Toulouse: St. Etienne

West front of St. Etienne; click to enlarge so you can appreciate the inspired disregard for symmetry and balance

The Cathédrale St. Etienne in Toulouse gets my vote for the most delightfully odd building in all of Christendom. In many of the great churches, later versions were constructed on the foundations or footprints of earlier versions. (The current Chartres cathedral, for instance, is at least the fifth church on that site.) Unlike most multi-strata churches, though, at St. Etienne it appears that little attempt was made to integrate new with old.

The western front is a creative amalgam of mismatched styles and misaligned structural and decorative elements, as though a blind giant took the rubble of three or four churches and tried to construct one new church from them. And moving inside only heightens the feeling of magnificent mish-mashery. The interior photo was taken just inside the twin doors shown in the exterior photo, in the older Cistercian-style nave. From there, one moves forward to a massive column planted almost but not quite on the center line of this earlier nave. At that point, one slides left about ten paces, where begins a rather normal Gothic nave that terminates in an outlandishly ornate Baroque altar (pardon that redundant description).

St. Etienne is an accidental museum of architectural history, showing evolutions and revolutions in building philosophy and visual styles over the course of hundreds of years. From what I was able to translate from various placards around the cathedral, the current stewards seem to view their unusual charge with deep respect and gentle good humor, which is the perfect way to look at this one-of-a-kind treasure.

The interior more than fulfills the exterior’s promise of architectural anarchy

Toulouse: St. Sernin (detail)

Brick insert in a stone column in the nave of St. Sernin

Here’s another story trapped in stone. This is one of the nave columns in St. Sernin in Toulouse. I would love to know why the interior of the stone column has this bricked-in repair job (it looks like a repair, anyway). The jagged but continuous vertical edge of the stones on either side of the bricks suggests to me that the space was hacked out of the original stone after the column was built and then filled in with the flat bricks at some later date, perhaps after the space was no longer needed. Maybe some sort of wooden or stone crossbeam was inserted into the column? That might explain the narrow keyway at the bottom of the brick pile, but this is pure speculation on my part.

Chartres: Cathedral (detail)

Cleaning port on the north side of Chartres cathedral

I wouldn’t have noticed this detail on the north side of Chartres cathedral in a million years if it hadn’t been pointed out to me by Malcolm Miller. This looks like it might be a drain, but it’s actually an input port, part way up the wall on the cathedral’s north side, near the western end. As with many old churches, the floor of the central nave slopes dramatically from the eastern end to the large entrance doors at the western end to facilitate washing out after being jammed with sweaty pilgrims and their ripe belongings.

Here at Chartres, however, the outer aisle on the north side slopes in the opposite direction, from west to east. Water would be hoisted up from a well below this photo and poured into this opening. When it sloshed down into the church, it would flow from west to east, hosing out the north aisle, then it would reverse direction and flow east to west, down the nave at the south aisle on the other side of the church. Of all the mind-blowing design features of this building, they actually sloped the floors in a circular fashion to create a whirlpool effect for cleaning.

Toulouse: Medieval City Wall

Section of wall that runs along Allée Jules Guesde

In the autumn of 2011, I spent a glorious week in Toulouse, where the first few chapters of my novel are set. Part of my mission was to trace out the medieval city walls in order to get a sense of the scale of the 13th-century city.

This section of wall that runs along Allée Jules Guesde looked to be the thickness and height of the medieval wall that encircled Toulouse at the beginning of the 13th century, and the location corresponds to where my period maps have the outer wall. I wasn’t able to confirm with a local expert, but I was comfortable concluding that it was indeed part of the perimeter of the medieval city.

Moissac: Abbaye Saint Pierre

The abbey cloister is a veritable museum of Romanesque carving

The cloister of the abbey Saint Pierre in Moissac, about an hour north of Toulouse, is a Romanesque gem. Given its location off the usual tourist paths, I imagine Moissac doesn’t get a high volume of visitors, which would be a shame. In fact, I had the place to myself for quite a while, until I encountered a woman from the Netherlands who had stopped in to rest while walking the ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostella in Spain.







Inside the bell tower; I’ve never looked better in a photo

Paris: Wall of Philippe Auguste

Section of the wall that enclosed medieval Paris

This section of the wall built by King Philippe Auguste, since integrated into the structure of a high school (Lycée Charlemagne), is one of the few remaining traces of medieval Paris. A big tip of the cap to 800 years of Parisians for keeping these pieces of history intact and in place.

Le Diable et une Femme

“Le Diable et une Femme” from the stained glass exhibit at the Museum of the Middle Ages in Paris

Carry yourselves with great care, young maidens—demons tempt from all sides.

St. Adalhard: Foot Reliquary

Foot reliquary from the Museum of the Middle Ages in Paris

No, this isn’t a golden shoe. It’s a reliquary crafted for the foot bones of St. Adalhard. It’s Italian and a century later than my story, but my novel traffics in relics, so it caught my eye in the Museum of the Middle Ages in Paris.

It’s a powerfully strange notion, this idea that human remains can connect us to heaven. That idea and its crass counterparts, the commerce that grew up around relics (including my personal favorite, that more than a dozen churches claimed to have the head of John the Baptist) and the officially sanctioned plunder of other religious sites, have a lot to say about the human creature.

Guédelon: Castle-in-Progress

The two-person “hamster wheel” crane that lifts stone and mortar to the masons building the donjon or keep

Here are few shots from Guédelon in Burgundy, where a 13th-century-style castle is being built using only period materials and methods. The team began construction in 1996 and plans to finish in 2025. Guédelon is an amazing educational resource—and a gift from heaven for anyone writing a novel that includes details of 13th-century castle construction. It’s a bit of a drive from the typical vacation destinations in France, but I cannot recommend it highly enough.

The blacksmith’s shop, where all the tools and metal goods used in the project are made

The Guédelon website is a treasure trove of photos, videos, architectural plans, and information about the castle and the team behind it.

Some of the templates used by the stone cutters—mass production at its medieval finest

Chartres: Notre-Dame (ceiling)

The ceiling above the choir shows the stunning transformation taking place

The cathedral in Chartres is undergoing a massive cleaning and restoration that will return the interior to its original color scheme, which includes boldly painted highlights such as the ceiling bosses above the choir shown here. It’s something of a shock to witness the transformation now taking place, as the heavy gloom of the smoky gray interior is slowly replaced by pale yellow paint with white (painted) faux mortar lines. (The interior surfaces are literally smoky, thanks to hundreds of years of smoke from votive candles, which have since been replaced with a smokeless alternative.)

Between the restoration of the interior color and the cleaning of the celebrated stained glass windows, the new/old look is going to be downright dazzling. I can’t wait to return in a few years to see the change.