There are two cathedrals on the Isle de Cite in the middle of Paris. One of them is well known. The other, Sainte Chappelle, less familiar – but I will never forget the moment my wife and I climbed into the nave. The cathedral rose around us into the heavens, windows falling in cascades of colour from gothic arches above, all supported only by a delicate tracery of stone that seemingly defied gravity.
I gasped. So did my wife.
It was a haunting vision; and it still haunts both of us. Inspiring? Absolutely. This is what writers look for; a place that triggers that emotion – a place where one can envisage the emotions of others who see it.
That is what I did, that astonishing day in the middle of Paris. I put on my historian’s hat, dredged up dusty old memories of Medieval Europe 101, which I’d done years before, and said to my wife, ‘Imagine how the peasants felt.’
Imagine it. There they were, I explained, living in their hovels around the Seine, with rush-strewn floors and leaky thatched roofs, with their animals lowing and whickering around them. And then, as evening drew on and the church bell tolled, they would make their way into – into this. A cathedral of light; vaulting stone that embodied promised glory – and delivered, with sunset light pouring through tall windows framed by slender pillars, while chanting of the choir floated to the heavens.
Medieval engineers stretched stone technology to the limit with St Chapelle, which was begun around 1248. They did it by raising the floor – in effect, lowering the eye line of the windows – and by thickening the buttresses. That unloaded the walls and allowed them to make that delicate tracery of stone.
To make it inspiring. Inspiring for people then, inspiring for people now. And not just for writers. For all of us.
Do you have places that you find inspiring like this? I’d love to hear from you.
Part 2 – Notre Dame – in a fortnight. Next week – the Sydney Writers’ Walk.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012