Sunday, 29 January 2012

Time and Timeless

Built on the site of a Roman sanctuary, Strasbourg's Cathedral apparently was the tallest building in the world from 1647 to 1874.

Its interior is certainly lofty. Huge tapestries hang alongside the main aisle, like giant curtains. There is a sens de passage meaning you're supposed to walk around in the directon indicated, which one can understand when there are so many people that free roaming tourists would be hazardous to health and circulation but there are few people in the early morning. I take my chance and dodge to the side of the rows of seats, head for the astronomical clock at the rear, to one side of the altar but separated by various pillars and vaulted compartments, as well as a booth selling postcards and other knick knacks.

The clock has its own vaulted roofed area, guarded by a pillar carved with angels. This clock is also vast, consisting of several different parts, the higher ones soaring into obscurity. How it works is clearly the product of immense calculations, none of which are immediately evident. But there is one circle which shows the zodiac signs – hard to see clearly in the dim light, but it is there, just discernible.

Two guardian figures on a circle below the zodiac may represent Apollo, the sun god, daytime deity, and Diana, moon goddess of the night and it is delightful to see them here, represented in this Christian church, built mostly in the 12th to 13th centuries.

This clock is actually the third version. The first was created in the middle of the 14th century. When it stopped working a second one was made and the present one dates from 1838-42. The first one, interestingly, had at its base a painted figure of a zodiacal man showed the relationship between the signs of the zodiac and parts of the human body. You can read more about the clock here.

It might seem surprising to us now, that a church should show so blatantly a relationship between humanity and the zodiac but in those days, astrological depictions of zodiac signs were not considered improper far less heretical. Just think of Chartres cathedral with its stained glass windows of zodiac signs. After all, in the 12th and 13th centuries there were real heresies to be attacked and relentlessly extirpated – such as the Cathars of the Languedoc. A relationship between the human body and zodiac signs was still probably so embedded in people's thinking as really, not to be questioned.

That would come later, much later, when Johannes Kepler's visionary and painstaking research into the nature of the planetary paths around the sun opened the way for a different way of thinking about the celestial spheres, the macro-cosmos, and earth and us, the micro-cosmos. The two had been indissolubly linked together by Hermes Trismegistus

(as above, so below) a long time before the Christian religion, but this idea of the two worlds - the divine and the human - being linked in some way or another if not necessarily direct cause and effect relationship via the planets, had long been part of the human psyche, until Kepler's time – late 16th, early 17th centuries.

What Kepler did – unintentionally – was to draw a hairline thin crack between these two – macro and micro cosmos, for his calculations were stripped bare of divine shapes, solids or packaging – such as nested spheres – and did not rely on divine geometry as a whole. He was not looking for any divine plan, he wanted to see what was actually happening.

He discovered that the planetary revolutions around the sun were not perfect circles, or of a regular speed and this discovery introduced the faintest whiff of suspicion. Could it be that the creations, i.e. the planets, of the Divine Cosmic Spinner were not geometrically perfect? And if the creations were not perfect what did that say about their Creator? The corrosive acid of doubt set in. Perhaps the worlds were not held together by a mighty sustaining force after all? Perhaps relationships between macro and micro were not necessarily divine, enduring, everlasting, perfect?

And so was born our modern, scientific worldview, which tests and calculates, based on what can actually be seen and measured.

But of course, the planetary movements can indeed be seen and measured as Kepler was one of the first to demonstrate. It's the relationships of these movements with humanity's psychology, with our thoughts, feelings and actions, which are more hotly contested. But at least they haven't been scrubbed out, like altered photographs, edited out in an attempt to falsify history. In fact they are surprisingly enduring, these zodiac signs. Perhaps because they depict the timeless constellations. And it is good to see them here – for they too are constructs of human imagination and design, – to see them here in this dazzling architecture, combining ethereal imagination and sublime craftsmanship.


Forest Dream Weaver said...

Really interesting post Morelle!

three sea horses said...

Yes, i agree - really interesting! Txx