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June 10, 2004

Basilica of Notre-Dame, Montreal

I'm still with the Deliberative Democracy group, with no time to blog, but I wrote the following several days ago ....

Last week, I was in Montreal for four days. There was plenty of unscheduled time, so I walked for hours each day. Montreal is an impressive and lively city. I don't write travelogues on this blog, but I would like to say a few words about the Basilique Notre-Dame. This must be one of the best Victorian buildings in the world—and there are many. Some Victorian buildings are either unimaginative imitations of medieval models or damaging renovations of actual medieval structures (or both). In contrast, the Basilica is a highly original Gothic building constructed on open land in the New World. It resembles a great Victorian train station, museum, or exposition hall more than a medieval cathedral.

Most of its components derive from medieval architecture—specifically, the French High Gothic of the Ste. Chapelle in Paris, which is the acknowledged inspiration. The arches are pointed, the columns have gothic capitals, the windows are filled with stained glass, and there are scores of life-size sculptures of saints in medieval garb. (An exception is the huge pulpit, which is reached by a broad, winding staircase that's more baroque than medieval in inspiration.) However, the overall appearance of the building is not at all medieval; it's highly original. This is partly because of specific architectural choices. For example, there are rose windows in the ceiling of the nave, which would have been impossible and unimaginable in the 13th century. Also, the nave is proportionally wider than any medieval one I've seen, perhaps because Victorian construction techniques allow a wider span. Quite apart from technological issues, I suspect that medieval builders would have preferred a loftier but narrower shape.

I have never seen a medieval church (not even Ste. Chapelle or the lower church in Assisi) that is as heavily decorated. Every single surface of Notre-Dame is covered by stained glass, tile, statuary, or high-relief sculptural decoration that's also painted with zigzags and other bold patterns in dark primary colors. There’s virtually no unpainted stonework. This all sounds terribly busy or even vulgar. However, the patterns are small and the overall structure is simple and easily legible. As a result, the surface patterns make a restful impression. Finally, all the patterns and other decorative features are symmetrical—the result of a single plan—whereas most medieval buildings are more organic (or haphazard).

If you look at the details of Notre-Dame, many are not very fine. The figures in the stained glass (from Limoges, France) are much larger and coarser than anything medieval. However, the building as a whole is unusual, interesting, and worth a long trip to visit.

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