Saturday, October 06, 2007

Scars of Architecture and History

I am standing in the courtyard of the Abbaye de Gellone in St Guilhem, this small village is hemmed in by the steep sided valley of the Herault river which descends from the Cevennes before opening onto the flattened Mediterranean landscape of Languedoc and finally the Mediterannean sea. The courtyard is scattered with familiar regional plants and is a dusty remnant of a more vibrant time, the history of this place renders it melancholic in modern times. My personal story of this place begins on the other side of the Atlantic in New York and seven and a half years earlier, in Fort Tryon Park in the Northern extremities of Manhattan is the Cloisters museum, the museum is a Frankenstein’s monster of architecture, a uniquely new world interpretation of classical world architecture and history this museum is an amalgam of classical architecture from every corner of Europe. It is in January 2000 that I amble glumly around the museum’s hideous concoction of courtyards with the plundered stone carvings and artefacts of the religious and architectural heritage of the continent. Intended to be a collected archive of artefacts lovingly joined in one place to give a nice bite sized romp through medieval architectural history these collected artefacts are joined in a geographical and stylistic remix of history. Romanesque & gothic styles mix together in an architectural & geographical mudfight, it is a depressingly soulless whizz through and up the leg of history, and amongst this museum’s architectural melange are the plundered and abused artefacts of the Abbaye de Gellone.
So seven and a half years later here I stand looking at the abused walls and columns of the courtyard of the abbey, the walls have been shored up by later generations and the remaining structure of the building is now strengthened and protected from further decline. Established in 804, the abbey was a cared for and loved building for generations, its decline began when it was sacked in the 1500’s by protestants, after the revolution in 1789 the remaining handful of monks were removed and the building fell into disrepair. The adjacent chapel continued to be used as the parish church whilst the courtyard stonework and the monastery building were removed by locals who scavenged the stone and sculptures for building materials like some early version of a dodgy architectural salvage yard. Finally after years of gradual abuse all the remaining artefacts were carefully removed and displayed by Pierre Yvon Verniere in the neighbouring village of Aniane, it was this act of rescue by Verniere which kept the sculptures and stonecarvings safe from further damage and destruction but this necessary removal of the artefacts has since resulted in the melancholic sight that now confronts visitors to the abbey. A handful of overlooked details defiantly gaze into the empty courtyard but mostly what comes to eye are the scarred walls that remain and tell the story of the previous architectural beauty now removed and residing in another continent. After his death in 1875 the artefacts rescued by Verniere passed through the hands of several collectors before being bought and donated to the museum where they now reside in their soulless home in New York.
One feels the abbey has lost its soul and perhaps those two sad sites can be redeemed, perhaps one day those sculptures, carvings and architectural details can be returned and given the care and respect they deserve, perhaps the legacy of the abuses of these artefacts and their guardians can in some small way be redressed and the spirit of the abbey reinvigorated by their return to their spiritual home.


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