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“Notre-Dame de Paris is the most satisfactory summary of hermetic science.” (Victor Hugo)

While Quasimodo was wandering around the heights of Notre-Dame, sharing his sufferings with the gargoyles, the archdeacon Claude Frollo was absorbed in the hermetic symbols of the front of the cathedral. And more particularly in one that no longer exists: the raven.

Victor Hugo describes Frollo « calculating the angle of vision of that raven which belongs to the left front, and which is looking at a mysterious point inside the church, where is concealed the philosopher’s stone ». Hugo adds that this « page of incantation written in stone » is the work of Guillaume of Paris. The latter is supposed to have concealed the stone (maybe Nicolas Flamel’s) in one of the pilars of the nave.

An other tradition, coming from Gobineau of Montluisant in the 17th century, tells about of stone raven in the arch of the central door; its eyes would face the place where are hidden “the sun beams that will turn into gold after one thousand years and diamand after three thousand.” The alchemist Fulcanelli, in his Mysteries of the cathedrals (1926), confirms this belief.

But several interrogations remain. First, who really was Guillaume of Paris? There was a bishop, Guillaume of Auvergne (theology teacher and bishop of Paris from 1228 to 1249), who would correspond to the name given by Hugo. But little is known of his alchemical or esoterical vocation, or his contribution to the building of the cathedral, except that he gave the south tower bell. The name of the bishop Guillaume Chartier pops up too, but doesn’t fit the dates of the building of Notre-Dame. (he died in 1472 whereas the cathedral was almost achieved at the end of the 13th century). Or may it be Guillaume, great inquisitor of Paris, whom Philippe IV missionned in the infamous date of October 13th, 1307 to arrest all the Templars of the kingdom of France?

Would the philosophers’ stone be a symbol of the mysterious treasure of the Templars, subject of all the greed and all the fictions throughout centuries?

Then, the raven itself no longer exists (provided it ever existed), like many other architectural pieces from the front of the cathedral. Hugo writes that it was located on the left portal, the portal of the Virgin, but where exactly? Must one consider the dove medaillon, allegory of Humility (in which Fulcanelli sees the raven of the alchemists), a symbol of the materia prima and of putrefaction? Or maybe one of the doves of the portal of the Virgin? “In this part of the hall was once sculpted the main hieroglyph of our practice: the raven. Major element of the hermetic blazon, the raven of Notre Dame has always had a strong attraction on the peat of the blowers, for an old legend said it was the one lair of a sacred treasure.” (Fulcanelli, op. cit.)

One tradition tells about the Wise Virgins inside the right arch of the central portal, under the Last Judgment scene; one of them, with an explicit gesture, is supposed to be pointing at the stone bird. But the details are indistinct and the texts remain a bit blurry between esoteric symbolism and architectural reality. Can one exclude a secular interpretation of the word “raven”, which indicates in architecture a projecting element of stone, wood or metal that supports a beam or a girder?

Notre Dame de Paris has long been a meeting point for alchemists who would gather under the portals of St Marcel, St Anne and the Last Judgment. Yet is it more than this “book of stone” which Hugo wrote about? Did its stones contain some unconceivable treasure? Had the father of Esmeralda made his heroine the embodiement of the “emerald of the wise” or the “philosophers’ mercury” of the old spagyric tradition?

Let Gerard de Nerval and his “Golden verses” have the final word:

Often a hidden god inhabits obscure being;
And like an eye, born, covered by its eyelids,
Pure spirit grows beneath the surface of stones!

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Pendant que Quasimodo errait sur les hauteurs de Notre-Dame, partageant ses souffrances avec les gargouilles, l’archidiacre Claude Frollo, quant à lui, se gorgeait des symboles hermétiques contenus sur la façade de la cathédrale ou, plus précisément, d’un symbole aujourd’hui disparu : le corbeau.

Victor Hugo décrit Frollo « calculant l’angle du regard de ce corbeau qui tient au portail de gauche et qui regarde dans l’église un point mystérieux où est certainement cachée la pierre philosophale ». Hugo ajoute que c’est à l’évêque Guillaume de Paris qu’on doit « cette page de grimoire écrite en pierre ». C’est lui qui aurait caché la pierre (peut-être celle de Nicolas Flamel) dans l’un des piliers de la nef.

Une autre tradition, rapportée au XVIIe siècle par Gobineau de Montluisant, parle d’un corbeau de pierre sur les voussures de la porte centrale qui aurait l’œil dirigé vers le lieu où sont cachés « les rayons de soleil qui se transformeront en or au bout de mille ans et diamant au bout de trois mille ans ». L’alchimiste Fulcanelli, dans le Mystères des cathédrales (1926), confirme ces croyances.

Mais plusieurs questions demeurent. Tout d’abord, qui fut ce Guillaume de Paris ? S’il y a bien eu un évêque correspondant à celui dont parle Hugo, Guillaume d’Auvergne (professeur de théologie et évêque de Paris de 1228 à 1249), on sait peu de choses sur sa quelconque vocation alchimique ou ésotérique et participation à la construction de la cathédrale si ce n’est qu’il offrit la cloche de la tour sud. On évoque également le nom de l’évêque Guillaume Chartier, mais il ne correspond en rien aux dates de la construction de Notre-Dame (il est mort en 1472 alors que la cathédrale était quasiment achevée à la fin du XIIIe siècle). Ou pourrait-il s’agir de Guillaume, grand Inquisiteur de Paris, à qui Philippe IV confia, en cette date fameuse du 13 octobre 1307, l’arrestation de tous les Templiers du royaume de France ?

La pierre philosophale serait-elle alors une sorte de symbole du mystérieux trésor des Templiers, objet de toutes les convoitises et de toutes les fictions au cours des siècles ?

Ensuite, quant au corbeau lui-même – si tant est qu’il ait jamais existé – il a aujourd’hui disparu (comme beaucoup d’autres éléments architecturaux) de la façade de la cathédrale. Hugo précise qu’il se trouvait sur le portail de gauche, le portail de la Vierge, mais à quel emplacement exact ? Faut-il considérer le médaillon à la colombe, allégorie de l’Humilité, dans lequel Fulcanelli voit le corbeau des alchimistes, symbole de la materia prima et de la putréfaction ? Ou encore l’une des colombes du portail de la Vierge ?
« C’est dans cette partie du porche que se trouvait sculptée autrefois l’hiéroglyphe majeur de notre pratique : le corbeau. Principale figure du blason hermétique, le corbeau de Notre-Dame avait, de tout temps, exercé une attraction très vive sur la tourbe des souffleurs : c’est qu’une vieille légende le désignait comme l’unique repère d’un dépôt sacré. » (Fulcanelli, op. cit.)

Une tradition invoque les Vierges Sages contenues dans le piédroit du portail central, sous la scène du Jugement dernier, dont l’une d’elles désignerait l’oiseau de pierre par sa position explicite. Mais les indications sont imprécises, et le discours se brouille souvent entre symbolisme ésotérique et réalité architecturale. Peut-on exclure une interprétation profane du mot corbeau, qui désigne en architecture un élément saillant de pierre, bois ou métal destiné à soutenir une poutre ou un linteau ?

On sait que Notre-Dame de Paris a longtemps été un lieu de rendez-vous des alchimistes qui se rencontraient sous les portails de St Marcel, de St Anne et du Jugement dernier. Mais est-elle plus que ce livre de pierre qu’évoquait Hugo ? Ses pierres renferment-t-elle quelque inimaginable trésor ? Le créateur d’Esmeralda avait-il compris que la cathédrale renfermait quelque inimaginable trésor, et fait de son héroïne l’incarnation de cette « émeraude des sages » ou « mercure philosophique » de la tradition spagirique ?

Laissons donc le dernier mot aux Vers dorés de Gérard de Nerval :

« Souvent dans l’être obscur habite un Dieu caché ;
Et comme un œil naissant couvert par ses paupières,
Un pur esprit s’accroît sous l’écorce de pierre. »

NB : cet article est paru originellement sur le webzine de Julie Cathédrale

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The exhibition dedicated to Grand Paris currently held at la
Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine untill November 22nd is a must see for whoever is interested in the future of Paris and its region.

grand_paris_cite

10 teams of architects were asked by President Sarkozy to present their projects for Paris in the next 20 years. This exhibition reveals the results of their intense cogitations. These teams are multidisciplinary and include architects, landscapers, sociologists, philosophers, research laboratories, etc. Three of these teams are international.

These proposals aim at finding creative solutions for the challenges that Paris will have to face in the near future such as providing a better transportation system, improving housing conditions, overcoming the boundaries that cuts Paris from its suburbs, reinforcing Paris weight in the global economy, and making it post-Kyoto compatible.

The spirit of this exhibition reminds me of one of May 68 catchphrase “l’imagination au pouvoir” (“let imagination rule“). The boundaries of Paris are certainly easier to identify than the limits of most architects minds. The good (and less good) ideas featured are so numerous that it would be vain for me to try to expose them all here. Instead, I will give a shortlist of my likes and dislikes.

Likes:

  • Creating a Central Park in la Courneuve (Roland Castro). I would feel like visiting Seine-St-Denis at least once in my life. In fact, I enjoyed listening to Roland Castro video presentation, both poetic and political, and I am quite seduced when he insists on finding ways to improve the sense of belonging to one’s place.
  • Building “vertical eco-estates” with mixed use (Jean Nouvel). I love scryscrapers provided they are elegantly designed and harmoniously set in the urban landscape. Unfortunately, many towers in France owe more to Stalinian architecture than to Manhattan towers.
  • Merging Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est into a new station in Aubervilliers and linking it to the historic center by a green route (Portzamparc).
  • A 7km Park between Gare du Nord and St Denis containing amenities and housing that crosses the Périphérique via landscaped or inhabited bridges (Richard Rogers). An interesting attempt to cure a city whose “heart is so separate from the limbs”.

grand_paris_jaime

Dislikes:

  • A new overhead metro running above boulevard Périphérique (Portzamparc). Why not just simply rehabilitate the Petite ceinture instead ?
  • Creating a continuous city along the Seine river between Paris and Le Havre (Antoine Grumbach). Though Napoleon himself stated “Paris, Rouen, Le Havre, une seule et même ville dont la Seine est la grande rue” (“Paris-Rouen-Le Havre: one single city with the Seine as its main road“), I am more prone to trust Bonaparte’s strategic skills than his sense of pre-surrealistic poetry.
  • Building a tower on square du Vert galant (Roland Castro). The mere idea of it is a crime de lèse-urbanisme !

grand_paris_rouen_havre_seine

All in all, I would say this exhibition is a very good way to stimulate your imagination and will provide a long list of subjects to feed your conversations de dîners en ville.

However, be aware that this event is successful. So if you want to be à la page, come early ! Indeed, the length of the queue waiting in front of the Palais de Chaillot last Saturday afternoon may indicate the concern of Parisians for the future of their city as well as their propensity to chose indoor activities during rainy weekends.

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When it comes to drawing a metaphorical comparison between Paris and New York City – though comparing these two cities is probably impossible -, my favorite literary image is that of Louis-Ferdinand Céline in his famous Journey to the End of the Night, describing his arrival in New York.

Figurez-vous qu’elle était debout leur ville, absolument droite. New York c’est une ville debout. On en avait déjà vu nous des villes bien sûr, et des belles encore, et des ports et des fameux même. Mais chez nous, n’est-ce pas, elles sont couchées les villes, au bord de la mer ou sur les fleuves, elles s’allongent sur le paysage, elles attendent le voyageur, tandis que celle-là l’Américaine, elle ne se pâmait pas, non, elle se tenait bien raide, là, pas baisante du tout, raide à faire peur.
Louis Ferdinad Céline, Voyage au Bout de la Nuit, 1932

Just imagine, that city was standing absolutely erect. New York was a standing city. Of course we’d seen cities, fine ones too, and magnificent seaports. But in our part of the world cities lie along the seacoast or on rivers, they recline on the landscape, awaiting the traveler, while this American city had nothing languid about her, she stood there as stiff as a board, not seductive at all, terrifying still.
Journey to the End of the Night, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Translated by Ralph Manheim, 2006

With a few aesthetically questionable exceptions such as the Eiffel and Montparnasse towers, and in its peripheral areas – like the surroundings of Place d’Italie in the XIIIe and the Front de Seine in the XVe – Paris skyline is devoid of skyscrapers.

Urban regulations, dating from Henry IV have narrowly controlled the use of materials, shape and height of Paris constructions. These rulings first aimed at preventing fires as they forbid the use of timbers and bow windows considered to be more vulnerable to flames. Height limitations obey to rules depending on the geographic situation (strict limits apply in the historical center) and the width of the street (the larger the street, the higher the building can be). 20 meters being the maximum authorised height.

Synagogue rue Pavée par Hector Guimard - 1913

Synagogue rue Pavée par Hector Guimard - 1913

Architects have had to use their imagination to find ways to express grandeur while overcoming these physical restrictions. The picture on the left shows a synagogue built by Hector Guimard in the 1910’s. Its curved facade punctuated with columns of oblong twin windows creates a sense of verticality that conjures up the spirit of Manhattan houses when seen from below. Ironically, Hector Guimard, once a leading architect of the Modern style (Art Nouveau) emigrated to New York in 1938 where he died in oblivion in 1942.

In New York, developers can freely trade air rights according to the following latin legal concept Cuius est solum, eius est usque ad caelum et ad inferos (“To whoever owns the land, shall belong the earth to its center and up to the heavens”). The only limits usually being financial.

Today, most Parisians stand against the growth of new towers in their city. Few are the Parisians proud of Tour Montparnasse. Instead, they think skyscrapers would break the harmony and stillness of the capital. In Paris, history not only infiltrates the wall, but also hearts and minds. However the current city officials have recently unearthed plans to facilitate such projects. But who knows if such plans will ever be carried out?

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