Monthly Archives: July 2010

Parisian Churches and a Foucault Pendulum

I’m not a particularly religious soul, but it’s hard to go to Paris and not find yourself in a church at some point and not be wildly impressed with them isn’t it?

To start off with the obvious one, Notre Dame de Paris.  What always amazes me is how long these cathedrals took to build- nearly 200 years in Notre Dame’s case- and how they started building them nearly a thousand years ago (1160A.D. here).  Talk about dedication!

And then you step inside, and you understand why.  It’s glorious, filled with light and space that leaves you with an urge for nothing more than to sit and let your eyes wander.  I was in awe and I am someone who has been to more countries than I can keep track of and plenty of cathedrals at that!  There’s no doubt in my mind that if I was born a few hundred years old without having science to explain even something like how the planets move or where humans came from, and then see a marvel like Notre Dame, that I would be a believer.

The carvings above the door you exit Notre Dame from these days, on the West side of the building.  Just amazing.

Moving on to another famous Parisian church and the national cathedral of France, the Pantheon!  (Which I keep confusing with the Pantheon in Rome, or the Parthenon in Athens. *sigh*) A bit younger than Notre Dame, dating to the 18th century, but a bit more modern in several ways.

The first thing you notice inside the Pantheon (beyond the fact that I’m apparently incapable of taking a non-blurry picture) is the pendulum- to be precise it is a Foucault Pendulum named after the French physicist of the same name.  You have seen them in every science museum known to man, and the take-home lesson is that you set the pendulum to swing one way while the Earth turns underneath it so the pendulum seems to change direction over time.

Ok so Foucault pendulums are awesome and all but let’s think about this for a second- this is the national cathedral of France.  No crosses in sight or incense or any of that, but rather a symbol of enlightenment and scientific progress dominates the scene.  We have certainly come a long way since Notre Dame, or at least the French have.

A quick look up to admire the dome that looks not unlike the one in the United States Capital Building- to be fair they were designed around the same time- before heading downstairs…

In the grand traditions of European nations, the French inter their most noteworthy citizens in their national cathedral.  An idea I have always liked to be honest and I sorta wish we had a crypt under the US National Cathedral, but no one listens to me… Anyway, part of the interest in these national tributes is the impromptu history lesson you embark on as a result, finding the plaques to Victor Hugo, Voltaire (did he have a last name or was that a pen name?), Louis Pasteur… I ran into a snag when I discovered there are not one but two Carnots interred here, one I know due to his work in thermodynamics and one who I later learned was the fourth president of France, so I payed my respects at both to cover my bases.

The picture above is of Marie and Pierre Curie’s resting place- apparently they were only moved here in 1995, but it was undoubtedly a wise move.  How could you not inter the first winner of two Nobel Prizes? (Btw do you know which it was?  Marie because she got chemistry in 1911 and her husband died five years prior.)

So those were the churches, the old transitioning into the new.  And no I am still not over the Foucault pendulum in the Pantheon- isn’t it amazing that we now know how stuff works?  Up until a few hundred years ago, the smallest fraction of the million-odd years we’ve been on the planet, you just had no chance of knowing our place in the universe no matter how badly you wanted to know the answer.  But now we do, along with a million billion other things you just plain never would have had a chance to know until recently.  We’re very lucky.

Museums and Art in Paris

One not-so-nice thing about Paris is unlike most nations where the national museums are free the Paris ones certainly aren’t- and in fact, they’re expensive!  The exception to the rule is the first Sunday of the month which was fortuitously my first day in Paris, so I was up bright and early due to jet lag and went off to see the art.

I started at the Louvre, mainly because it’s so big I figured if any museum might need a full day it’d certainly be this one.  And when you show up at 9am the line’s only five minutes long, as opposed to when you leave around 1pm and the line is snaking around the courtyard!

Finally inside!  I don’t know why the glass pyramid is considered to be so controversial by the way, as I rather like it.  I guess some of the argument is from the fact that they were hoping you wouldn’t see the structure of the pyramid itself, just the glass, but does anyone really care?  Honestly the final result looks good, and I suspect most people who don’t like it are the ones who remember what it looked like before and get that opinion from nostalgia.

Anyway, time to wander around one of the world’s largest museums…

So there are a lot of amazing things here- I think what I like the best out of it is how even the slightest collection is something any museum in the world would make a prize collection, from the Egyptian mummified cats to the 18th century bronze sculptures.  So naturally it’s filled with people, particularly at the so-decided “famous” pieces in the museum.  If you look close in this picture you’ll find the Venus de Milo (I think this was around 10am, I don’t want to know what it looked like later!), which hey is nice but it amazes me how other rooms filled with Greek statues can be completely empty sort of thing.

And I won’t even get into the Mona Lisa, as there were so many people standing around taking pictures of something everyone already knows exactly how it looks!  All because when you’re little and you ask your parents what the most famous painting is in the world and they tell you the Mona Lisa- honestly, I never heard a good reason as to why it’d be the most famous so I’m going with that.

Moving along, my second museum on free museum day was the Rodin one because I have loved Rodin ever since I first came across his work in high school.  It has to do with something regarding me not being artistic in the traditional word whatsoever- I can be creative, but the closest I get to artwork is needlepoint to be honest and I can’t draw for the life of me.  Sculpture I just can’t conceive of doing at all so I admire those who can, particularly someone like Rodin who can make it come alive!

Lots of beautiful things in this museum of course, most of which you’ve seen, but I submit this sculpture because I rather liked it and had never seen it before.  Possibly because it’s right next to a very famous neighbor, The Kiss, sort of like who in the Louvre studies the paintings next to the Mona Lisa in detail? (I did!) Anyway, this sculpture’s called The Eternal Idol, and you should certainly check it out if you ever find yourself in the Rodin museum and are waiting for the crowds to dissipate around The Kiss (which, it turns out, is a lot bigger than I expected it to be!).

Finally, Musee d’Orsay, the famous museum for Impressionists built in an old railway station.  This is another one I wanted to come back to because while in Paris half a lifetime ago I must’ve been tired that day because I recall spending a lot more time sulking than taking advantage of the opportunity, which yeah you’re allowed to do when you’re 12 but kind of annoys you later in life when you decide you like Impressionists of your own free will.

Being sulky 12 years ago or not I still had an awesome time at the Orsay.  Why?  Well because there’s a lot of funky furniture in the above floors which I’d completely forgotten about, and while wandering through I spotted a purple chair that had one leg due to leaning against the wall and thought wait a second, I know that chair! I had a memory of seeing it so many years ago but had long ago forgotten where to place it, and it’s a delightful shock to pin such a memory down.  Particularly when the memory occurred in a strange land and you completely weren’t expecting it.

Needless to say, there were a lot of Impressionists and it’s hard not to love someplace that has so many Monet paintings they can put several in a row so you can compare the nuances of each.  The one annoying thing though?  Currently the Musee d’Orsay is undergoing renovations (and will until next year sometime) meaning they only had a very small smattering of the Impressionist artworks on display in temporary rooms- still world class, but could’ve been so much better.

So that was a bit of a disappointment in a sense, but kind of freed me up in another because I still have an excuse to return to Paris someday.  I have been twice but still feel I haven’t done justice to the Impressionists!