Hugolian Gothic

Graham Robb

  • The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame: Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity by Michael Camille
    Chicago, 439 pp, £34.00, June 2009, ISBN 978 0 226 09245 4

It was Victor Hugo who first brought the water evacuation system of Notre-Dame cathedral to the world’s attention. The central character of Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) was like a living gargoyle, a tortured ‘bundle of disordered limbs’ swinging furiously on bell-ropes, scrambling over the face of Notre-Dame, dislodging the crows, as he leaped ‘from projection to projection’. ‘Sometimes, in an obscure corner of the church, one came upon a sort of living chimera, crouching and scowling; it was Quasimodo deep in thought.’ In 1831, the original 13th-century gargoyles and chimeras had long since vanished, and most of their later medieval replacements had decayed beyond recognition. Some of those leering, limestone conduits had crashed to the ground, as though impatient to get their blunt teeth and claws into the sinners below. When Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc began his restoration of the cathedral in 1843, he had little to go on but a few featureless stumps and badly weathered monsters lying about the garden behind the apse.

As Michael Camille points out, gargoyles bear the brunt of the weather: they are part of ‘the exoderm of the edifice’, eroded by the water they channel away from the building. They were never intended to last, which might account for their flippancy or irreverence: they were temporary, decorative items; like court jesters, they could express unpleasant truths. The other projecting sculptures, known as chimeras, have no such excuse, and no one knows for certain in what spirit those fish-lipped mutants, flesh-tearing ghouls and masturbating demons were produced. Camille supposes that the medieval artist, ‘in order not to be unnerved by the evil eyes of the devils he was called upon to carve, often ridiculed them’. If so, the devils had the last word: was it really a fearful, superstitious artist who carved the little imp in the central portal (one of Viollet-le-Duc’s favourites), whose tongue protrudes in concentration as he buggers a king with a stick?

The first readers of Hugo’s novel who gazed up at the scene of Quasimodo’s acrobatics must have been disappointed. In 1831, Notre-Dame was a blackened husk, softened by centuries of rain into a hideous, warty mass. An early daguerreotype of the west front shows what Camille describes as ‘a disintegrating patchwork pile’. It looks like a tenement cathedral, designed to fit in with its slum surroundings. Viollet-le-Duc called it ‘a ruin’. Whenever Notre-Dame was used for a national ceremony, it was covered with awnings, festooned with cardboard sculptures and dressed in whichever architectural style happened to be in vogue. It was not until 1864 that the restored cathedral was unveiled and Hugo’s historical vision was vindicated. It seemed as though the old church had finally recovered its ‘fantastic, supernatural, horrible’ appearance: ‘eyes and mouths were opened here and there; one heard the barking of the dogs, the wyverns and the stone dragons, which keep watch night and day, with outstretched neck and open jaws, around the monstrous cathedral.’

Apart from its horns and folded wings, one of the restored chimeras might have been the spitting image of ‘Quasimodo deep in thought’. In fact, the similarity was hardly surprising since Hugo’s novel had been one of Viollet-le-Duc’s models. People who jokingly referred to Notre-Dame as ‘Victor Hugo’s cathedral’ were closer to the truth than they knew. The sculptures that jutted out all over the towers and galleries and gave the cathedral its creepy, horripilating appearance were not just restorations, they were up to the minute examples of Hugolian Gothic.

There had been very few projecting figures in Viollet-le-Duc’s original proposal. He had been trying to keep the estimated cost as low as possible, and to reassure the restoration committee, one of whose members, Charles de Montalembert, had warned that modern architects would never be content with slavish restoration: they would make it up as they went along, adding all sorts of anachronistic detail. Once the proposal was accepted, Viollet-le-Duc began to sketch the monsters that would come to be seen as the essence of medieval art. He scoured Notre-Dame and other Gothic cathedrals for chimerical remnants: the humanoid face of a bird of prey, the decaying mouth of a dragon, a pair of claws attached to a crumbling balustrade. As he drew, he thought of satirical cartoons and the 1844 illustrated edition of Notre-Dame de Paris; he remembered his own Romantic vignettes for Voyages pittoresques et romantiques dans l’ancienne France; he imagined gryphons, unicorns and vampires, and pondered the strangeness of elephants, pelicans, cats and goats.

Most of his demons snarled or screamed, but they appeared to be looking out over the city at nothing in particular, often with a peculiarly vacant expression: ‘eyes characteristic of people on public transport’, Camille says, paraphrasing Walter Benjamin. The customers of Viollet-le-Duc’s ‘factory’ for ‘the mass production of the medieval’ were not medieval themselves, and so there was to be no buggering of kings, and only one (faintly Goya-esque) demon snacking on human flesh. Instead of Satan’s gleeful little torturers, there was a ‘crouching dog with grapes’, a ‘horned demon squashing a toad’ and a sparrow dressed up as an eagle.

Viollet-le-Duc’s sketches of monsters, along with those of his colleague Jean-Baptiste Lassus, were converted into Soissons limestone (which is unfortunately softer than the original Paris limestone) by a carver called Victor Pyanet. Camille considers Pyanet ‘an incredibly gifted sculptor’ and an unsung hero. Gargoyle carvers were low down the hierarchy: they followed an architect’s drawings and had to work quickly. It’s probably unfair to expect the litheness and delicate personality traits of the sketched monsters to survive the chisel, but a comparison of the drawings and the carvings suggests that Pyanet was adequately compensated for his work (350 francs a chimera, which would have kept an artisan’s family in reasonable comfort for almost half a year). Perhaps, though, the stiltedness of Pyanet’s figures, and their vacant expressions, imbued them with a remoteness that could be interpreted as ‘medieval’.

Camille, who died in 2002, witnessed the most recent restoration of Notre-Dame, and evidently knew the forest of demons and monsters almost as well as the sculptors who recarved them. He scoured every possible source for reactions to the carvings. The masterpiece, in Camille’s view, was the pensive, two-horned, jug-eared demon that came to be known, after an engraving by Charles Méryon, as ‘le Stryge’ (a masculinised she-devil of the night). It rests its chin on its hands, and its elbows on the balustrade of the west front, apparently contemplating something unwholesome, either in the world outside or in its own evil mind. This is the ‘star’ of Camille’s study: ‘an “icon” of modern gargoyleness … this statue remains as elusive today as when he was carved sometime between 1848 and 1850.’ True to his word, Camille circles around it ‘again and again … in an attempt to surmise the subject of his stony stare’.

Much of the book is a comprehensive semiotic description of the Stryge. Its long fingernails are those of a female vampire, its head a specimen of phrenological abnormalities, its hooked nose a reminder of its creator’s anti-semitism. The Stryge and its cohorts are incarnations of bourgeois fears: of disease and prostitution, of the ‘wild animals’ of the June 1848 revolt, of atavistic tendencies in the human ape, of the intangible demons of madness. The whole silently screaming cathedral, as restored by Viollet-le-Duc, is a monument to the neuroses of the mid-19th century.

Camille goes on to show how large these inscrutable figures loom in later periods. When Freud first came to Paris, at the age of 29, to study hysteria under Charcot, he liked to climb about ‘between the monsters and the devils’ of Notre-Dame. But the real monsters were in the street: ‘the people seem to me of a different species from ourselves … They are a people given to physical epidemics, historical mass convulsions, and they haven’t changed since Victor Hugo wrote Notre-Dame.’ For some, according to Camille, the chimeras were emblems of ‘the phallic male gaze’ or of unbridled female sexuality. For others, they were ‘cosmic antennae’ and guardians of esoteric mysteries. Later still, they were food for any fantasy that needed a charismatic ancient figure: the Stryge has served as a caricature of Kaiser Wilhelm II, a Nazified Jew, a gay icon. Versions of the gargoyles appeared on the Chrysler Building and in Gotham City.

As Camille insists, ‘just because Viollet-le-Duc argued that such sculptures … have no deep symbolic content does not mean we have to see them as innocent decoration.’ On the other hand, the inevitably subjective and occasionally tenuous connections suggested by Camille tend to reduce the statues to modelling clay that can be moulded into shapes to fit the theories. Was the Stryge really a product of the architect’s neuroses, and was Viollet-le-Duc ‘wrestling with the chimeras of his imagination’? For that matter, was the Stryge even created by Viollet-le-Duc? Camille admits that the original drawing might have been the work of the other restorer-architect, Lassus. Like anyone else, no doubt, Viollet-le-Duc was a mass of unconscious fears and unrealisable fantasies, but he was also a serious and practical architect. For him, Camille writes, the gargoyles were not representatives of demonic forces but ‘critical components of his coherent and functional view of the Gothic’. ‘Nothing for him was more modern, more functional than the gargoyle.’

The restorer of Notre-Dame was a man who lived in the present and revelled in his functional role. His remarks on drains and guttering are at least as interesting as the alleged contents of his unconscious mind. The drainage section of his Entretiens sur l’architecture (1863), for example, gives a vivid impression of what it was like to live in mid-19th-century Paris: ‘The fashion for “majestic” architecture ignores these necessities, and yet, after all, it does rain in France.’ Over the seven centuries since the construction of Notre-Dame, the rain had gradually gained the upper hand. Gothic architects ‘turned this necessity into a decorative motif: they made their spouts and guttering clearly visible so that they could easily be maintained and replaced.’ Modern architects had treated the rain as an embarrassing and corrosive discharge of the heavens. They hid their downpipes in masonry, which meant that leaks were discovered only when damp patches appeared and plaster walls began to collapse. ‘One would have to see it to believe it,’ Viollet-le-Duc wrote: there were garrets traversed by ‘a little canal covered with a plank’, which the inhabitant could use as a source of running water. In some rooms, one could barely make oneself heard above the gushing stream. The pseudo-medieval gargoyles of Notre-Dame were a streamlined architectural solution to an ancient problem.

By letting himself loose in the semiotic jungle of gargoyles and chimeras, Camille shows that Notre-Dame is not just a relatively well preserved medieval masterpiece, it is also one of the great monuments of the Romantic age. Anyone who has looked up at the Louvre and spotted a carving of a steam locomotive knows that not all the ancient monuments of Paris are as old as they seem. Viollet-le-Duc’s restoration of Notre-Dame was an unusually subtle and successful example of modernisation. The carvings, of course, have aged, but in strange and complicated ways, which Camille has traced with a pleasantly obsessive attention to apparently small and ridiculous details.

Viollet-le-Duc’s ‘factory’ has proved to be an astonishingly lucrative enterprise. Long after the death of its founding director, the factory has gone on producing: the monsters have posed for a million photographs; their screaming jaws have softened, allowing everyone to believe that their power has waned and that only medieval peasants ever found them frightening. Their death warrant was signed by Disney in 1996. Accepting the challenge of ‘the essential darkness of Hugo’s tale’, the film-makers invented three lovable gargoyles – Victor, Laverne and Hugo – who celebrate the amusing wrong-headedness of medieval superstition and our own enlightened blamelessness. ‘The end of Disney’s film,’ Camille writes, is ‘unbearably life affirming.’ It contains, as Benjamin said of Disney’s earliest films, ‘not the slightest seed of mortification’.

But the real gargoyles were about to prove that they hadn’t finished yet. In 1996, Notre-Dame was undergoing yet another restoration. While shops around the Ile de la Cité were selling Disney merchandise, gargoyle mouse-mats, howling, motion-sensing Stryges and the like, something weird was happening under the plastic sheeting and the scaffolding. When the sheeting was removed, the gargoyles and chimeras were seen, once again, in what was supposed to be their original eeriness. Yet something had changed: some of the monsters wore a smirk; others had an unmistakeably fatuous, goofy look about them. An unseen, irresistible power had been guiding the restorers’ hands. The monsters had morphed into something far more frightening than the Day of Judgment. The great symbol of Gallic continuity and tradition had been colonised by the minions of globalised American mass culture. The demonic menagerie was still manufacturing horribly plausible nightmares: Notre-Dame had been Disneyfied, and only the cleansing acid of rain and pollution will restore it to inscrutability. Meanwhile, the new, cleaned-up Stryge is licking his lips in anticipation of the McDonald’s that is about to open in the Carrousel du Louvre.