Touch, taste, smell, hearing and sight. These six tapestries, woven in around 1500, represent the five senses against a detailed red background.
The remaining sixth sense, explained only by the inscription “À mon seul désir” (To my only desire), has inspired countless theories. Without excluding a possible meaning in the register of courtly love, it could be a reference to free will: the woman with her decorative headdress and refined clothing, renouncing temporal pleasures.
These “millefleurs” (“thousand flowers”) tapestries are characterized by an abundance of flora, including flowers, orange trees, pines, hollies and oaks, and are inhabited by a peaceable bestiary (a monkey, dogs, rabbits and a heron). In this idyllic natural setting conducive to contemplation, the unicorn by turns a participant and a simple spectator. Accompanied by a lion, it sports the coat of arms of the Le Viste family in every scene.
The Lady and the Unicorn wall-hanging was acquired in 1882. It is now considered one of the great masterpieces of Western art.
On the cusp of the Camargue National Park in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, Arles is a heady blast of Van Gogh nostalgia – the artist painted in excess of 200 works around this lovely Roman town. The stately amphitheatre, one of the largest in Roman times, is part of the reason for Arles’ Unesco World Heritage Site status. The twisting aluminium tower designed by Frank Gehry brings the city’s architecture bang up to date.
Flowers bloom throughout the year in Provence, but none are more synonymous with the region than lavender, which turns acres of land purple. With more than 2,000 producers and roughly 25,000 people employed in the industry, working across 20,000 hectares, lavender is big business. You’ll want to visit between the last week of June and the beginning of August, just before the harvest begins, to see the flowers at their best.
In a darkened room stands a 40-year-old woman named Catherine Monvoisin. Her figure is lit only by torches held by the faceless men standing in front of her, men who are sentencing her to death by fire. It is the 17th century, where such a death sentence is an unusual ending to someone’s life. But Catherine is an unusual woman.
Catherine was the wife of a silk merchant and jeweler and lived a life of comfort in Parisian Society. She was a philanthropist, entrepreneur, fortune teller, mother, and art lover. But she was also a professional poisoner, alleged provider of sorceries, and an alleged witch who plunged the French aristocracy into turmoil, and even tried to kill a king.
She was more famously known as “La Voisin” and was a central figure in “L’affaire des Poisons” or the “Affair of the Poisons”. Catherine controlled a wide network of fortune-tellers from her position in Paris society. She provided poison, abortion, aphrodisiacs, arranged black masses, and even claimed to offer magical services.
She was so famous that she even drew clients from the aristocracy, who could afford to pay her high prices which funded her lavish lifestyle. Her organization, in performing commissioned black magic and murder by poison, took thousands of lives.
The claimed alchemist Adam Lesage, one of the lovers of Catherine, told of her murdering her own husband, an accusation she denied. It is believed that throughout her life, she might have been responsible for the deaths of around 2,500 infants due to her poisoning. However, throughout this time she remained a high-profile socialite, and her sheer charm made no one suspect her.
Before turning their thoughts to the intriguing legends associated with these ruins, any person who strays off the marked footpaths and loses his or her footing on the edge of the precipices that drop away on every side of this aptly nicknamed “citadel in the sky.” And let us not forget that early in 1244 it was a feat of rock climbing that sealed the fate of the Cathars when they were besieged here by the army of King Louis IX. After seven months, during which traditional military strategies had brought nothing but failure, Hugues des Arcis, the commander of the forces encamped at the foot of this eagle’s nest, finally decided to send a small group of particularly agile soldiers up the cliff face. Under cover of darkness, this detachment reached the summit, captured a watchtower, and installed a trebuchet, with which it proceeded to bombard the interior of the castle without respite, making life impossible for the besieged, who were forced to surrender after a few weeks.
The fate of this community, the last bastion of the Cathar faith in France, is well known. One Sunday in March 1244, the day of the equinox, the believers—more than two hundred men and women—were led down to a pyre that had been set up at the foot of the hill, steadfastly refusing to renounce their faith. What else could they do, these pacifists who had taken a vow to show courage in the face of suffering and death? The name Cathar—from the Greek katharos, meaning “pure”—was given them by their contemporaries on account of their asceticism and refusal to compromise in any way. For the same reason, those who had undergone the rite of ordination called the consolamentum were known as perfecti, although among one another they preferred the terms “good man” and “good woman.” The band of sympathizers protecting the pacifist Cathars were allowed to go free provided they pledged to stop supporting heresy and swore allegiance to the king of France.
The Château de Montségur that stands today is not the same fortress that existed at the time of these dreadful events. Historians, archeologists, and local storytellers cannot agree on all the details. For example, was the Cathars’ place of martyrdom the prats dels cremats (“field of the burned”), as indicated today by a stele, or was it a neighboring hill? At this magnificent site, so many questions remain unanswered. There’s the legendary Cathar treasure, said to have been held in safekeeping at Montségur before being smuggled out to an unknown destination. And then there are the four men deputed by the community to slip away under the utmost secrecy prior to the ultimate surrender, carrying with them who knows what. Items of treasure? Precious documents? Mysterious keys enabling the Cathar tradition to be revived elsewhere? At Montségur nothing seems impossible. In the last century a team of German researchers came, with the blessing of the Nazi regime, to investigate, convinced that the castle housed the Holy Grail, the famous cup believed to have been used to catch Christ’s blood.
What should we make of the site’s architecture, of the spectacular alignment of the sun’s rays at solstice time, as if its architects had wanted the castle to function as a kind of astronomical calendar? And doesn’t its floor plan reflect the constellation of Boötes, with the donjon representing the star Arcturus? Is it also mere chance that “Cant del Boièr” (Song of the Herdsman) remains one of the most popular folk songs in the Occitanian canon, with some people reading into its words a coded message addressed to future generations?
“After seven hundred years the bay tree will flower again”—and with it, no doubt, the Cathar faith. Thus were the words of the troubadour in the Occitania of old. Or was it the last of the perfecti to be burned at the stake? Or even a poet born generations later? Basically, nobody knows. It is even possible that the bay tree could be an olive tree, and that the date is regularly adjusted so that it never loses its relevance. No matter. The legend remains perplexing enough for visitors to be drawn in by its verses while contemplating the ruins of what the inquisitors called “Satan’s synagogue” – but never quite managed to utterly destroy.
Today in history —> French philosopher Charles Fourier was born on this day in 1772. Although he was considered a radical in his time for his philosophy of utopian socialism, many of his ideas have now become mainstream. For instance, Fourier was a fervent believer in gender equality and is credited with coining the term “feminism” in 1837.
The mayor of Lyon, France, a city where I’ve spent some time feeding on the city’s meaty and copious cuisine, announced that school lunches for 29,000 elementary-school students would no longer include meat. Well, the reaction was guaranteed:
Not so, thundered Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister. He tweeted that dropping meat was an “unacceptable insult to French farmers and butchers” that betrays “an elitist and moralist” attitude. Julien Denormandie, the agriculture minister, called the mayor’s embrace of the meatless lunch “shameful from a social point of view” and “aberrational from a nutritional point of view.”
I’m not that upset, as the kids will get plenty of meat elsewhere. But the fracas is funny.
Besançon Cathedral, located in the center of France’s 19th-century clock-making capital, is home to a 19-foot-tall (5.8 m) clock with 30,000 pieces. It is one of the most complicated horological devices ever made. Installed in 1860, the clock shows the local time in 17 places around the world, as well as the time and height of the tides in eight French ports, a perpetual calendar with leap-year cycles, and the times of sunrise and sunset.
The many dials of what may be the most complicated horological device ever constructed.
Hollow at La Meauffe (La Meauffe, Normandy, France)
Holloways, which appear like deep trenches dragged into the earth, are centuries-old thoroughfares worn down by the traffic of time. In Europe, most of these sunken lanes go back to Roman times, or as early as the Iron Age.
These deep-recessed roads were naturally tunneled into the soft ground by years of footsteps, cart wheels, and animal hooves. Water flowing through the embankments like a gully further molded the paths into rounded ditches that have sunk as much as 20 feet lower than the land on either side. In some cases, trees rise up from the banks flanking the narrow path and reach toward each other to form a canopy over the road, making the holloway look like a tunnel running through the thick greenery.
Holloways are especially common in the bocage, or “hedgerow,” landscape around Normandy, where the countryside is divided into small fields enclosed by sunken lanes and high hedges. Like many sunken roads, the trench-like holloway in La Meauffe was used as a shelter during times of war. During World War II, the La Meauffe hollow was a defensive strongpoint for the German army, providing perfect cover from the advancing American troops. The limited visibility of the terrain caused the Americans to suffer heavy losses during the attack, leading US soldiers to call the road in La Meauffe “Death Valley Road.”
Many who walk through holloways don’t realize they are retracing ancient steps.
Saint-Étienne church, in the city of Bar-le-Duc, is home to a statue of a rotting corpse. Visible musculature and skin hang in flaps over the hollow carcass. The exposed skull looks toward a raised left hand, which once held the dried heart of René de Chalon, the 16th-century prince the statue depicts. (The heart is believed to have gone missing sometime around the French Revolution.)
The life-size sculpture by Ligier Richier is part of the “transi” Renaissance art form—stone sculptures of rotting bodies that served as a reminder of temporary flesh and eternal afterlife.
The postmortem statue of René de Chalon once held the man’s own dried heart.