Burgundian Romanesque, etc.
December 2003

My high school art teacher, Mr Phelan of Alfred-Almond Central School, introduced me to Spanish Romanesque mural painting and when I got to college and grad school, I continued to put Romanesque and Ottonian art on the top of the list of favorite art. While my tastes are eclectic, my love of the art of the 10th to 12th centuries has not abated. So, when determining where I would go in Europe this fall, Burgundy with its Romanesque churches was the final choice, over earlier thoughts of Portugal or Vienna.

I flew to Paris on the 1st of December and back home on the 10th. Upon arriving in Paris, I went into the city to the Gare de Lyon and took the TGV (fast train) to Dijon which looked on the map like a nice central location, and it proved to be. I went without any hotel reservations and had no troubles finding places to stay at modest rates (40 to 58 euros a night).

After getting a hotel in Dijon (an Ibis near the station on the rue d'Arquebuse), I meandered in the jetlag haze and under mostly cloudy skies. Dijon was the capital of the dukes of Burgundy after they left Beaune, about which more anon. The travel literature showed the wonderful tiled roofs of Burgundy and some of the little Christmas shacks in the market square took over that theme with painted triangles on the roof. There are several interesting churches in Dijon, including a French baroque one that is now the Chamber of Commerce. The ducal palace is quite grand and was built over many centuries, with the 15th-century tower being open for climbing. The next day was brighter so the view over Dijon was nice and informative.

The Musée des beaux-arts had a special exhibition on Rembrandt and his school, mostly from the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg. Their permanent collection includes a delightful Nativity by Robert Campin and a bronze version of a Canova sculpture of Hercules with a foe slung over his shoulder (I love the marble version which is in Rome at the National Gallery of Modern Art). The Pulpit of Moses by Claus Sluter is now in a multi-windowed gazebo on the grounds of the Chartreuse de Champmol. The setting is not congenial but the sculptures are powerful. Sluter also sculpted some of the mourning figures on the tombs of the dukes which are in the ducal palace.

Around the streets of Dijon, there are many urban villas from the 16th through 18th centuries. Many of them are now occupied by associations but they are a compelling presence on the street, some with open courtyards and many with historic plaques. I imagine such villas would have been around Paris too but you are not aware of them (or maybe they've disappeared over time).

Before leaving New York, I reserved a rental car from Dijon. My Toyota Yaris (just the right size for a solo traveler on the back roads and village streets, a 2-door hatchback) and I left for Autun on the 4th. On the way to Autun, I stopped at Cîteaux (a famous Cistercian abbey now mostly replaced by modern buildings) and enjoyed the serenity. The guidebook also suggested stopping at the Château de Sully and the church in Curgy. The château was closed for the winter but the grounds were open. The main building is surrounded by a domestic-scale moat and has four corner turrets. It was lovely to walk around even though I didn't get inside. The church at Curgy is one of the purest of the early Romaneque churches in the region (the guidebook told me so) and it was lovely.

By mid-day, we (I think of it as "we" but it was just me and my Toyota) got to Autun cathedral with its glorious capitals and typanum. It is very interesting to see such great buildings in context. The front facade is quite crowded against the buildings across the street and the typanum is infested with pigeons. The Musée Rolin is across the street and has the extraordinary Eve overdoor lintel by the sculptor Gislebertus, one of the best known names from medieval sculpture. That museum is actually in the house built by Chancellor Rolin, who was a powerful noble in the Burgundian court and commissioned a number of very important works such as the Hôtel-Dieu in Beaune and a Madonna by Van Eyck. To see the whole museum, you have to go into the courtyard two or three times. Extra tidbits of aesthetic pleasure around Autun included a luscious academic painting by Nicolas Bertin of Anacreon and an amour, an eclectic villa now housing the Bridge Club, the night lights on the 1st-century Roman gate, and a sunset walk outside the medieval walls. My hotel in Autun that night was on the rue d'Arquebuse!?!

The next day was devoted to a loop North of Autun. It was foggy as I left Autun but the sun had broken through by the time I got to Saulieu. The organist was practicising as I entered the church of St Andoche, never a problem to have the organ being played in a medieval church. There are also wonderful capitals here. On to Vézelay, probably the greatest Romanesque church in the region. As you approach Vézelay, you can see it from several kilometers away. It shines on the hilltop but you need to go down to Saint-Père-sous-Vézelay and then back up. I parked at the edge and walked into town. The sunlight, by now, was dissolving the vision of the stones. The nave is Romanesque but the apse was rebuilt in gothic times; it is therefore much lighter and brighter. The view from the darker nave to the bright apse was wonderful. I love the low winter sun, it allows for such good light inside, and outside. I had told co-workers I was going for the sublime melancholy of Romanesque but the sunshine swept those feelings away.

On the way from Vézelay to Fontenay, I stopped in Montréal to find a card for my friend Judy Silverman who works in that other Montréal at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. It has a couple nice gates and a good-enough but locked church.

Fontenay is a Cistercian abbey tucked away in a valley. It has been privately owned since the early 19th century and was a paper mill for much of the 19th century. I arrived there as the sun was moving low in the sky. The sunlight was coming through the lightly-colored Cistercian glass and reflecting on the stone walls of the church -- one of the swoon moments of my trip. The whole abbey complex is breathtaking. Mrs Pfeiffenberger, one of my college art history teachers, was a great fan of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux who set many of the rules for the Cistercians and was a "foe" of the fancy Cluniacs, more anon. It wasn't, according to Mrs P, that he hated art but that he liked it simple, and Fontenay is simply splendid. The capitals in the church and cloister are simplified leaves and delightful. The family that now owns it lives in a few of the buildings.

On the way back toward Autun, I stopped for a bit in Semur en Auxois and had a view of the picturesque setting above the river before it got dark. Fog settled in again before I got to Autun and I just stayed at a motel on the edge of town.

The next day, the fog didn't lift but it was a wonderful fog, not a driving hazard but quite dramatic. My first stop was the Tibetan Buddhist temple Southwest of Autun, not open but the guidebook was right that it was an interesting bit of incongruity in the Burgundian countryside. On to Paray le Monial -- a great church with fabulous radiating chapels. Unfortunately, the interior was mostly under the wraps of reconstruction. Incredible stonework.

The next stop was the great abbey church of Cluny, now mostly destroyed but seeing it in a heavy fog and almost alone is splendid. It is possible to imagine, almost, what it must have been like when the great church was there. The forecourt is now named in honor of Kenneth John Conant, the American architectural historian who wrote much about it and similar topics, and who led the archeological work on the church. There is a chapel of a duke of Burgundy and a lot of buildings from several centuries, some of which are now used by the town of Cluny for municipal and other purposes.

Between Cluny and Tournus, I stopped at a couple smaller towns and got to Tournus with about an hour before dark. There are wonderful floor mosaics with astrological themes in the apse, with June and Gemini being part of the extant part. And there is a wonderful chapel above the narthex which has some windows which allow you to get nearer the painting in the nave arches. Since it was only about 5:30, it was way too early to really eat supper -- by French custom, more like 8 to 10 p.m. -- so I had a croque monsieur and decided to drive toward the next day's itinerary.

A couple hours later, I was in Dôle with its nice gothic church with a broad front. My hotel there was a lucky find -- one of those eureka moments when I noticed the "hotel" sign as I got back into the car after walking to the church. A nice small mom-and-pop place. The owner told me there were a couple other Americans staying there that night but I didn't see them. That was about as close as I got to other Americans too. I really didn't see any other recognizable Americans, except on the train and in Paris.

After breakfast at the hotel, I headed out for Arc et Senans and the royal saltworks designed by Claude-Nicholas Ledoux in the 1780s. You approach the saltworks straight on with the colonnade of the entrance building visible for the last kilometer or so. Wow! The day was cold and windy but bright. More swooning: the models in the museum space, the arrangement of the buildings, the playing with the classical vocabulary of architecture that has been such an inspiration for contemporary architects. The two hours between opening and the noon lunch break disappeared without any sense of time passing. The director's house now has an exhibition on utopian planning. Utopia is fabulous to visit but I'm not sure I'd want to live there. Here it was almost "crowded" -- there must have been at least another dozen visitors. For lunch, I went over to Salins which is only 25 kilometers away but into the Jura Mountains. It felt very much like a winter resort with time-share condos but has a nice city hall.

Then, back to Dijon to return the car. I stayed at a smaller hotel in the center of town for another two nights. More just general walking about in Dijon that evening and the next. The rental office wasn't open on Sunday afternoon so I left the car in the railroad station parking garage. The next morning, I returned the car and then took the train to Beaune.

The Hôtel Dieu (hospital for the poor) is a splendid building, commissioned by Chancellor Rolin mentioned earlier. The outer facade is plain with a brown roof, the courtyard has porches and a fanciful tiled roof. You are directed on a controlled path through the sick rooms and other facilities until you finally approach the masterpiece -- the Last Judgment by Rogier van der Weyden. The painting is wonderful but not, for me, a swooning moment. I was curious if the 19th-century restoration perhaps took off a bit of luster. Rogier's Deposition at the Prado in Madrid was a swooner as are other Rogier paintings. Perhaps it’s the long preparation: Last Judgment this way, just a few more rooms now. Beaune is definitely a touristic destination and I saw the biggest crowds here (Paris excepted). It reminds me of Bruges: smallish but cosmopolitan, geared to the visitor. I was however the only visitor at the wine museum which is in the ducal palace and was included on my all-museum ticket. There are still quite a few extant parts of the medieval walls and I wandered the streets for a couple hours, in addition to visiting the museums. The museum devoted to Etienne Marey (who did motion photography and is considered a precursor of cinematography) is closed in the winter.

Back to Dijon for the evening and on to Paris in the morning, with some apprehension about finding an affordable and central room. I had the name of a hotel (Hôtel du Centre) from a guidebook and knew the one I'd stayed in eighteen months before. The former had a room, the apprehension lifted, and the soul raced. I got a Pariscope (guide magazine, highly recommended, like Time out with museum listings and hours and other events, etc.) and discovered that the Musée Marmottan-Monet was open on Tuesdays and that the Louvre and Pompidou were closed. I walked from the hotel which is between the Louvre and Pompidou to the Marmottan which is beyond the Trocadero. The goal there was the Bazille show which was small but interesting. The museum is wonderful: a house museum with an underground wing of Monets. While the idea of a basement full of Monets might not get my attention, the collection has some wonderful paintings. After returning to the center, I walked over to Notre Dame -- another swoon moment as I realized I was in one of the great gothic cathedrals and had seen several of the Romanesque churches I'd known about for so long. Though I did not make it to all of the possible sites on this trip (e.g. the Corbusier church at Ronchamp and convent at La Tourette, each about 100 kilometers further than my loops; lots of Romanesque churches beyond the loops I ended up doing), it was a very rich trip but it's not over yet.

The next day before going to the airport, I went to the Louvre for a couple hours to visit some old friends like the Bosch "Ship of fools" and the Van Dycks, the Justinian ivory and a Deposition by Dirk Bouts. There was a crowd around the Rolin Madonna by Van Eyck so I didn't get close to that one this time. From the Louvre to the Centre Pompidou for the Jean Cocteau show. It was a magical installation with fine background music by Les Six and Edith Piaf. I wouldn't want all exhibitions so highly decorated and soundtracked but it worked this time. There was also a show devoted to Sophie Calle with thoughtful and provocative pieces about the paintings stolen from the Gardner Museum in Boston and the faces of "bad" young men used for target practice by policemen in training. I whizzed through the small exhibition of Delaunays, Roni Horn drawings, and "architecture non-standard" and then retrieved my bag at the hotel and went to the airport.

Burgundy, and Paris?? Not much about food and drink? I went for art and architecture and I was very well nourished, thank you very much. I had a decent amount of good food but mostly just house wine. You'll have to ask the Kelleys about the food and wine. Sherry Kelley was my colleague at Cornell and is now at the Smithsonian Institution Libraries in Washington. When their Christmas card came, she noted that she and her husband Woody had been in Beaune in October.


... go to Sherman's miscellaneous page ...