© Rodin museum - photo Chistian Baraja
Publication date: May 2017
The cathedral as the quintessence of art
It was in a context laden with symbols that Rodin created in 1908 a sculpture entitled Cathedral. For a century, artists (Friedrich, Turner, Monet…) and writers (Goethe, Chateaubriand, Hugo, Huysmans…) have not ceased to appropriate this building which crystallizes the imagination of a Europe rediscovering the Gothic style. . As early as the 1790s, in fact, a new interest emerged in medieval art; attention is focused in particular on the religious architecture of the 12the-XVe centuries. In 1831, with the publication of his novel Notre Dame de Paris, Victor Hugo sensitized public opinion to the dilapidation of the famous building. Awareness is emerging: these vestiges of the past are those of a heritage around which the national story will be built.
More than any other building, the cathedral concentrates the patriotic claims, because it becomes from the beginning of the century the epicenter of a Franco-German quarrel on the origins of the Gothic style, claimed on both sides as national style. To be surprised at the dimension taken by this debate would be to forget the political importance of symbols.
In France, the kings returned with the Restoration appropriated this building, symbol of an idealized royal past: on May 29, 1825, Charles X revived the tradition of the coronation in the cathedral of Reims, enhanced for the occasion of a ephemeral neogothic decor.
In Germany, the value accorded to Gothic arose in reaction to the Napoleonic occupation, associated with the Enlightenment and a taste for Antiquity. A project galvanized the aspirations of this fragmented nation, in search of its political unity: in 1814, the idea was put forward to complete the construction of Cologne Cathedral, interrupted since the end of the XVIe century; it fizzled out until 1842, when the work resumed, to be completed in 1880.
If the debate on the origins of Gothic was settled in 1843 in favor of France, the political recovery of the cathedral did not end for all that. A figure like that of the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who restored several French cathedrals in the decades 1830-1870, reveals the weight given to this building, considered to be the quintessence of French art. This recovery reached its peak during the first battles of the Great War, during which several cathedrals suffered significant damage. On September 19, 1914, German bombardments set fire to Reims Cathedral, place of the coronation of the kings of France and therefore emblematic of the national past. Propaganda seizes on the tragic event and transforms the cathedral into a building of identity, whose “martyrdom” and “mutilation”, according to the vocabulary of the time, reflect German barbarism.
Hands like ribbed vaults
As is often the case with Rodin's works, Cathedral only received his title later, probably in connection with The Cathedrals of France, which Rodin published in 1914. The sculptor himself had made the analogy between rib vaults and "hands that come together to pray". However, one detail reveals that it is not about praying hands. Indeed, the identical arrangement of the thumbs shows that it is about two right hands placed opposite. Rodin used a technique which is dear to him and which he practiced since the beginning of the 1880s: the assembly of two independent elements originally (in this case the copy of two hands belonging to separate sculptures), but who create a new work through their association. Through the delicate movement of the brushing fingers, the sculpture emanates a silent grace that invites contemplation. The ethereal verticality impels an upward momentum, which evokes that of the endless arches punctuating the nave of a Gothic cathedral. The hands, like an openwork cage, play on full and empty, inside and outside, shadow and light. Light, in fact, was fundamental in Rodin's work.
Just as Monet wanted to restore in painting his perception of the effects of the atmosphere on the facade of Rouen Cathedral, Rodin tried to bring the surface of his works to life by capturing the multiple variations of ambient light. According to him, “the Gothics were such great sculptors that they imparted the illusion of movement to stone. It is to achieve these effects that they placed their figures in deep porches: "They sculpted the shadow, as the Greeks had sculpted the light."
Rodin and the cathedrals
Even if its title is metaphorical, there is indeed a link between Cathedral and the history of this building until the beginning of the XXe century. Rodin used to travel through France to discover its monuments, alone, or even accompanied by his relatives or collaborators. A draftsman by training, during these visits he executed thousands of architectural sketches, kept in around a hundred sketchbooks. Everything catches his eye, from the most famous building to the most innocuous architectural detail. This interest in heritage was born in the spring of 1876, while he was traveling to Italy; a letter sent to his companion Rose Beuret testifies to the amazement which seized him at the sight of the cathedral of Reims. The cathedrals therefore occupied a privileged place in his admiration for medieval art.
Wishing to share his passion, Rodin published several texts, the most famous of which is the work entitled The Cathedrals of France, published in March 1914. The sculptor does not do the work of an art historian, but develops reflections which are valid for his artistic gaze. Above all, we discover a Rodin who was part of the nationalist discourse of his time on cathedrals, "coming from the soil of the nation like native flora". Because, according to him: “all of our France is in the cathedrals, as all of Greece is in the Parthenon. "
- Rodin (Auguste)
- Goethe (Johann Wolfgang von)
- Chateaubriand (François-René de)
- Hugo (Victor)
- Huysmans (Joris-Karl)
- Charles X
- Viollet-le-Duc (Eugene)
- War of 14-18
- national story
- Monet (Claude)
Auguste RODIN, "Les Cathédrales de France", Bartillat, Paris, 2012
Dominique JARASSE, "Rodin", Terrail, Paris, 2006
Antoinette LE NORMAND-ROMAIN, “Rodin”, Citadelles & Mazenod, Paris, 2013
Collective, “Cathédrales 1789-1914. A modern myth ”, Somogy, Paris, 2014
To cite this article
Emilie FORMOSO, "Rodin's Cathedral"