Wednesday, 18 November 2009

A humorous homage

Sometimes you feel you've come incredibly close to an individual when you see a portrait of them, or see the desk where they wrote, or their signature on a historical document.

Sometimes you don't even know who they were, but you feel you know something about them. There's a mason who worked on Sées cathedral some centuries ago whose sense of humour endeared him to me immediately.

On the facade, he's carved the little ornamental dado with a variety of figures. There's a cat and mouse, the cat's body neatly curled up to fit the circular opening in the stonework. There's a series of four-leaf figures - except you realise the one in the middle has strangely been transmogrified into a dragon; you have actually to be looking to see it.

And there's a wonderful owl looking out at you, whose feet grip the sides of the stone opening, so that it's no longer a sculpture in the stone, it's a bird standing on the stone.

Inside the cathedral, there is a well. These sacred water sources always thrill me; there's one in Regensburg cathedral, and a Gallo-Roman well in the crypt of Chartres cathedral; Winchester cathedral's Norman crypt regularly floods, though that is due to a rising water table.

Up till the 19th century, apparently, this well was open. Maybe one of the priests fell down it; anyway, it was decided that the well should be closed off. And this was done rather prettily, with a neo-romanesque cylindrical font. Around its middle runs a fine band of panelling, decorated with abstract figures in the austere Norman tradition. Except for one - set into the stone, so you wouldn't see unless you were looking, is a little owl with huge eyes staring back at you.

I'm sure the carver must have walked past the owl on the facade every day when he came in to work. I'm sure he must have loved the fantasy of those figures as much as I did. And I'm sure that when the bishop told him what to carve, he decided on a little addition of his own, paying humorous homage to the earlier master.

One devout old lady of Sées must still be wondering why I was laughing out loud.

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