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  • Joseph Lawrence

Strasbourg and the sublime

We retired to Strasbourg, and that has made all the difference

When my wife and I retired from academic jobs in New England, we decided to settle in

Europe. Even though we knew Germany well, we were intrigued by the possibility of life-renewal that learning a new language and adjusting to a new culture would give us. And what language is more beautiful than French and what culture richer and more enticing? If we chose Strasbourg in part because of its proximity to Germany, what holds us here, in addition to the new friends we have made, is a cultural heritage as deep and unfathomable as the past it is anchored in.

Our adventure actually started long ago when as students in Tübingen, we crossed the Black Forest and made our first visit to Strasbourg. What won our heart at the time is what wins everyone’s heart: the magnificent cathedral

that stands at its center. Not until we settled here over four years ago, thanks to the invaluable service of Carsten Sprotte, our search consultant, did we discover that the artisanal pride at play in the cathedral spills over and defines the entire city.

We see it every day in the art nouveau features of our apartment. From the crown molding

that adorns high ceilings like vine tendrils to well-placed panes of stained glass and golden

flowers that have been etched into the marble surface of our fireplace, what we see in our

immediate environment is the fruit of labor that, not simply skilled, has been guided by love.

From our balconies, more of the same. On the one side, the lovely Lycée des Pontonniers,

rightfully named the most beautiful lycée in France. On the other side, a gigantic neo-Gothic

castle that takes up an entire city block. It was built at the end of the 19th century to pay tribute to German imperial power. Since that time, its front façade has been renovated to sport French classic features that cry out: Vive la France!

A little farther down the street is the Place de la Republique. Its monumental buildings

help explain why, in 2018, our neighborhood of Neustadt was added to the original UNESCO World Heritage site of the Grand Île, the medieval heart of Strasbourg.

A five-minute walk from our apartment, we enter into that heart. Streets that bear the

name of one artisanal guild or another remind us of what a heart is, what it means to build a city as a labor of love. Apart from its highlights—the cathedral, the Rohan Palace, and the much-photographed area of half-timbered buildings called Petite France—the Grand Île contains broad squares and quaint neighborhoods that coalesce into an organic whole. Accommodating crowds of tourists (especially during the weeks of the Christmas Market!) and a large student population, its shops and theaters, its restaurants and cafés, cater to every taste. While I am happy that our own neighborhood is quiet, I have to admit that I am equally happy that, on a daily basis, I can mingle with crowds that pulse with joie de vivre.

When the Grand Île was placed on the World Heritage list in 1988, it was considered

unprecedented that an entire city center could receive such an honor. But, as it turned out, even that was not enough. When Neustadt was added, the verdict was final: it is the whole of

Strasbourg that is beautiful. While I myself prefer the aesthetic of hand-hewn stone to the vast plates of smooth steel and colorless glass out of which the European Parliament Building was assembled, I recognize its magnificence. What I positively enjoy, however, is to turn my back to it while strolling the lovely Parc de l’Orangerie close by, marveling at nesting storks and towering beech trees. The Strasbourg I love is the Strasbourg that is warm and inviting.

If Paris was laid out on a divine scale, Strasbourg is down to earth, a city made for

human beings. True, for over four centuries, no building in Europe reached higher into the sky than the Strasbourg Cathedral. Yet, surpassed in height only by the Great Pyramid in Egypt, nothing in the cathedral evokes the image of slaves dragging enormous stones across the sands. What one sees instead is the work of artisans who loved their craft, even at the cost of the blood, sweat, and tears that hard work entails. This is not just true of the statues, but of every stone in the vast edifice. Each of which, carved to the width of a thumbnail to fit with perfection, reflects the signature of a master.

In the towering height of the cathedral, I have caught glimpses of what must have

motivated teams of artisans to do their best work. What I have in mind is a beauty that beckons from above, a beauty manifest in the sky but suggestive of what hides itself still higher. Call that eternity, call it God, call it what you will. What the Cathedral says to me is that the utterly lofty is real—real enough to have inspired an entire city to come together to build with the mastery of true artists. Not only did they reach for the heavens, but with the help of flying buttresses they were able to replace huge sections of the outer walls with sheets of colored glass that let in so much light that those gathered inside could feel heaven reaching down to them.

Something like this could be said, of course, of any of Europe’s great Gothic cathedrals.

I find it noteworthy, however, that both Goethe, Germany’s greatest poet, and Victor Hugo,

one of France’s greatest poets, pointed specifically to the Strasbourg Cathedral as that work of art that most justified their use of each language’s version of what in English we call the sublime.

What they are referring to is what emerged when, after the fourteenth-century addition of a

belfry between its two towers, it became clear that the cathedral façade now reached much too high, so high indeed that, in order to restore its aesthetic balance, an enormous spire had to be built that made it soar that much higher still.

Photo credit: vincent-nicolas-cZre_lSd2YU-unsplash
Strasbourg cathedral

Beauty is soothing, sublimity is jarring. I can see just how jarring it is by looking at the faces of those gathered at the foot of the Cathedral. Following the movement of its stone tapestry, the crowd begins at eye level with the figure of a mother cradling her child. Looking higher, they see the child turned into a teacher and the teacher into a crucified martyr. Above him, they discover the figures, not of kings and bishops as in other Gothic cathedrals, but of entire legions of martyrs, butchered one and all, in imitation of their savior. Above them, the mother and son, now crowned and ruling in glory, gesture toward the rose window and eventually to the spire. Faces, open-mouthed and turned upward, end by gaping at the sky. It is as if everyone feels the same thing: the sky’s promise of final release from all the accumulated pains and sorrows of life here on earth.

Written on every face is something greater than wonder. It is sheer awe—the only adequate answer we humans have to the experience of what the great poets called the sublime.

Too much, too much. In that “too much” the secret of Strasbourg is revealed. The

Strasbourg Cathedral educated an entire city to face the fullness of reality—and to respond as respond we must, by making the world, with all of the sorrow and pain that is enfolded into it, as soothing and beautiful as possible.

What a place to retire to!


Many thanks to Dr. Joseph Lawrence for his heartfelt guest post. Read Joseph's published works, starting with Socrates among Strangers.


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