Berlin does have major memorials and museums, but t not so many minor ones that one encounters them in one’s daily life. In the former East Germany / East Berlin, most of the memorials I’ve seen from that era commemorate the persecution of Communists by the Nazis.

Anti-Semitism, like bigotry and racism, do exist in the United States, but it’s hard (for me at any rate) to imagine the complete sense of marginality and “otherness” with which non-Jews in Europe regarded Jews prior to World War II. Even after World War II, some countries denied citizenship to Jews born within their borders. In my own experience, I am not Jewish but I have a first cousin who is Jewish (through her mother); my grandmother has a first cousin whose children are Jewish (through their father). Noone in my Gentile family has ever felt themselves different from the Jewish members of the family. Because I grew up in a provincial and very segregated place, though, I grew up with little exposure to Judaism, and I thought of it as just as another religion that a person might choose to follow, like Catholicism or any of the Protestant sects. It was not until I went to college, at Northwestern University, that I made a number of Jewish friends and became more aware of Judaism as an identity that went much deeper than simply religious persuasion.

One further feature of the Shoah Memorial is the Wall of the Righteous (inaugurated June 2006) on the exterior of the building, along the so-called Allée des Justes. It is engraved with the names of the non-Jewish men and women who risked their lives in France to rescue persecuted Jews. According to the website, “Each year the award of the Righteous among the Nations is granted by the Memorial Museum of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. 21,310 Righteous among the Nations have been recognized thus far worldwide, including 2,693 in France.” One can’t help hoping that in their situation, we would have risen to that level of heroism – and hoping as well we never find ourselves in such a situation.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The “Dodo Manège” in Paris

Where else but Paris can a kid ride on an extinct beast? On the “Dodo Manège” carousel in Paris’ Jardin des Plantes they can ride on not only a dodo or a triceratops, but also a horned turtle (tortue à cornes), a glyptodon, a thylacine, or a sivatherium. There are also a few non-extinct animals (panda, elephant, ostrich, gorilla) on this carousel concerned with the evolution of species.

I love it because not only is it a unique carousel, but it cleverly fits in thematically with the rest of the Jardin des Plantes. The Jardin des Plantes is home to several related institutions: the Museum of Natural History, the Grand Galerie of Evolution, the Museum of Geology, a botanic garden, and the Paris zoo, originally the royal menagerie.

We were here in April en route to Brittany from Berlin – the overnight train terminated in Paris, and originated in Paris on our way home – so we spent one afternoon at the zoo, and that was when we discovered the carousel. Two months later I am back in Paris for research, and had to revisit this unique attraction.

The carousel of extinct species is educational as well as fun. From it I learned about the thylacine – also called the Tasmanian wolf – the last large carnivorous marsupial in Australia. “It is a remarkable example of extermination by man.” The last known individual lived in a zoo in Hobart (capital of the Australian island state of Tasmania) until 1936.

Then there’s the sivatherium, an animal related to the elan and the giraffe. It had two pairs of horns, and a long nose that seems to have been the beginnings of a trunk. It lived in the forests and savannahs of India, and was represented in a Sumerian bronze figurine and drawings found in the Sahara. It was hunted by Paleolithic man, and became extinct less than 10,000 years ago.

The carousel is beautifully painted with a jungle scene and 12 individual vignettes (around its top) showing some fascinating animals like lemurs, pangolins, and armadillos, as well as scenes from the Jardin des Plantes itself. The Jardin des Plantes, and especially this carousel, are now among my favorite places in Paris.

One scene on the carousel depicts the actual statue a few hundred meters away of Buffon, noted French naturalist and once director of the Jardin des Plantes (when it was still the Jardin du Roi). Buffon sits facing the Grand Galerie de l'Evolution (though on the carousel painting he seems to be facing away from it!)

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Spain Journal, Part II

Written at 37,000 feet, en route from Madrid to Berlin.

Our two weeks in Spain are over; here are some random observations:

1. There are no black olives in Spain, only green olives. They are tasty.

2. Sevilla rhymes with sangria. Both put me in a good mood.

3. One of the great things about grocery stores in Spain is gazpacho in a box; we went through a lot of it. Another thing I like about Spanish grocery stores is sangria in a box.

4. The Madrid subway system is plagued by pickpockets. We rode the Metro on six separate occasions, and had pickpocket attempts on two of those occasions. My mom caught a would-be pickpocket with his hand in her purse on our first day in Spain, getting from the airport to our hotel. Another day there were two pickpockets – young women working together – one had her hand in my purse (after unzipping it!) and the other had her hand in my mom’s purse! Unbelievable. This was the second time my mom was targeted on the Metro. (All attempts were unsuccessful, by the way.)

One could argue that that’s just typical for big cities – that Madrid is subject to the problems that all big cities share. However, I lived in Chicago for two and a half years (plus three and a half years in Evanston), and was pickpocketed twice, though I rode public transportation every day. Compare that with nine days in Madrid. I have lived in Berlin for four months now, and have experienced NO pickpocket attempts. Based on my experiences, I would insist that Madrid has more of a problem than other cities its size.

5. The residents of Madrid – I believe they’re called Madrillenos – have a disturbing lack of concern for people around them, which seems to be rooted in fear. For one thing, when we had these pickpocket attempts, both times we shouted at the pickpockets as they quickly escaped our wrath by hopping off the train. No one around us batted an eyelash; noone said anything to the perpetrators. There was a distinct attitude of not wanting to get involved. I don’t know if it was based on apathy, fear, or disregard or disdain for tourists. My mom’s theory is that they think if the pickpockets target the tourists, they’ll leave the locals alone. I don’t mean to generalize – there was one occasion when I was standing on the Metro with my 4-year-old in my arms (and he’s getting pretty heavy!); noone offered me a seat, but a young woman who was also standing addressed the folks who were sitting to give a seat to “la señora.” Someone did; I was really touched by her efforts on my behalf.

Then there was our apartment building (we rented an apartment in Madrid for 8 days). The other residents of the building were very closed, and even if we said “Hola” to them, they would say nothing. They would quickly unlock their doors, looking over their shoulders, and getting behind the locked door as quickly as possible. (Our door, by the way, had quite a formidable lock.) I actually noticed this wherever we went in Spain – bars on ALL the windows and doors – though outside of Madrid people were a lot more relaxed and friendly.

6. For a country with lots and lots of tourists, the Spanish in general speak surprisingly little English. Now I’m not arguing that they should speak English – I do think it’s more incumbent on us as tourists to learn their language than vice versa – but it’s still quite noticeable compared with other European countries like Germany or Italy. My theory is this: since there are so many Spanish speakers worldwide, Spaniards feel less of a need to learn another language, sort of like Anglophones. (Americans especially are also pretty bad about learning foreign languages.) Spanish arrogance about their language is possibly as marked as English-speakers’ arrogance about their language. In Italy, on the other hand, there’s a recognition that since there are so few Italian speakers in the world (relatively speaking), they have to learn foreign languages or they won’t be able to communicate with people outside their own small country.

7. I enjoyed being in Spain less than most other countries I’ve travelled in: Italy, Mexico, Greece, Turkey, France, England, Germany, India. The Spanish really do not seem to like tourists. By the end of our trip we were pleasantly surprised whenever we would meet a Spanish person who was nice to us. After a rough encounter with a Spanish salesperson in Madrid, I was a helped by a very nice salesclerk at the Madrid train station, and when I told him he was nicer than most of the people I’d dealt with at the train station, he remarked rather dryly, “It’s because I’m not Spanish.” It turned out he was from Argentina; he did not have a high opinion of Spaniards either.

8. We went to Toledo on our last day in Spain, and had a very good experience there: nice shopkeeper, nice bus driver, nice waiter, nice policeman. We were very happy, plus Toledo is quite picturesque, so it left us with a good impression of Spain. Toledo is in the mountains, so the climate is nicer (like El Escorial); visually it reminded me of the Italian hill towns in Tuscany and Umbria much moreso than anywhere else in Spain. (Granada is also in the mountains, but more of a tourist trap than Toledo.)

9. I would definitely go back to Spain, but would avoid Madrid (though I’d like to see more of the Madrid museums). This basically gives support to the obvious principle that being a tourist in a smaller city or town is easier than in a large city.