A spurt of optimism
Was it a momentary lull in the world’s hostilities? Or just a matter of the day’s papers publishing their backlog of harmless local updates instead of the reports of various horrors?
In any case, this media ceasefire allowed me to temporarily lift my pessimistic guard, too. It had been a while, but now I tumbled with a spurt of cheerfulness into the day. A day off, too. And a lovely, sunny day to boot, after days of incessant rain.
As I had planned a daytrip to Cologne, I left home early. And found such a wonderful world outside! Streets and rooftops lay scintillating in the early morning light. At the bus stop people gave each other a friendly nod, before quietly gazing at their smartphones again.
Everything so peaceful and still, except for the loud screeching noise of a garbage van slowly riding by. But ah, look at the speed and agility of the garbage men! And how admirably coordinated did this garbage collection process unfold!
The bus arrived - almost exactly on time. All passengers duly badged, took their seats and then watched their smartphones again. Most were dutifully going to work, probably. I started musing enthusiastically about the amazing organisational feat of getting a city started for the day. The whole complex logistics of public transportations shuttling people to their respective destinations! The many departments devoted to keeping streets safe and clean! The gas and electricity grid companies distributing energy in order to let people brew their tea and switch on their computers!
I also reflected on the goodwill and mutual tolerance of all these urban actors playing their part, on their amazing diversity, as displayed by this morning’s sample. Deeply grateful towards all these well-intentioned people, who were ensuring such a perfect urban organisation, I got out of the bus at the metro-station stop, switched to the underground, arrived at the train station and boarded my train at the designated time. Yet another example of seamless efficiency!
Still basking in my untroubled state of grace I plunged into a book (1) about medieval notions of sacred time – liturgical, ‘sanctoral’ and eschatological – without any relevance whatsoever for today’s world, but nicely fitting my planned visit of the Romanesque churches of Cologne.
It had been a while since I last was in Cologne. I didn’t remember there were that many bicycles the last time I was here? I’m of course quite partial here - but I do feel that having so many bikes around, instantly makes a city more welcoming - the rhythm and intensity of traffic are slowed down, there’s less noise and one can at least breath. (2) Not a bad setting, then, for this aesthetic pilgrim to set out on a tour-on-foot of Cologne’s churches. Romanesque churches, not Gothic, or at least not full-blown Gothic.
For all the splendour and architectural bravura of high Gothic churches, I have come to appreciate the earlier specimens even more. Not the dark, oppressive early Romanesque churches that have barely risen out of the dark depths of underground crypts, but those in-between churches with their sober elegance: lighter and more graceful than the militant early churches, simpler and purer than the later Gothic cathedrals. Already espousing rib vaults and pointed arches – injecting rhythm, illuminating space –but as yet without soaring haughtiness (3).
The rhythm of lines and curves, the strength of pillars, the grace of light streaming in : what more would a soul need to feel both sheltered and exalted, to take flight?
Of the 12 Cologne churches, the St Andreas church has perhaps the most perfect balance of lightness and gravitas. The others impress too, but not without a certain oppressiveness.
A case apart is the Schnütgen-museum of medieval art housed in the St Cecilia church. Showing fragments – pieces of stained glass, sculptures – that are no longer part of a once sacred whole, but dispersed witnesses of a bygone art, a bygone world. And a flâneur hunting for fragments, can only be grateful to this Mr Schnütgen who carefully gathered these remains.
“Sammelt die Stücklein damit sie nicht untergehen” was Alexander Schnütgen’s maxim ( “collect the little pieces so that they will not perish “)
The rest of the afternoon I spend wandering around Cologne - how laid-back and agreeable a city this has become ..... especially on this late August say, lulled by an end-of-summer calm.
The truce has ended
Waiting at the station to catch the train home, I look up at one of those screens with continuous newsfeeds. The (perhaps illusionary) media truce has ended and I learn about the day’s bombings and beheadings.
During the long trip home, my pessimist self is back on duty. So I cannot help brooding. About the world in general, and, egoistically, about my hometown, Brussels, in particular. History and current affairs show how quickly things can go awry. How quickly goodwill and mutual tolerance can evaporate. 45% youth unemployment in some Brussels boroughs, that makes for quite a reserve of idle and frustrated youth. How easy is it to seduce youngsters with the heroics of horror? I don’t know.
Then again, perhaps "we" (all BXLs citizens) do feel that we have too much at stake, perhaps we all do realize what a great good a peaceful, well-functioning city is. And so we can just go on, as we do now quite successfully, to live and let live in all diversity.
(But worried I am.)
Notes about books, bicycles and churches
- Jacques Le Goff – "A la recherché du temps sacré"; a book about a 13th century book ," La légende dorée" by Jacques de Voragines, a book full of acpocryphal stories about the lives of the saints that has inspired many a medieval painting. “L’entreprise de Jacques de Voragine était : en s’appuyant sur le temps, enchanter, sacraliser le monde et l’humanité".
- Ok I admit, I just love to have them around, bicycles - it makes me feel relaxed – whether they wheeze by or even when they’re just parked (in which case I have taken up the obsessive habit to always checking out how and with what kind of lock they are attached).
Much as George Duby writes about the Cistercian
churches: "L’église cistercienne est incarnée. Mais elle est aussi décharnée, réduite à la musculature, au squelette. Et
c’est bien là ce qui nous touche en elle, au plus profond."