From ‘Cathedrals of France’ by Auguste Rodin, Chapter Ten
Distant gleams turn brown and blacken before certain columns. They clarify others obliquely, feebly yet regularly.
But the depth of the chancel and the whole left part of the nave are plunged into a thick gloom. The effect is horrible because of the indecision of things in the lighted distance. A whole square space is struck by stark illumination; lights flame between columns that take on colossal proportions. And I am made to doubt this epoch and this country by the interruptions, these conflicts of light and shadow, these four opaque columns before me and these six others lighted further off in the same oblique line, and then by the night in which I am bathed and which submerges everything. There is no softness. I have the impression of being in an immense cavern from which Apollo will arise.
For a very long while I cannot define the horrible vision. I no longer recognise my religion, my Cathedral. This is the horror of the ancient mysteries. At least so I should suppose if I no longer felt the architectural symmetry. The vaulted ceilings are barely perceptible, braced by shadows, the ribs of the arches.
I must escape the oppression of this effect of closing in. A guide takes me by the hand, and I move through darkness that soars as far as the vault.
From the light beyond them, these five columns have their oblique illumination. The ribs, the arched ceiling beams, the ogives resemble crossed flags like those at the Invalides.
I advance. It is an enchanted forest. The tops of the five columns are no longer visible. The pale lights that cross the balustrades horizontally create infernal roundelays.1 Here one is in heaven by day and in hell by night. Like Dante we have descended into hell.
Violent contrasts are like those from torchlight. Ardent fire at the mouth of a tunnel spreads out in layers. Only the columns against this flaming background are indistinctly black. At moments a drapery appears with a red cross; the light seems to be extinguished, but no, it persists in a mortal immobility.
The chancel is laid bare to horror. But the horror controls itself, imposes order, and this order reassures us. And then, our memory of day, our connections with the day come at this moment to our rescue, giving us the necessary confidence.
There is a reflection on one ogive; the perspective is masked and the clarity, imperfectly developed on the edge, shows only the stationary construction in the dim gleam. But this gleam, although terrible, nevertheless reveals the masterpiece.
The Cathedral assumes an Assyrian character. Egypt is vanquished, for this Cathedral is more poignant than a Pyramid, father from us than the grottos where the great creation of rules appeared. The unknown is the mystery of this spectacle. One thinks of a forest, of a grotto, but this is nothing of that sort: this is something absolutely new, which it is impossible to define at once.
The frightful bulk of night, feebly pushed aside for a moment, as quickly, and with an irresistible violence, regains empire.
This is like Rembrandt, but as a spectre of taste and order. Rembrandt himself brings us not more than an echo of this prodigious world.
I am in terror and in rapture.
Dante, did you enter this circle of horror?
The chapels are transformed by the struggle between darkness and light.
This one is a sombre grotto where there seem to be only shells set out along the ribs of the arches. And yet, the terrible shadow allows itself to be seen, appreciated, and modelled.
Another chapel is divided in two by a cast shadow. One whole side is abolished. The columns seen from three-quarters, black and formidable, disturb the whole architectural arrangement. My dissipated mind apprehends only frightful things; it sees horrible supporting legs repeated in this forest that man has created for his God. Is this forest less beautiful than the real one? Is it animated by fewer thoughts, less populated by atrocious larvi and by fewer spirits?
And you, gargoyles, did you not issue from the brain of sculptors who returned to the Cathedral after sunset to take counsel there from the night and to seek there the memory of some horrible dream?
I aspire to a new confirmation of the grandeurs of the Gothic soul.
One would have an impression of a Tower of Babel if, in this apparent confusion, all at once architectures did not surge out of the night, if the shadow itself were not organised. The moment is present without words and without voice.
Completely black columns are around the chancel; this is stone in prayer, a waterspout that rises to God.
Oh Night, you are greater here than anywhere else. It is because of the half illumination that terror comes over me. Incomplete illuminations cut the monument into trunks, and these gleams tell me the thrilling pride of the Titans who built this Cathedral. Did they pray? Or did they create?
Oh genius of man, I implore you, remain with us, god of all reflections!
We have seen what the human eye had not seen, what is perhaps forbidden it to see. Orpheus and Eurydice feared being unable to escape, since the boatmen did not come to fetch them in the terrible gloom. We walked alone amid the Night. We were in the straits of Tarn. We went alone into a great forest. A whole world was in this Night that the Titans had prepared for us.
A candle buns: a tiny point of light. To reach it I must stride over heavy masses of shadow where I rub against dead gleams, unicorns, monsters, visions.
The Thinker2 would have been well adapted to this crypt; this immense shadow would have fortified that work.
By lighting a candle, the sacristan has displaced the shadows. There is a treasure here, the treasure of shadow accumulated by the night. It hides the treasure of the Cathedral.3
As we reached the door, this gigantic scene advanced toward us: the immense room seemed prepared for a banquet to the infernal gods.
Then the small door of the Cathedral was closed. The vision disappeared. All is entrusted now to our memory
1. Translators note: dances in the round. See Albert E. Elsen, Rodin, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1963, pp 155-156.
2. Translator’s note: This refers to Rodin’s enlarged figure of the Thinker.
3. Translator’s note: The French word here is église (Church), but obviously it refers to the Cathedral of Reims.