99: The Little Man and the Dragon

Good Folks,

We have of late been talking about Ruskin’s theory of architecture, considering his argument that an edifice becomes “Architecture” at that point when it delights us–delights us when we see it, delights us when we use it, delights us when, whether we are in its presence or not, we ruminate about it. In contrast, mere “buildings,” whatever their needed function, create an opposite effect, dulling, even depressing, us as we see, use, or think about them.

As the last two posts have hopefully made clear, a central element which elevates buildings to the level of Architecture is when all of those who have been involved in the creation of the building are personally attached to the work they do, when they have been allowed to pour their own imaginations, enhanced by their special skills into the work they have been asked to do. It was this element of involvement which made the town square of Abbeville in Northern France come alive (Post 97) and which, in a different, religious, context, lifted the facade of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice into an architectural marvel for the ages (Post 98).

In which frame,we return today to Mr. Ruskin’s still wondrous book, The Seven Lamps o f Architecture, published in 1847 (but easily found on the web!). His main line of argument therein is to make it  crystal clear that, in all cases, when an edifice possesses this quality of delighting, it will embody at least one (and usually more) of the “lamps” identified by his title, those unique structural, spatial, and illustrative attributes which spontaneously light up our hearts and minds. In the briefest (and, hence, woefully underdescribed!) terms, the Seven Lamps of Architecture are Sacrifice (doing more than is functionally necessary for the use of the building), Truth (the use of only natural materials, such as wood, stone, or marble), Power (the ability to impress us with color, spatial views, or special effects–the transcendent rose windows of the greatest cathedrals, for example), Beauty (appealing to our sense of what is lovely in life), Life (a sense of the “presence,” the personal involvement of those who have worked on the building), Memory (the inclusion of a sense of the history of the building, the community, or nation in which it exists), and Obedience (a strict adherence to the laws of construction and maintenance and all the lamps mentioned above).

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Our two previous posts were concerned, for the most part, with what Ruskin calls “The Lamp of Life.” Today’s will be as well. (We’ll get to the others in due course.)

A disproportionate number of the world’s greatest buildings, Ruskin argued, were erected during that time we call the “Middle Ages,” a label he loathed because of its intended implication that nothing of importance happened during the hundreds of years which lay between two eras we moderns admire–the Classical period (read: Greece and Rome) and our own contemporary era. The tragedy of this prejudice, he said, was that we are trained (then, as now) to regard this “Dark Age” as insignificant and, as a result, miss things of enormous human and social import which occurred during this “middling time.”

One such “missing” we can easily be seen if we visit the great cathedrals of Europe, one of most wonderful of which is the glorious Cathedral of Rouen in northwestern France. While any relatively well-educated person would quickly agree that the cathedrals of the Middle Ages are important historical relics eminently worthy of a few hours of our time if we happen to be in their neighborhood, few of us have any idea how astonishing these examples of Architecture are, how they reflect in every nook and view the temper of their time and the astonishing, living complexity of the communities in which they were constructed.

Consider, in demonstration of this argument, a pair of tiny examples Ruskin highlighted in his chapter on “The Lamp of Life” in The Seven Lamps: two bas-relief figures which had been carved, as part of a series of hundreds of quatrefoil panels placed just outside the north entrance to Rouen’s cathedral. Here is his drawing of them (on his view ofthe deep significance of drawing, see Post 95). While there are three figures, he will be interested in only two, the one at the upper left and the one at the lower right.

0515V8--Le Petite FigureWhile there was nothing particularly special about the design of the quatrefoil in which the dragon-like figure on the upper left “lived,” Ruskin tells us, nothing exemplary in the (marvelously skilled nonetheless) carving of the wings and scales of the creature, there was something, something extremely special, that emerged when you looked at the figure closely: there are, he pointed out,

in the features of thoughtfulness and fancy [which have been rendered in the carving something] which is not common, at least nowadays. The…creature…is biting something, the form of which is hardly traceable in the defaced stone—but biting he is!—and the reader cannot but recognize, in the peculiarly reverted eye, an expression which is never seen, as I think, but in the eye of a dog gnawing something in jest and preparing to start away with it!

The meaning of this glance, so far as it can be marked by the mere incision of the chisel, will be felt by comparing it with the eye of the couchant figure on the right, in its gloomy and angry brooding. The plan of this head, and the nod of the cap over its brow, are fine. But there is a little touch above the hand especially well-meant. The fellow is vexed and puzzled in his malice–and his hand is pressed hard on his cheek bone, and the flesh of the cheek is wrinkled under the eye by the pressure. The whole, indeed, looks wretchedly coarse when it is seen on a scale in which it is naturally compared with delicate figure etchings, but considering it as a mere filling of an interstice on the outside of a cathedral gate, and as one of more than three hundred [similarly carved creatures]…it proves [the] very noble vitality in the art of the time.

[And so] I believe the right question is to ask respecting all ornament [on our buildings], is simply this: Was it done with enjoyment, was the worker happy while he was about it? It may be the hardest work possible, and harder because so much pleasure was taken in it, but it must have been happy too, or it will not be living… 

That last word is the  word he wants us to hold onto. Architecture (as opposed to “a building”) lives; it has a presence, a human spirit embedded in it which has a capacity to delight those who see it more than eight centuries after it was created, a spirit put into it–in this case into the little man and the dragon by the individual craftsmen who sculpted them, “regular workers” who had been given license by the cathedral’s master builders to sculpt their figures as their imagination directed and their skill allowed, a permission which gave them the chance to create, in the one case, a portrait, we might guess, of the family’s naughty dog, and, in the other, of perpetually cranky Uncle Jean who, as we all know, never had anything good to say about anybody or anything.

The entirety of The Seven Lamps is exampled in similar manner. It is an approach so effective that, by the end of Ruskin’s book, the reader knows what “living architecture” is, realizes that Rouen, which is but one of the great cathedrals of Europe, houses thousands of carvings, sculptures, or paintings faithfully executed by an anonymous legion of craftsmen during the course of the hundreds of years it took to complete the cathedral, each contribution serving, Ruskin wishes us to see, as an enduring, still-living record of the community that produced them, a record which informs us still  about what their lives were like and what their concerns had been; and which, if we take the time to ferret them out, can tell us those stories again, if we make the effort to decipher them–to our enduring delight, not because they are the best examples in the world of their type, but because they are part of an edifice which has attained the status of Architecture.

To make the point another way: the little man and the dragon are utterly unique figures in an utterly unique multitude–as we would immediately discover if we shifted our gaze to other quatrefoils nearby. In one such, we find a marriage celebrated, in another, a depiction of two men bartering for sheep, in a third, we learn of the pride felt by a knight returning home after his pilgrimage is over, in a fourth, we lament with them the sorrow of a family mourning the loss of an adored child. And these are only a fraction of  the whole. Unexamined still are hundreds of other figures in the quatrefoil display, while, inside the Cathedral, are dozens of idiosyncratic wood carvings in the choir, more than a hundred paintings on the walls, the carefully sculpted images on the sarcophagi lying in the side chapels, which we have yet to look at, a cornucopia of life in stone, wood, and on canvas. And–to remind us once again–Rouen is but one cathedral among dozens that were erected during the period he called “the great times”–those “Middle Ages” of which we moderns are disdainful because it was a period, or so we tell ourselves, during which almost nothing happened.

But there is more and even better. For at this point, having read The Seven Lamps to its end with care, its readers discovered that they had been gifted with a new critical facility: they had learned the enduring characteristics which, in any day or age, which would allow them to evaluate the human worthiness of any edifice, had gained a knowledge of the eternal principles which make architecture great, mediocre, poor, or disastrous, a mental model that could be used to systematically evaluate those buildings which surround us now (see below), those of the past, or those which we might like to see constructed in the future. And, hardly least of the delights of this gift was this: so altered was the reader of The Seven Lamps, it was a rare one indeed who did not develop a powerful desire to go and have a careful look at the remarkable edifices Ruskin uses as his primary examples, so that they might see them with their own eyes–with, of course, photocopies of his pages in hand.

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And so, a few Junes ago, some of us who had come to love this still very much undersung book did just that: took ourselves to Rouen (and, following that, to a few other marvelous medieval places), so that we might have a  first-hand look at one of these marvelous creations from “the great times.” There were eight of us all told. First, of course, all of us wanted to find “the little man” whom he had immortalized, wanted to locate as well his companion, the strange dragon-like creature with whom he had been keeping company all these hundreds of years.

We arrived from disparate directions: from the US, of course, but from France and England too. Arrived of an evening as it happened, too late to see much beyond the shapes and shadows that told us that the great cathedral was still standing nearby in the night not far from our hotel. But when the sun rose in the morning, all was transformed. Minutes after we had finished our Continental breakfast, we moved out, a little troop of tourists not caring, like most other visitors, much about getting a tour of the Cathedral’s spectacular interior, but on locating a large collection of tiny carvings by the church’s north entrance. We did  find them.

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And here we are, six of us at least: from the left: Robert Walmsley, the present typist, Diane Leonard, Milt Wilson, George Landow, and Cynthia Gamble (missing: Norma Wilson and Kevin Leonard; one, surely, taking this picture!). And–just behind us–a portion of the many sculpted wall that Ruskin admired so much, covered, as is easily seen, with just a few of those hundreds of quatrefoils! Cynthia’s look tells it all. For, where, among the plethora of these sculpted images, would we find our little man and his ever-present friend, the dragon?

Not having an inkling, there was nothing for it but to begin a systematic search of all the quatrefoils. About fifteen minutes later Cynthia found the perturbed little fellow we sought…

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…who, close up, a century and half after Ruskin drew him for us, looks like this…

10-Le Petite Figure

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As it turned out, we never did find the dragon. One reason was that we had no idea where he might be residing among the substantial congregation of  his equally exquisitely carved friends; another was that we had looked up and, on doing so, it being an unspeakably glorious and sunny day, immediately realized that our little man had been just an appetizer, a foreshadow of the pleasures which would be bestowed on us if, in the limited time available to us, we worked our way, as slowly as that time would allow, around and inside of this indescribable instance of Architecture.

Looked up, I said a moment ago: to see this: the sculpted entryway to the north door of Rouen’s cathedral:

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But this, as we all knew, was but a secondary entrance to this Cathedral of Notre-Dame. Walking to the west front and looking up again, we saw, amidst another set of breath-taking architectural shapes and forms, a handful of the dozens of sculpted figures of saints and bishops which gaze down on those who wish to enter the church from this, its principal entrance:

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And this is the moment to admit that, these days–and I include myself in the blameworthy category—it is the rare visitor to Rouen who has any idea of who all these saints and bishops are, has no idea of their personal stories and, thus, no notion of why they have been accorded such celebrated places on the cathedral’s main facade. As a consequence of such not knowing, we have, quite literally, no idea what we are missing! (Ruskin, of course, knew all this.)

Admitting this inadequacy, however, there was still so much else that we could appreciate, so much, as we made our way around and inside Notre-Dame over the course of the next two days, which made us want to sing and dance in delight, that we forgot what we did not know in favor of what was shimmering before our eyes. With, as each of these days’ hours waned, one more experience as our reward for a day’s viewing well-done: a view of the west facade as the sun set on it, a view of their creation that had been carefully planned for us eight centuries earlier by the Cathedral’s master builders.

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I believe the right question is to ask, [Ruskin said,] respecting all ornament [on our buildings], is simply this: was it done with enjoyment, was the worker happy while he was about it? It may be the hardest work possible, and harder because so much pleasure was taken in it, but it must have been happy, too, or it will not be living… 

Living because all these pieces are different, because each of the many thousands of pieces which create the whole are stamped, indelibly,  by the distinctive life force, personality, spirit–whatever we wish to call it–of the person who created the piece. Happy because what each had contributed to the remarkable whole had been his, a “doing” into which he had poured his heart and soul which using as his tools his unique skill and vision. Leaving Rouen, those of us who had traveled to its Cathedral in hopes of seeing its celebrated, centuries-old little man and his equally old companion, the naughty dragon, knew what the answer to Ruskin’s question had been for those who had worked on this special instance of the world’s greatest Architecture: Yes, happy they had been.

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In 1864, Ruskin trekked from the smoke-smothered city of London to the similarly smoke-smothered city of Manchester. There he would deliver one of his greatest lectures on Architecture, expressing during his hour on the stage the need for true instances of it to be built as counters to the factories then polluting all of Britain with a vengeance, factories that had been built by hired workers (or “The Hands” as Dickens called them in Hard Times) who, by direct order, had been asked to lay bricks and bricks only and, to never, under any circumstances, to indulge any impulse they might have do anything distinctive (for more on this talk, see “Traffic,” Post 57). Back in London, on a December day, a day when the sun had been blotted out entirely by factory smoke, he received a letter from a dear friend, Susan Scott. who had been at his talk. After expressing the usual personal salutation, she asked Ruskin what he thought of some of modern England’s attempts to do as he had asked–create “great architecture”–an instance of which, she suggested, might be the new court building then being erected in Manchester. To her query, he replied as follows (excerpted from The Solitary Warrior, a collection of previously unpublished Ruskin letters edited by J. Howard Whitehouse in 1929): “My dearest Susan…

…the most beautiful modern building in the world (which these Manchester courts are I fancy) is yet, in the present state of all human interests and imaginations, utterly without real architectural interest. It is and can be nothing more than a well-delivered and sweet echo, and I can’t stand–on a December day–to hear echoes!

The law courts of which they spoke, completed in the mid-1860s, looked like this:

Law Courts, Manchester--early 1860s

This building no longer exists, having been replaced, during the first decade of this, the 21st, century by a new building which, various websites inform us, has won various awards for “design, construction, and sustainability.”

Manchester UK--Municipal Court (modern)

Regarding which new erection, I suppose, the pertinent questions might be: (1) what might we imagine were the mental states of those who built these new law courts; and, (2) how eager might we be to spend some few thousands of dollars (or an equal number of pounds or euros) to go and examine it for a few days, eager, immediately after we arrived, to hurt down its modern equivalents of a vexed little man and a biting dragon?

Be well out there!

Until next time.

🙂

Jim

P.S.: I want to express my grateful thanks to Cynthia Gamble for advice pertaining to the quatrefoils near the north entrance to the Cathedral of Rouen, and express similar heartfelt appreciations to all those dear souls who accompanied me on this truly remarkable trip on the Ruskin Road.  🙂

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