As the first shafts of morning light enveloped the towering spires of Cathedral Notre-Dame de Rouen, my palette was set to capture its splendor. Amidst the emotive melodies of the carillonneur descending from the largest tower, Tour Lanterne, my hands swiftly labored to capture the impartation of ever-changing light as the sun rose and fell over Rouen, France.
My nightmares were wrought with the glorious-hued images of the cathedral , then they quickly vanished before my canvas could be splashed upon. But during the long days of 1892 and 1893, I was driven to record the visual sensations themselves as they imparted a subtle to shimmering glow upon the sacred edifice.
Each morning he came. Before the sun rose. I heard his faltering steps, aided by a cane, along the cobblestones of the Place de la Cathedrale. And as he faced the Tour Lanterne squarely, he always stopped for a few moments. His silhouette, enhanced by the glow of his small lantern, was a constant…a symbol of devotion and loyalty. An anonymous artist, but perhaps hallowed among the choir of angels. And like every morning before, he signed the cross, bowed at his waist, then disappeared into the Gothic cavern.
In the twilight of each morn, I had occasion to reflect upon this silhouette. It inspired me. It comforted me. Perhaps the carillonneur kept me coming every day, too. Of course, I cannot discount the surreal majesty of the cathedral, but he was an enigmatic part of the tapestry of this era of my life.
In the dawning of the new day, his great virtuosity resounded throughout the natural amphitheatre of the hills of Rouen. The euphonous bells infused the mornings with joy and hope. And I imagined the dance of the swinging bells as it energized the day. I wondered if it enlivened the aspirations of others, too, as they prayed in the sanctuary ,or strolled along the Seine, or labored in the surrounding wheat fields.
One day I began to paint a memorial, an artistic testament of the carillonneur. The first canvas portrayed his gentle dignified silhouette doused in lantern light as he stood before the cathedral.
“Bonjour! And may God bless your artistic work today.” He greeted me with a tip of his hat.
“Come, have a look…”
“Rene, my name is Rene Pierre...” he said rather softly.
He looked intently and smiled, “Splendid, Monsieur Monet!” He had noticed my signature.
“Merci, Rene Pierre. I would also like to thank you for your inspiring music each day as I paint. It has become most important to me.”
He nodded his head and shuffled off toward the cathedral. Many were awaiting his symphony.
In the ensuing weeks and months, I created more images. A portrait of the fifty six carillon bells swinging joyfully. One of the spires of Tour Lanterne, his home away from home, as meager lantern light spilled through the cupola. Then another with grand illumination and angels dancing to his liturgical melodies exploding into the heavens.
Rene Pierre had started coming to the Rouen cathedral a little earlier at times and we shared cups of café, two artists bound by the creation of something beautiful, something intangible trying to come to light.
“I adore the serenity of the light and the angels in flight about me. It makes me imagine that the glory of God is near me and even the angels are pleased with my concert.”
“I believe that is so, Monsieur Rene.” I noticed his moistened eyes.
“I am ready for this day now,” he quietly spoke.
Twilight emerged as he paused before the cathedral, and with his right hand he touched his head, his heart, and crossed from his left to his right shoulder. Then he reverently bowed to a new day.
Soon the carillonneur…my friend…bathed the cathedral and even the heavens with his lavish gift. The interplay of the swinging peals crescendoed to a grand forte as people stopped in the streets to gaze up to the cathedral tower. Something beyond majestic was happening. A glorious light shone forth and I swear I saw the flight of angel wings around the spires. The music hushed to a pianissimo, then was no more.
“Merci, my friend.” For a long time, I sat in silent reverence before the picture I was compelled to paint.
The French impressionist, Claude Monet, completed a series of thirty paintings of the Cathedral Notre-Dame de Rouen during 1892-1893. It was the first of his artistic quests to capture a solitary subject in varying light. Though a fictional story, no doubt Monet was impacted by the sacred carillon of the Rouen cathedral as he worked.
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