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The Cathe­dral of Sois­sons

Amiens, Rouen, Riems, Bourges, Chartres… the cel­e­brated colossi of Gothic ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal ar­chi­tec­ture in France, those peaks ris­ing from the north­ern plains of France that pil­grims and ca­sual ex­plor­ers from the world over come to gaze at in rev­er­en­tial awe. There they stand strain­ing their necks, over­whelmed by the su­per­hu­man scale of the medieval struc­tures, the sheer space-in­vested har­mony of the ar­chi­tec­tural ar­range­ments, the vir­tu­oso per­for­mances of light and colour on stone and wood, the huge blocks of noth­ing­ness trapped in im­mense vaults mag­i­cally dis­tilled into spir­i­tual mean­ing, into the deeper oth­er­ness that hu­man be­ings seek as a foil to the con­stantly de­bil­i­tat­ing ef­fects of an al­ways over­bear­ing re­al­ity.

But there are other cathe­drals whose names are not to the fore, a kind of B-list who clus­ter around the leg­endary icons, but never, de­spite their own unique won­ders and trea­sures, seem to join that list of fa­mous names. There are rea­sons for this, since a num­ber of them find them­selves in towns of lit­tle in­ter­est to the trav­eller, pro­vin­cial places which have not geared them­selves to tourism or visi­tors en masse. With their trickle of the cu­ri­ous and the de­ter­mined these some­how sec­ondary cathe­drals can be espe­cially re­ward­ing, for one can have the place al­most en­tirely to one­self, espe­cially on a week­day in win­ter when you may find your­self alone but for a re­servedly watch­ful priest or of­fi­cial. Of course the learned and the scholar who seek out the lesser known sites, and the com­pletist who must see ev­ery­thing, will know these cathe­drals well and they are of course the sub­ject of many stud­ies and in­ves­ti­ga­tions by no­ta­bles down the years. This is a process which con­stantly re­fines it­self, an end­less par­ing down of the sub­ject to re­veal the shin­ing tool the scholar is sat­is­fied with, which he pre­pares to lay in the ground wrapped in the cloth of his name, un­til it is snatched from its pre­ma­ture preser­va­tion to be vig­or­ously re­shaped by a later en­thu­si­ast. But for those of us who are not con­cerned with academia and rafts of de­tails, but who wish to un­dergo an aes­thetic ex­pe­ri­ence

which moves us and makes us re­alise again with an un­fore­seen re­fresh­ing youth­ful­ness what life can so sud­denly of­fer when ha­bit­u­ally things seem so pre­dictable and mori­bund, then to en­ter one of these lesser trum­peted cathe­drals with­out ex­pec­ta­tion, is a priv­i­lege to be savoured for a life­time. That was my sen­ti­ment when I hap­pened upon the cathe­dral of Sois­sons set like a rare stone in the am­ber and gold bro­cade of Pi­cardy’s arable plains.

Sois­sons forms one of three points in a tri­an­gle of cathe­drals, its sis­ters be­ing Noyon roughly to the North and Laon to the East, a con­ve­nient plant­ing that lures the trav­eller into think­ing he can visit them all one af­ter an­other, per­haps in a day. On the map this looks a per­fectly rea­son­able propo­si­tion, but in prac­tice you quickly re­alise rich ex­pe­ri­ence would be traded for mere com­ple­tion, the slow savour­ing of at­mos­phere poi­soned by hasti­ness and an ill-starred look­ing ahead to other po­ten­tial feasts, with­out di­gest­ing the present del­i­cacy. To reach the in­ner lay­ers of ex­pe­ri­ence in a cathe­dral one must re­sist the cur­sory in­spec­tion of the nave’s per­pen­dic­u­lar ex­cess, the mag­netic pull of the walk down the aisle and around the am­bu­la­tory chapels, un­con­sciously drawn to in­scribe ones own body around the perime­ters of the ed­i­fice, as if by do­ing so it had all been taken in, re­tained. No, one must sti­fle that over-ea­ger­ness to sat­isfy the cam­era lens, re­sist a scat­ter­ing of rapid glances across the arches and vaults, re­sist gulp­ing it down all at once and push­ing on, bloated with undi­gested vis­ual food. It is im­por­tant to wait on en­ter­ing a cathe­dral like Sois­sons, to as­sess the in­te­rior with all one’s senses and per­mit each of them to sully forth in­de­pen­dently and rhyth­mi­cally so as not to up­set the frag­ile melody of at­mos­phere which is still play­ing there and wishes to trans­mit it­self to the right sen­si­bil­ity.

The ap­proach to Sois­sons is dis­ap­point­ing and hardly fills one with an­tic­i­pa­tion. I ad­vanced on the town from the west, com­ing from Sen­lis and Villers Cot­terets. A la­bo­ri­ous web of mod­ern round­abouts seems like a fiendish plot to keep you from reach­ing the town cen­tre. Crav­ing a sight of the cathe­dral to give one some con­fi­dence of ac­tu­ally reach­ing it, your eyes seize on an im­pos­ing struc­ture stand­ing on a rise a lit­tle above the town, two colos­sal pin­na­cled tow­ers loom­ing over the mun­dane sub­urbs, like elab­o­rate pro­jec­tiles stark against the soft lines of the melan­cholic

grain si­los and vats of the nearby ce­ment works. At last the cathe­dral! But no, for as one draws nearer, it be­comes clear these are once mighty ru­ined tow­ers with be­neath them noth­ing more than the crum­bling out­lines of a clois­ter and a rough lawn ex­hibit­ing a scat­ter­ing of fallen ma­sonry. The gi­ant cir­cu­lar hole of the skele­tal rose win­dow filled only with sky leaves a strangely cold feel­ing there on the windy ridge and crows seem aware of this, as, tugged by the wind, they lift and lower onto the ledges and crevices of the sto­ical de­jected façade. There, a few die-hard saints and a cru­elly weath­ered vir­gin some­how re­main against the odds, stood help­lessly on their ped­i­ments and in niches wait­ing for the fi­nal chap­ter of their van­ish­ing, the last pas­sen­gers on this slowly wrecked ves­sel star­ing out ques­tion­ingly into the gaseous murk hang­ing over the town.

Up close the supreme des­o­la­tion of this ruin sten­cilled against the sky is en­tirely at odds with the re­doubtable al­most al­lur­ing impression it ex­udes from a dis­tance. Ro­man­tic po­ten­tial turns slowly for the on­looker to de­spon­dency and a re­signed re­treat through the lit­ter of oth­ers ear­lier ex­pec­ta­tions. The trav­eller has been de­ceived and must look else­where for the cathe­dral. En­ter­ing Sois­sons proper it is im­me­di­ately clear that the lo­ca­tion of the cathe­dral is not im­pres­sive, not in the man­ner of Chartres of course, but even Amiens or Rouen seem ma­jes­ti­cally sited and re­gally dom­i­nant in com­par­i­son. Here in Sois­sons, the cathe­dral seems left be­hind, a hin­drance to moder­nity, hid­den be­tween streets as if for­got­ten, a folly amidst the dull ma­te­rial con­cerns of the sur­round­ing mod­ern town. Given its tremen­dous size, this state­ment might seem odd, but there it squats in the cen­tre of the town, its great bulk like an in­valided ves­sel per­ma­nently in dry dock, or a stricken an­i­mal around which the de­ter­mined in­sect life of the pop­u­lace con­tin­ues. But on ap­proach there is no clear sign of the en­trance or the main por­tal and one is obliged to walk around the dark hulk wait­ing for the front to show it­self with all the ev­i­dent splen­dour and drama that cus­tom­ar­ily awaits. But here only a nar­row un­re­mark­able side road leads un­con­vinc­ingly to a non­de­script park­ing area be­side the sym­me­try of the three porches. Be­fore this once im­pos­ing en­trance, lies a mod­est func­tional grey bricked space, lack­ing trees, benches or any real civic pride, noth­ing to de­lay peo­ple here, to cel­e­brate the build­ing close to

them. In or­der to take a wider im­age of the façade, I found my­self back­ing into a builders yard and al­most tripped over a bag of ce­ment. The dif­fer­ence with Noyon, for ex­am­ple, with its im­pres­sive cres­cent of old merchant houses or Laon, dra­mat­i­cally po­si­tioned atop its fortress hill is strik­ing. No, here at Sois­sons the cathe­dral seems to have lost the con­fi­dence of its im­me­di­ate streets, who seem to shy away from it, as if pre­oc­cu­pied or even ashamed of the be­he­moth loom­ing over them. The mod­ern town seems to be­grudge this ed­i­fice at its heart and the din of life on the main thor­ough­fares has is­sued a dec­la­ra­tion of il­lig­iti­mate supremacy over that vast empty tur­bine hall of the spirit an­chored there in its midst.

If there is noth­ing to sig­nal one has ar­rived at a great cathe­dral in terms of its sit­u­a­tion, then there is even less so in terms of its ap­pear­ance from the out­side, which is de­cid­edly un­der­whelm­ing. The cathe­dral seems to be ges­tur­ing that it is worn out. One tower is miss­ing, sug­gest­ing an an­i­mal whose ear has been torn off in a fight. Hav­ing suf­fered a rain of shrap­nel and bul­lets in two world wars last cen­tury this is hardly sur­pris­ing. The whole ex­te­rior is pock­marked and gouged by bom­bard­ment and the cathe­dral was, at least on the sur­face, ren­dered a crip­ple, a mon­u­men­tal in­valid. It re­calls the cathe­dral and cloth hall in Ypres, Flan­ders, and as there, in Sois­sons an in­ge­nious re­build­ing pro­gramme en­sured the cathe­dral was re­con­structed al­most to its orig­i­nal state. But this re­con­struc­tion could not hide the scars of con­flict and yet be­cause of its war-rav­aged fate, and de­spite its mori­bund ap­pear­ance Sois­sons ex­udes a cer­tain char­ac­ter and con­trary per­haps to first im­pres­sions, feels more and more like a liv­ing and evolv­ing ed­i­fice not a mau­soleum. Its walls, roof ar­chi­tec­ture and ti­tanic pil­lars have a uni­fied voice, which when sanc­ti­fied by the light cast from the clerestory win­dows makes its in­te­rior im­pos­si­ble to for­get. But I was still out­side the cathe­dral when I first wit­nessed this ex­tra­or­di­nary light. For some rea­son on this par­tic­u­lar week­day morn­ing when visi­tors were so few, they had de­cided to sud­denly open all the main doors. This is rare in my ex­pe­ri­ence. Usu­ally visi­tors must make do with the side door, but here the main doors were flung wide and there­fore still out on the ‘square’ some fifty me­tres away, I was granted the most mov­ing sight, as the im­pos­si­bly glow­ing and ra­di­ant in­te­rior ap­peared darkly

framed by the outer cas­ing of the build­ing. This was like look­ing through a win­dow into a lit house, at night in win­ter, where ev­ery­thing be­yond the framed im­age re­mained dark, cold and in­dif­fer­ent. The eyes were drawn ir­re­sistibly through that aper­ture to the hearth-like warmth and what beck­oned be­yond. The con­trast with the oner­ous di­shev­elled ex­te­rior, the dented ar­mour and this foun­tain of light and vi­tal­ity gush­ing forth was pro­found, al­most su­per­nat­u­ral. To see the in­side of a Gothic cathe­dral or abbey but to still be on the out­side is an un­for­get­table thing. The sheer power over the medieval pop­u­lace as they ap­proached the en­trance in this man­ner must have been over­whelm­ing. There could be no doubt then of the power and au­thor­ity which awaited their nec­es­sary fi­delity. What made this spec­ta­cle all the more mov­ing was that I ap­peared to be the only per­son present, apart from who­ever had mys­te­ri­ously opened the doors.

I had read that Sois­son’s trump card in the Gothic cathe­dral pack was that it mir­rored the har­mony of the early and late Gothic pe­ri­ods found at Chartres, but on a much smaller scale, mak­ing it a more in­ti­mate cathe­dral to ex­pe­ri­ence. On en­ter­ing this seemed not to be un­true. The first feel­ing from a novice such as my­self was of a per­fect har­mony of scale, light and ma­te­rial sub­stance. All the con­trasts of stone, light and colour felt ide­ally bal­anced, as if chore­ographed, a pal­pa­ble sense of ar­chi­tec­tural ful­fil­ment ex­isted, in con­trast say to the un­set­tling feel­ing en­gen­dered by the ver­tig­i­nous arches of Beau­vais. In the up­per spa­ces, the light pour­ing in from the clerestory win­dows seemed to fer­ment in the vault and around the mas­sive pil­lars, (some still bear­ing their shrap­nel wounds) cloak­ing the lower spa­ces in an ir­re­sistibly warm gold that seemed some­how to nour­ish the fil­i­gree of stone joint­ing, the ribs and ar­cades, en­abling the whole to re­assert it­self over and again, to re­fill its self end­lessly, so the ef­fect on the viewer was to hold them spell­bound at each new glance and from ev­ery an­gle si­mul­ta­ne­ously. The at­mos­phere was fur­ther height­ened by the sense of be­ing alone, though not in any sense iso­lated, no quite the op­po­site, the sense that I was a cru­cial con­trib­u­tor to this over­all am­biance by my pres­ence. The rel­a­tively nar­row nave en­cour­aged the impression of height, but a height al­ways in har­mony with the other di­men­sions, so that each per­fectly judged the other’s in­di­vid­ual com­mit­ment to the whole. This was

a con­ver­sa­tion which when over­heard one in­stinc­tively wanted to join.

But this struc­tural har­mony of nave and choir is only sur­passed by the ex­quis­ite south transept, which is rightly vaunted as one of the cathe­dral’s prin­ci­pal trea­sures. On a day of sun, this sanc­tu­ary which dates from the twelfth cen­tury must rate as one of the most mov­ing and en­chant­ing the­atres of light on stone in ex­is­tence. With a half moon of suc­ces­sive arched gal­leries stacked one atop an­other and grace­ful pil­lars in rows lead­ing the pil­grim through to a hon­ey­comb of chapels, with bays and tri­fo­ri­ums held to­gether by slen­der col­umns, and not for­get­ting the beau­ti­ful fo­liage carved string course, all flows up­wards in elo­quently di­min­ish­ing di­men­sions to­wards the vault. To sit awhile en­closed by this an­cient hon­eyed stone with the light dap­pling the medieval stalls and stone slabs is that rare ex­pe­ri­ence of hear­ing the mys­te­ri­ous in­ter­weav­ing in the notes of re­lated nu­ances. To re­main in this ex­trav­a­gantly spir­i­tual yet mod­est space one feels sud­denly pro­tected, per­haps sim­ply by beauty it­self and the loyal hon­our guard of older deep-rooted truths and although this may be a de­cep­tion, it feels right that the de­cep­tion in this place is so per­sua­sive. Fol­low­ing the south transept the am­bu­la­tory has a hard act to fol­low and in some ways can only be an af­ter­word to what has gone be­fore, a gen­tle know­ing hand to lift you down from the lofty heights of light and arch, from the dizzy­ing walk­ways of in­ward trav­el­ling en­ergy. There is a calm­ness in walk­ing here with each new side chapel loom­ing with its own dis­tinc­tive brand of ac­cou­trements and re­li­gious trin­kets, paint­ings and gob­lets, ta­pes­tries or a dust-caked sar­coph­a­gus of a saint whose once splen­did shroud has long since been ground to a fine grey pow­der by time.

Ex­it­ing the cathe­dral into the mean-spir­ited square, I looked back au­to­mat­i­cally to check if what I had just ex­pe­ri­enced was not a hal­lu­ci­na­tion and with more in­ten­sity did I note the cu­ri­ous im­bal­ance of the sur­round­ings. How­ever, per­haps in­ad­ver­tently these dull pro­vin­cial streets have in­su­lated this land­scape of en­chant­ment and art await­ing the ex­plorer, once those daunt­ing crim­son doors are breached or flung wide. Yes this im­mov­able bulk which the town is forced to cir­cum­vent, this stub­born bul­wark against which the slow wreck­ing ball of civic de­vel­op­ment harm­lessly

glances, will re­main, can­not be re­moved and is res­o­lutely tied to us. So when we en­ter that space it is not to en­ter a for­mer world pre­served and to gaze at it as de­tached visi­tors, to pick over his­tory, or to sate an idle cu­rios­ity, but rather to marvel at that over­ar­ch­ing will to ex­ist for per­pe­tu­ity con­cealed within the hu­man work­man­ship, artis­tic vi­sion, and the wil­fully col­lab­o­rat­ing nat­u­ral el­e­ments which have vis­i­bly as­sem­bled them­selves into the most har­mo­nious en­tente. Whether eight hun­dred years ago or now on an eas­ily spent win­ter’s day in Fe­bru­ary 2016, that mys­te­ri­ous alchemy prac­ticed in the understated ar­chi­tec­tural mir­a­cle of Sois­sons cathe­dral re­asserts it­self as a process right­fully be­yond the bounds of the hu­man imag­i­na­tion, be­yond any epoch, in de­fi­ance of lin­ear time it­self.

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