September 12, 2009

French Mysteries: The Sacré-Coeur de Montmarte

After the big climb, we cooled our aching feet in the fountain at the base of La Basilique de Sacré Coeur, located in the charming Montmartre. Having visited numerous times previously and now again with my parents, I have taken it upon myself to find out a little more about the area, and specifically the so-called Alabaster Wedding Cake that sits on top of it all.

The name Montmartre means “mount of martys”, as traditionally it is the place of the martydom of Saint Denis, the first bishop of Paris (late 3rd century) and his companions. It is popular with artists, both actual and those C-grade portrait sketchers. The small convenience stores in the area will happily sell you a bottle of wine and even open it for you, to consume on the steps while buskers belt out cover songs.

A big Benedictine abbey occupied the whole hill until the French Revolution at which time the nuns were guillotined and the Abbey destroyed. Other places of worship have occupied the hill, but perhaps the most interesting is the current Sacré-Coeur de Montmarte. At the time, the building of a Basilica dedicated to the Heart of Christ was unusual, but Jesus was quite the flavor of the month: one of the largest mosaics in the world, the Majesty of Christ, takes pride of place above the High Altar.

If you can't afford the flight to Paris, you can stand in the High Alter, virtually, and check out the pretty impressive installation.

Just like Dan Brown stirred up some conspiracy theory with The Da Vinci Code, my curiosity was aroused when a number of odd characters were pointed out to me. Most significant was the so-called Chicken of God. Why, we pondered, was a rooster placed at the right hand of Christ? I did attend a Catholic school, but I did not recall the Last Supper being ordered through a KFC drive-through window. Was it a joke? The mosaic artist had a sense of humor perhaps?

Well, like all the good mysteries of life (Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy), there was a simple explanation, one that any good Bible Study group could explain straight away. Standing behind the rooster is Saint Peter. After the Last Supper, Christ warned that before a rooster crowed at dawn, his disciple Peter would deny knowing him three times. The rooster stands with Peter as a symbol, useful in identifying the Saint, actually quite a common practise.

Along with the rooster, there is an eagle, a lion and a lamb. At Jesus' left hand, there is a nasty-looking dragon, a man with his head in his hands, and a Labrador. Thanks to them, we can identify John the Evangelist, St Agnes, St George, St Denis and others.

So, mystery over. No great conspiracy, no inside jokes. Sometimes researching these things just ruins it. There are other quirky appearances - American Indians, Japanese geishas, hooded executioners, world explorers, all bowing down to Jesus. No doubt reflective of the many French missionaries, spreading the Good Word around the world, but I'll leave that question unanswered.

I should have learnt my lesson with Santa Claus...

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