Friday, 4 May 2007

The friendly gargoyle

We went to Amiens last weekend to look at the cathedral.

It's fine, though I have to say my preference is for the earlier Gothic  of Bourges or Laon. But this is a majestic church - and a huge one; the first evidence of the French striving for height with its immense arcades and narrow, tall nave.

What made the visit really memorable, though, was our tour of the late Gothic choir stalls in the company of monsieur Jean Macrez - 'the last living gargoyle' as he jokingly calls himself.

He's spent years looking after the sculptures - dusting, waxing, polishing - and he clearly loves them. He pointed out the Bible stories - Joseph, Samson, Job, Jonah - but also the little figures of the tradesmen of the city. There's the scribe, the tanner, the mason, the carpenter, with a perfectly rendered little plane, the sculptor, the baker, even a laundrywoman with her tub and a man selling the famous duck paté of Amiens (still available today).

There's humour in the telling, too. The little carpenter has made it through five centuries untouched. The lithe young woman to his left, though, has had her features eroded by the strokes and caresses of the canons and choristers. Poor girl.No wonder then that a little further on, a woman is taking revenge for this chauvinism by beating up her husband!

Kneel on the floor, and you can see beneath the table of the wedding of Cana the feet of Jesus, and all the guests. Guess what - two of them are playing footsie (Jesus is not involved, for those of you who've read too much of the Da Vinci Code).  Then at one end of the stalls, go behind one of the scenes, and you can see why the four Evangelists appear at the top - they're standing on a bench to see over!

Too often, we submit to false professionalism with tour guides who tell us all the facts but have no passion for what they're showing. But here was a man who has not only mastered his subject (and written a couple of books, available in the cathedral shop), but has an abiding love for the cathedral and its art. You couldn't fail to be moved - and amused - by his presentation.

Monsieur 'Quasimodo's tour of the stalls was at half past three, Monday afternoon. He seems to do them most days - there's a little card at the choir entrance gate telling you when the next one is. Definitely worth waiting for. 

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