November 2018 Print

Gothic Noel

by Jehan Le Povremoyne

High above the drowsing village stands the Gothic cathedral, its spires pointing to the heavens. In the belltowers the wind murmurs an ancient and plaintive refrain as it did once upon a time over the stable of Bethlehem. The village, at peace beneath a clear night sky and the glittering stars, snuggles against its hillsides and goes to sleep.

At the cathedral, only St. Benoit is awake. He watches the lights die out in the twisted alleys where the antique signboards sway in the wind. He listens to the diminishing sounds of life in the town and the vanishing footsteps of vagrants returning from the taverns. And then, sure of not being seen by any human being, St. Benoit steps out of his niche by the grand portal and climbs the facade of the cathedral, hand over hand clinging to the rooted vines, until he reaches the tympan over the main doorway, where stand the sculptured figures of the Biblical prophets and martyrs.

“Noah? Isaiah? Abraham?”

He calls out, tugs at the hem of a mantle and with his stick prods the sleeping ones. “Noah, it is I, Benoit, Brother Benoit.” “Brother Benoit?”

“Yes, from down below, from beside the little doorway.”

“Ah yes; well, what do you wish, my brother?”

“I wanted to tell you, Noah, it is the eve of Noël. Noël, the feast of the Redemption. The glorious Nativity on earth of the Son of God. Noah?”

The mumble of his voice in his white beard is like a breeze in the forest of Ile de France. Amid the sculptured leaves and branches, allelulias seem to echo.

“Yes, Benoit,” Noah answers, “I understand. I know. Let us give praise.”

“No, not yet. Since Easter of the year 1426, I have been thinking over an idea which I wanted to confide to you. Tell me what you think of it.”

And in the ear of Noah—an ear grey with ancient dust—St. Benoit confesses his great project. It must be something magnificent, fantastic, celestial and pious all at once; Noah, gay as the time he drank too much wine, kisses St. Benoit on both stony cheeks, cheeks eroded by the tears of the rain. At the tympan of the Old Testament they awaken the statues; the whole bizarre throng of Genesis, from Adam to Nathanael, arises.

And now they make their way along the exterior of the cathedral, along the balconies, under the flying buttresses; from time to time they pause and gaze down from the parapets on the sleeping village below. A rising murmur fills the towers and spires, and vibrates against the stone roses from which the petals fall soundlessly on the parvis; the light folds of the virgins’ draperies flutter.

“What is it?” all the Biblical figures whisper. “Why are you awakening us?”

All the saints of the New Testament now, the great saints from St. Martin to St. Louis, from the apostles to the most humble monks, have stepped out from their places. They are all different, no one is of the same size or height...there are large ones, lean in their long straight robes, little ones in their mantles and hoods. Some wear crowns, some miters...some are barefoot, others shod in the finest sandals; but they are all very old, very good, very holy—and very beautiful with all the beauty of Gothic sculpture.

And amid all this, St. Benoit continues to preach.

And the statues are immediately again on the roofs, the galleries, the towers, the tympans and the pillars, in their places of worldly immobility; and their escapade of an eve of Noël would never have been known to man had the poet not read in their ecstatic eyes the miraculous vision of which they dream now until the end of time.

And the Franciscans leave the cathedral, climb once more the pillars and the lintels, “up to the highest and most hidden corners, and coax forth the fantastic fauna of the Middle Ages: horses, goats, hippocamps, crabs, scorpions, bulls and the beasts of the Apocalypse, all chiseled with love in the ateliers of the time of St. Louis. The animals descend, tumbling and leaping and cavorting, and under the guidance of the little Brothers, take their places in the majestic nave of the cathedral. The whole of the animal creation is there beside the ox and ass of Bethlehem: sheep, quail, piglets, lions, eagles and all the birds of the islands and the heavens, and all the fish of the oceans and all the creatures of the Gothic imagination.

All the sculptures of the cathedral are there, but alas, the Divine Infant does not descend. The angels sing in vain, St. Joseph struggles against drowsiness, the little donkey has cramps in his knees; all the little animals disport themselves like acrobats to divert the mother of God—but Jesus is not reborn.

But where is St. Benoit?

“Benoit? Benoit?” the saints whisper.

Benoit breaks through the crowd. Having put aside his cross and miter of abbot, Benoit lifts up on a fine folded cloth a beautiful smiling child, all glorious, with a globe of the world in one hand and a royal crown on His brow. On both knees before the Virgin, Benoit speaks:

“Woman. Woman. Here is your son.”

The saints are ecstatic, the apse glorious with supernatural light; the little animals twitter with ineffable joy in the torrent of grace, the Paradise, which descends upon them.

But suddenly a volley of bells shakes the cathedral. From the high belfries glistening in the dawn comes the rumble of the huge bells, howling like the ocean, into the overturned vessel where the saints of stone are praying.

“The angelus! The angelus!”

“My brothers, we are here to find the Holy Mother of God. So be it.”

“So be it,” they all mumble after him. “But what do you think of this, Chrysostome? A pretty sermon, but Benoit is making fun of us. Why does he waken us like this after so many centuries?”

But St. Benoit does not let himself be intimidated by either the kings or the people—far less by the clergy. Undaunted, he leads the crowd of saints toward the apse. For it is at the apse, high on the gable as on the prow of a ship, that the figure of the Virgin Mary stands, Our Lady of the Waves, for the protection of mariners. The saints press forward along the balconies, perch on the arches and on the lead roof; then from the throng arises an exquisite prayer towards the Madonna. Her hands joined, her head crowned, she steps forth from among the stars which sprinkle the velvety drapery of the sky; she listens to them and then smiles.

“Merciful Virgin, beautiful Madonna,” St. Benoit chants as the others chorus behind him.

“Queen! Queen of the angels!” the cherubs shout enthusiastically...

St. Benoit speaks:

“Hail, Mary, full of grace. But the Saviour is not with you, and it is the eve of Noël. My brothers and I—we would be so happy if you would—”

“That Benoit, would you believe it,” mutters St. Onesiphore. “What audacity!”

“If you would, Holy Mother, relive among us the feast of the Nativity.”

A great silence falls on the cathedral; all are silent, holding their breath, listening. “Relive the Nativity.”

And in answer the Virgin steps down from her flowered pedestal. But St. Benoit stops her as she places one foot on the gutter. He is in command.

“This must be done properly,” he says. “You must not go on foot, my lady, we—”

“We will carry you,” volunteer the tiny angels who have but the tips of wings on their shoulders.

“Angels! Will you do me the kindness of going off to play elsewhere? And just as fast as you can.” St. Benoit climbs up on a broken buttress and then orders: “This way, Old Testament. All the Old Testament, by hierarchic order, naturally. But of course, Adam and Eve first. Please let them move up to the head of the line—the kings next. Then the prophets—hurry up, kings, will you please hurry up. There now, all the Old Testament marches in front. Yes, the angels can play their trumpets—but not too loudly! Don’t play yet, angels! Wait a minute! O Holy Mother, what a lot of trouble!”

“Perhaps you would like your friends near you?” simpers St. Pacome.

“My friend,” the Virgin says, “I wish only Jo-seph near to me—”

“Oh, St. Joseph!” exclaims St. Benoit. “I forgot all about St. Joseph! Where are you, Joseph? Joseph?”

The crowd of statues turns in search of the blessed carpenter. He is not to be found.

“St. Exupere, would you go and look for St. Joseph? Tell him that Madame the Virgin asks for him.’’ St. Exupere and his cohorts go off.

“The New Testament will follow after Our Mother,” Benoit commands. “The apostles first, yes, the apostles. St. Peter, stand there please, beside your brother. St. Paul—ah, but St. Paul, still preaching? You set a bad example! But no, look now, after the apostles come the martyrs. The popes? The popes? Will your Holinesses please be more cooperative! After the monks—yes, after them.”

At this moment there is a stir in the crowd and St. Exupere emerges.

“Here is Joseph, long live St. Joseph,” shout the saints. “Where was he?”

“Joseph thinks of everything. While we were here fussing futilely, he went to find the only mount which God has glorified on this earth—for the services which he rendered to the Mother and the Son. St. Joseph went to find—

And the poor man of Nazareth steps aside; there stands a donkey. Alas, a very little donkey, from the tyrnpan of the flight into Egypt; skinny, low slung, and missing ears and tail.

The Virgin smiles at her husband and then at the beast. With her beautiful fine hand of white stone, Our Lady strokes the worn little back; it is still solid enough in its carving, however, to carry the Madonna. And then with infinite precaution, for Mary suddenly feels herself heavy as on the day she left Nazareth, the maidens help her mount the blessed donkey.

St. Benoit, hoarse with emotion, announces:

“On route for the procession of Noël!”

Across the roofs of the old Gothic cathedral, among the marvelous stone lilies and vines, among the treasures worked by men who were artists and artisans who were saints, the wonderful and droll procession of statues advances.

See them pass...across the luxuriant flora of stone flowers and rose windows and arabesques...down the stairways of the towers, advancing onto the large square before the cathedral where not even a dog scampers. The nave is soon filled, then the transepts, even the rood loft. The Virgin meanwhile has reached the chapel in the apse, her chapel.

On the steps of the high altar the Virgin reposes.

Joseph, leaning on his staff, contemplates her, half smiling, half sad. To one side, the little donkey kneels, and at the other an ox from the niche of St. Matthew all gaze upon the open space of blue and gold carpet where Jesus is to be born.

The throng of saints presses close to the screen of the choir which the beloved St. John has closed about his mother. The Old Testament and the New Testament await the Nativity, But just then St. Francis in his cowl approaches St. Benoit.

“My brother Benoit,’’ he says. “It is not only mankind who should witness the Birth of Our Saviour. Our brothers the beasts would like to rejoice around the Virgin—”