For Van Akin Burd (1914-2015)
on the occasion of his 106th Birthday
(with whom I had the privilege of traveling
to many places on Mr. Ruskin’s Old Road)
We used to travel a lot. Now we don’t. Nor, for that matter, does anyone else. We will again. In the meantime, we recollect.
I’d like to begin with what a dear friend, that still-thriving, awesome nonagenarian, Charlotte Hegyi, calls a “Ruskin Sighting,” a reference to Ruskin that, quite unexpectedly, shows up in something written or said (for earlier examples of posts inspired by such sweet surprises, see Post 2: The Wondrous Sky and Post 42: TRA: “The Proof of a Thing’s Being Right”).
The sighting that got me going today appears in about the middle of an article written by one of the very finest of the regular writers for one of the very finest of weekly magazines, The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik.
Gopnik writes about a spectrum of things, but one thing he’s been keenly interested in for a long time (like myself in my earlier life as a full-time sociologist) is cities, particularly in what makes them good or not so good places to live and work. To this point in his essay, he’s been reflecting on the legacy of a supposedly city-bettering movement born in the last century known as “urban renewal”–a series of (frequently very large) building initiatives that, generated by the best of intentions, held that putting a lot of people, mostly poor and almost exclusively non-white people, together in band new high rise buildings in our cities, then rapidly losing population to the suburbs, was a good idea, one which would work out well for those who would live in these new complexes and for the cities sponsoring them. Here’s a picture of one of the most famous of these efforts, Stuyvesant Town (!) in Manhattan. It opened in 1947 and, today, houses around 30,000 people.
Although numerous city governments in the US and UK tried the experiment, any collective evidence that urban renewal was salubrious in a significant way was as rare as those proverbial hen’s teeth. Instead, the majority of these urban renewal complexes–which soon came to be known as “The Projects”–quickly became places laden with misery, illness, crime, severe poverty, and desperation, places where no one, let alone those who were for the most part forced to live in them (because they couldn’t afford any other places) wanted to live.
This is not the place to go on much further with Gopnik’s article (if you’d like to read it, click here), but, before leaving it, I do want to draw attention to his Ruskin sighting. When it appears, Gopnik is remarking on the fact, almost to a one, the buildings put up by the architects who were given authority over building their city’s version of urban renewal were devoid of any decoration. They were almost always immense brick boxes devoid of anything which might be even vaguely thought of as being of aesthetic interest. To give you a sense of what he means, here’s a picture of some of Stuyvesant Town’s buildings, as seen from street level:
Which brings us to his Ruskin sighting: “[Although the] problem of building new housing is usually discussed in terms of plans and zones and taxes, it is, in some largely unrecognized part, also an aesthetic and architectural one. [The architects of urban renewal] tended to treat aesthetic issues as secondary. How the thing was to be planned and paid for was what counted most. How it was going to look and feel was a Christmas wrapping problem. Yet since the time of the great critic, John Ruskin, in the mid-nineteenth century, a central lesson in thinking about building is to think about buildings [as places where the things that went beyond mere functionality were important. In other words, the] small stuff: style, scale, facade, signs of life, the richness of decorative detail, variety instead of uniformity, the encrustations of ornament–counts big.
Which sighting–as of course you fully expected (this being a travel post posted in lockdown times)–takes us to Edinburgh.
It is November, 1853, and Ruskin, famous by this time nearly beyond fame (he has already published, to almost universal acclaim, the first two volumes of Modern Painters, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, and, just this year, his three-volume masterpiece, The Stones of Venice), has been invited to give four introductory lectures on architecture and art by the city’s proud and powerful. His father, John James Ruskin, is not pleased that his son has agreed to do so. Lectures in public, after all, bring the press as well as the proud and powerful, and reviews may not always be positive whether they appear in print or the court of public opinion.
Nevertheless, his son, nowhere near as fearing as the father, goes ahead. He is going to use a few of his few moments on this northern stage to introduce his audience, in the first pair of lectures, to some of the principles he first set forth in The Seven Lamps regarding what makes some architecture great as opposed to the more pedestrian, or worse, depressing varieties. The first lecture has gone very well. In the second, tonight’s talk, he is going to make them realize that the greatest architecture in Western history was created during a time most of them either despise or ignore, the period they routinely call–because nothing of importance ever happened during it!–The Middle Ages (!). He is going to show them just one instance of what Adam Gopnik calls “the small stuff,” and make them see how important such small stuff is for making a building come alive, so that it enhances, even for centuries, the pleasure of everyone encountering it.
He is going to ask them to accompany him to the French city of Lyons, to, specifically, to its marvelous cathedral. He wants to show them something that he hopes will both astound them and get them thinking critically about their own city, and the kind of buildings they routinely build there.
He is telling them about the importance of ornament. Ornament is what makes buildings dance. Without it, buildings (like those of Stuyvesant Town he might have said if he had known of them) are moribund, and much worse, reflecting that dubious quality, proceed to deaden the days of everyone who sees, lives in, or uses them. A few architects, he says, understand this principle partially, but only partially, because–whether it is to satisfy employers who wish to impress those seeing their buildings with the owners’ importance, or others looking at the building from a distance–much more often than not put their ornamentation on top of their buildings, ensuring that almost no one, since most people live at street level, will ever notice it. A relatively modern example which makes his point nicely is the Flatiron Building in New York City.
But all great architects, Ruskin continues, understand that the best and most evocative ornament always belongs at street level, because it is only there that can you see, enjoy, and think about it. Here’s how he put it in Edinburgh (a little later I’ll include some pictures that make his description visible):
[T]he Gothic builders placed their decoration…on the foundation of [their] buildings, close to the spectator… A single example will enable you to understand this method of adaptation perfectly.
The lower part of the façade of the Cathedral of Lyons, built either late in the thirteenth or early in the fourteenth century, is decorated with a series of niches filled by statues of considerable size which are supported upon pedestals within about eight feet of the ground. In general, pedestals of this kind are supported on some projecting portion of the [foundation]. But at Lyons…they are merely projecting tablets, or flat-bottomed brackets of stone, projecting from the wall. Each bracket is about a foot and a half square, and is shaped thus [here he points to (fig. 13), below], showing to the spectator, as he walks beneath, the flat bottom of each bracket, quite in the shade, but within a couple of feet of the eye, and lighted by the reflected light from the pavement.
The whole of the surface of the wall round the great entrance is covered with bas-relief as a matter of course. But [this] architect appears to have been jealous of the smallest space which was well within the range of sight, and [so] the bottom of every bracket is decorated also, nor that slightly–but decorated with no fewer than six figures each, besides a flower border, in a space, as I said, not quite a foot and a half square. [Italics JR’s] The shape of the field to be decorated being a kind of quatrefoil, as shown in fig. 13, four small figures are placed, one in each foil, and two larger ones in the center.
I had only time, in passing through the town, to make a drawing of one of the angles of these pedestals. That sketch I have enlarged, in order that you may have some idea of the character of the sculpture. Here is the enlargement of it [see, below, the next image]. Now observe, this is one of the angles of the bottom of a pedestal, not two feet broad, on the outside of a Gothic building. It contains only one of the four little figures which form those angles, and it shows you the head only of one of the larger figures in the center. Yet just observe how much design, how much wonderful composition, there is in this mere fragment of a building of the great times; a fragment, literally no larger than a schoolboy could strike off in wantonness with a stick; and yet I cannot tell you how much care has been spent, not so much on the execution, for it does not take much trouble to execute well on so small a scale, but on the design, of this minute fragment.
You see it is composed of a branch of wild rose, which switches round at the angle, embracing the minute figure of the bishop, and terminates in a spray reaching nearly to the head of the large figure. You will observe how beautifully that figure is thus pointed to by the spray of rose, and how all the leaves around it in the same manner are subservient to the grace of its action. Look [how], if I hide one line, or one rosebud, how the whole is injured, and how much there is to study in the detail of it! Look at this little diamond crown, with a lock of the hair escaping from beneath it; and at the beautiful way in which the tiny leaf at “a” [here, the mark at the bend of the slope leading from the bishop’s portion of the sculpture to the lady’s portion], is set in the angle to prevent its harshness.
And, having examined this well, consider what a treasure of thought there is in a cathedral front, a hundred feet wide, every inch of which is wrought with sculpture like this! And every front of our thirteenth century cathedrals is in- wrought with sculpture of this quality! And yet you quietly allow yourselves to be told that the men who thus wrought were barbarians, and that your architects are wiser and better in covering your walls with sculpture of this kind (Fig. 14).
An image which might remind us of the brick facades of all the buildings in Stuyvesant Town.
Ruskin’s Lectures in Architecture and Painting were published the next year, 1854. Ever since I first read this lecture, however, I have longed to see the real world iteration of the small bas-relief bishop and the lovely lady at Lyons whom he lauds so highly. His drawing was so beautiful, and his description of them and their ability to create a positive reaction in any who saw them was elegant.
Years passed, but a chance never appeared. Then, it happened that some dear friends were going to spend a hour or two at Lyons’ cathedral while on a tour of France! Learning of their stop, I excitedly asked if they, kind and wonderful souls that they were (and remain!), might, as a great favor to me, hunt up that little bishop and lovely lady and take a picture? I would arm them photocopies of Ruskin’s images in order that they could make sure they found the right image. “Mai oui,” they said (they actually did say that!), they would be happy to try! Then they went; then, not long after, they returned, only to inform a very disappointed me that, although they had looked, and looked hard, my bishop and the lovely lady were just nowhere to be found!
More years passed.
Then, last year (when we could still travel) the window opened! Jenn and I were going to visit dear friends who live in the the south of France, and, after that, go off to spend a week in Ruskin’s favorite place on earth, Chamouni (see Post 171: The Cathedrals of the Earth and Post 172: The Erratic (For Mr. Ruskin on the occasion of his 201st Birthday) Our route to his holy mountains would take us right past Lyons!
We arrived on a bright, sunny, early October, day! With a photocopy of the good bishop and lovely lady passage tucked neatly into my back pocket, we parked the car and headed to the cathedral square, greeted, as we entered it, by this marvelous view (well, at least on the right):
I pulled out my photocopy of Ruskin’s passage and began to re-read his description. There, to the left and right of the main portal were the brackets for the life-size sculptures he tells us of, all, also as described, about eight feet above the ground. But, oddly, I thought, none had any statues stand on them.
Puzzled, we read on and continue to look around. Yes, just as he says, around the three portals there are carved many lovely tiles (not unlike those at Rouen about which he also wrote so winningly: Post 99: The Little Man and the Dragon):
All this is quite lovely, but neither of us can find any clue as to where the lovely lady and her attending priest might be hiding.
We look on–going first to the north side of the cathedral (the plaza and main portals face west) where no space whatever is given over to the sort of elaborate and elegant ornamentation that we found on the main facade. As for the south side, there is in effect no south side, because, there, the main body of the cathedral abuts up against other ecclesiastical buildings. Most frustrating! All this way and stymied!
We go inside. The interior is terrific of course, but much is veiled off from visitors because of multiple ongoing efforts at restoration (of which Ruskin would heartily disapprove; but more on that dislike later). But, after a walkabout, we can see that there is nothing which might suggest that the carving of the lovely lady and the bishop have migrated inside, to, say, a side-chapel that would protect them from the elements.
Which possibility causes me to remember that, when we entered the nave, I noticed that, to our right, at the entry point to one of those south side buildings mentioned, there was a sign, explaining that, upstairs, one could visit the cathedral’s tresorerie, “treasury,” the room, often rooms, where the most valuable antiquities associated with great cathedrals are preserved and protected. Maybe the bishop and lovely lady are now resting up there?
We ascend. It is a very large room. We start making our way around it. Many beautiful medieval tapestries are hanging; many crowns of dead kings and princes are shining up from well-locked cabinets; on the walls, keeping the tapestries company, on view are a very great many swords, knives, and hand-axes, which, in days past, were employed, we presume, for activities of a none-too-pleasant nature. But nowhere can we find any place displaying some brought-indoors statues and bas-relief images of a mitered cleric and lady.
We are baffled, and, now, on the edge of defeat. Then, fors relenting, a last idea rises! Near the door, protecting the treasures from what must be the perpetual threat of pilfer, sits a young woman. I go over and in my very broken and abysmally poor French show her the photocopy of Ruskin’s pages, complete with the image of the long-dead parson and good lady. She looks; pauses; looks again; then shakes her head, “no,” explaining to us, in perfect English mind-you, that she knows of nothing like this and, in response to my question, reports that there are no statues or bas-reliefs preserved in the treasury or anywhere else in the cathedral. As she hands the pages back, I know the game is up. I just can’t understand it. Although Ruskin does not always give the best of “directions” as to the location of some of the images he uses for teaching purposes in his books and lectures, it has been my long experience that, if one makes a concerted effort to find and diligently examine the places he cites, the things he is talking about almost always emerge.
We start downstairs. We are one or two steps down, when the guard we have been talking to call us back. She asks to see the photocopies again. She looks at Ruskin’s drawings carefully. Thinks. Then says: “Come with me, I have an idea.” (!!!)
She locks up the treasury, takes us downstairs and out into the plaza. There, the photocopies in hand, she walks over to the brackets, still in their accustomed positions about eight feet above the ground and starts peering up at what’s underneath each one. After she’s looked at three or four of these spaces, she bids us to come over and, when we get there, points upward.
And there she, the lovely lady, and he, the tiny bishop, are!!
Jenn takes a triumphant picture!
And here is what we, now peering up like our good guide, saw:
But, as will immediately see, there’s a surprise. For there is not just one “he” in the bas-relief image, the little bishop, there are two!! The Lovely Lady of Lyons, it appears, had–a fact which had been unstated by our Victorian genius–a boyfriend! an admirer whose amorous interest is still much in evidence seven centuries after the sculptor decided to accord him space in his picture. (The Lovely Lady, of course, as we can see from the position of her hands, being chaste and devout and determined to remain so, is clearly keeping his importunings (?) at arms-length.)
As for her once protective prelate–perhaps symbolically?–time has not been kind as, in the century and a half which have elapsed since Ruskin drew him, he has weathered considerably, has, in fact, been effaced!
But the rest of the image is still quite well-preserved and remains a tribute not only to the era in which it was crafted and to its remarkably talented sculptor, but to Ruskin himself and the enduring brilliance of his description. For here, if we look closely and recall a little of what he imparted on that edge-of-winter’s night in Edinburgh, we can still see just what he wanted his audience to see: namely, that the principal and affecting design is, in fact, composed of a branch of wild rose, which switches round at the angle, embracing the minute figure of the bishop, and terminates in a spray reaching nearly to the head of the large figure. [And] observe how beautifully that figure is…pointed to by the spray of rose, and how all the leaves around it in the same manner are subservient to the grace of its action.
It was marvelous hunt and a marvelous moment!
Ending, I should include a few words explaining why it had proved so difficult to gain our lovely objective at Lyons Cathedral The first mistake was mine. I had not–for which, lashes!–read my Ruskin carefully enough. In describing the location of the bas-relief, Ruskin had told his Edinburgh audience that the bottom of every bracket [was] decorated…with no fewer than six figures each, [including] a flower border, in a space…not quite a foot and a half square. But I had not registered the word “bottom,” and that oversight led me to think that the image we were in search of, which you really must crane your neck to see, might have been somewhere other than on the bracket bottom where it had been since the cathedral was created.
Second, however, Mr. Ruskin has to share at least a modicum of the blame, as he did not tell his listeners that, although the long-narrow spaces above the supporting brackets had been intended to feature, as many medieval cathedrals do, statues of saints, priests, and the like, that, when he, Ruskin, drew his pictures, no such statues were in place, the spaces were as vacant in 1850 when he visited Lyons as now (pictures of the facade of the Cathedral taken in the mid- 19th century prove that the spaces above the brackets were vacant when Ruskin was there; whether the holies ever resided in these places I have no idea.) The result of his omission was that, when I saw there no saintly sculptures, I thought I was looking in the wrong place.
Third, for reasons our Edinburgh lecturer never mentions–he didn’t want to make his description more complex than he had to to make his point? he didn’t think the young man’s intentions were completely honorable?–not indicating the interloper’s presence and the fact that he was standing right next to the lovely lady and reaching out to touch her hair!–meant that I never thought to look for him. It was this omission that threw our lovely, trip-saving, guide off as well. When she first looked at Ruskin’s drawing of the bas-relief, she didn’t recognize the picture of the young woman as it was presented because the second figure, with which she was familiar, wasn’t there. Then, after some minutes, her good memory reminded her that there was more to the picture than met the eye, which recollecting saved the day!
When it was over, with effusive praise, we thanked our most kind and insightful keeper of the great cathedral’s treasures. She was pleased. I took her email address and now seem to have lost it!
But the point of all this, other than to indulge a fine recollection in a relatively stationary place, to suggest that, in the story of the lovely lady of Lyons, we have about as fine a lesson in what constitutes real urban renewal as we could wish. The short of the lesson being:
Yet just observe how much design, how much wonderful composition, there is in this mere fragment of a building of the great times… [and] consider what a treasure of thought there is in a cathedral front, a hundred feet wide, every inch of which is wrought with sculpture like this! And every front of our thirteenth century cathedrals is in- wrought with sculpture of this quality! And yet you quietly allow yourselves to be told that the men who thus wrought were barbarians, and that your architects are wiser and better…
Until next time!
BE WELL out there!
P.S.: Some noticing the dedication at the beginning of this post will not know much about Van Akin Burd. For many years he was my colleague in Ruskin studies, my dear friend, always, my mentor. He was also the greatest Ruskin scholar of the last century (whose significant work stretched well into the first decade of the present one, when he was between 85 and 100!). He died peacefully at his home in Cortland, New York, in November, 2015, not far distant from his 102nd birthday. Shortly thereafter, I posted a tribute to him and his vitally important contributions to Ruskin studies. If you’d like to read it, click here Post 52: A Book (for Van Akin Burd).