Notre-Dame of the Craftsmen

I’m sitting at my friend Penny’s kitchen island, sipping a glass of wine and catching up on accumulated news and gossip, when news flashes on my phone screen.  Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris is burning. I read it out loud, incredulous. Penny turns on BBC News and in silence and shock, we watch the flames destroy the vaulted Medieval roof and spire and threaten the two front towers and the famous rose window between them. Millions of people are having the same reaction, although not everyone is silent about it. Twitter is going mad.  On the TV, people of all ages have gathered by the Hotel de Ville, the Paris town hall across the river from Notre-Dame. Many are weeping, their tears illuminated by the glow of the fire. We watch the spire fall, the roof disappear. We hear commentators saying that it might not be possible to save Notre-Dame at all. We go to bed not knowing what will happen. Will Notre-Dame be nothing but a pile of rubble tomorrow morning?



Wikimedia Commons

Later, I remember my first visit to Notre-Dame, when I was 11 years’ old.  My family and I were spending a few days in Paris. We all love history and art, so Notre-Dame was one of the first items on our ‘Essential Sights’ list. I have a habit of wandering off when I’m in a group, and protected by the beautiful pillars and vaults of Notre-Dame, I drifted away from my parents and little sister. I was staring at the light filtering through the stained glass rose window, when I overheard a conversation a few feet away from me.

“The master of works – what we’d call the head architect today – commissioned masters from the various corporation of builders and craftsmen. Every corporation had its masters, who were the top specialists in their craft.  They engaged other skilled workers called journeymen, as well as training apprentices in their craft.”

An old man was talking to a boy of roughly my age. I edged up to listen and he stopped and smiled at me.

“You want to know how they built the cathedral, 800 years ago?” I nodded vigorously. “Come on, then, join us.” And though I’d been warned more than once not to talk to strangers, I didn’t think of refusing. Besides, the other child seemed OK, for a boy.

“Are you a historian?” I asked.

The boy corrected me. “My granddad used to be an architect specialising in conservation and restoration”, he said. “I’m going to do the same thing when I’m grown up.”

That afternoon, I heard how the stonemasons, glass cutters, carpenters, sculptors had all imprinted their stamp on their work, even though we didn’t know all of their their names. Their skill lived on in the stone, the wood, the glass, the buttresses and vaults, the statues and the carvings. It was as strong as the faith that had inspired the cathedral. Stronger even, as the faith had dwindled from its height in the 12th and 13th centuries, while the beauty and power of the craft lived on.


Villard de Hannecourt, sketches of Notre-Dame carpentry, 13th century.


From that time, I’ve seen Notre-Dame not as an inanimate old building, the legacy of a time of all-pervading faith, but as a complex and vibrant organism created by skilled craftsmen and masters, who poured in their skill, their artistry, their love and their sweat into every chisel mark, carved leaf, every coloured and cut piece of glass. Those who created the cathedral between the 12th and 14th centuries. Those who continued, modified or added to it between the 15th and 17th centuries. Those who wept at its decay in the 18th century. Those who turned what was a Gothic miracle of architecture and engineering into an Enlightenment Temple of Reason during the French Revolution. Those who repaired and restored the neglected church in the 19th century, when they rebuilt the fallen spire and made it much taller than the original Medieval steeple. Thousands of workmen, skilled craftsmen, designers, artists and architects passed on thousands of stories in their sketches, materials and the work of their hands. Before I fall asleep that night,  I can’t help crying for the old architect and for the generations of craftsmen who together built the marvel we know as Notre-Dame of Paris, and whose work could be lost forever.

Over breakfast, we find out that the 400 or so firefighters battling the flames brought the fire under control, having saved much of the structure – including the two towers and the rose window. Notre-Dame would be rebuilt. A new generation of architects and craftsmen would bring their living skill, their art, their vision, their love and the sweat of their hard work and embed it in stone, metal, glass or wood. The old architect’s grandson, if he fulfilled his childhood ambition and followed in his grandfather’s path, must be at the height of his expertise and career by now. Perhaps he’d be involved in the restoration of Notre-Dame? I can’t help hoping that he would.

Soul of the rose

When Eros, the god of passion and sexual love, wed Psyche, a maiden whose name means ‘soul’, the daughters of Zeus, the Hours and the Graces, scattered roses about the land and made all glow with the beauty of the rose. The soul of the rose is the marriage of the erotic and the spiritual, the alliance of the physical scent, silk velvet and intricate folds of the rose with its intangible powers of seduction and compassion.

Waterhouse, The Soul of the Rose

The other day, as I smelled one of the late roses growing in my parents’ garden, and later, my small bottle of precious rose otto oil, I caught a powerful  scent of pepper.  One of the chemotypes of the rose, eugenol, is  also found in peppercorns, cloves, cardamom and many spices, as well as in carnations.  But chemistry will only bring us so far into the soul of the rose. That whiff of pepper carried me, as on the Poniente wind, from a small rocky garden on a hillside in Andalusia across the seas to ‘a land of spices’, the island of Sri Lanka, which I explored with my parents when I was ten years old, just before the war.  There I saw my first black pepper vine. From Sri Lanka, I flew to a small coffee stall in Basra souk, where an ancient man served me a coffee laced with cardamom and sugar, right next to a spice shop overflowing with wares from all over the Arabian Peninsula, the Horn of Africa, India and beyond. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man hold a rose to his nostrils, breathing in deeply. It 2003, in the middle of the war, and Basra had just fallen to the British Army.  In that small gesture, in that strong-scented rose, there was not a whiff of war.

rose in our garden, Andalusia.  Photograph: SN

After that war, and after another, I settled in my home city of Geneva for a while, in a flat on the 9th floor overlooking Mont-Blanc. I grew herbs, tomatoes and roses.  Below is one of my favourite roses –  one of most fragrant in the world,  with a voluptuous  scent of Rose de Mai with a hint of lemon,  the Bolshoï, a hardy hybrid tea rose named after the famed Russian ballet company.  I grew several bushes of it and they thrived for many years, filling my home with their powerful smell of love, dance, sex and spices.

Bolchoi rose, grown by me.


in the garden of the Generalife, Alhambra, Granada.

Then there were canals with does planted by them,
does that were hollow, pouring water,
sprinkling the plants planted in the garden-beds,
casting pure water upon them,
watering the myrtle-garden
treetops fresh and sprinkling,
and everything was fragrant as spices,
everything as if it were perfumed with myrrh.
Birds were singing in the boughs,
peering through the palm-fronds,
and there were fresh and lovely blossoms–
rose, narcissus, and saffron —
each one boasting that he was the best,
(though we thought every one was beautiful).

from The Palace and The Garden, Solomon Ibn Gabirol, Al-Andalus, 11th Century.

I came to Andalusia by twisted pathways, but once here, I fell in love. With the land, with the people, with all the living things here, and with the stunning Alhambra palace and its gardens, poems of fountains and damask roses set in geometrical shapes and, in the North-east of the gardens,  against a semi-wilderness.

Pink-gold Damascene roses_Alhambra

The Alhambra, for all its beauty and majesty, was the dying glory of a brilliant transplanted civilisation, al-Andalus, known to us as Moorish Spain. Knowing that makes its roses all the more poignant. We can’t know the Soul of the Rose without accepting, loving even, the heartbreaking transience of roses, which reminds us of our own. No sooner do they bloom than they start to fade, their scent wafting away in the breeze. After the most beautiful rose has died, its soul remains, a memory of its  smell – soft or powerful – of the satin touch of its petals against our fingers and cheek, of its delicate architecture, a love that refuses to die, a sadness that will not be consoled, a vibrancy that gives fully of itself in attar of roses and all the great perfumes created from it, and fills the land with roses.

We are so very little, as my friend the rose
Told me this morning.
“At dawn I was born, baptised with dew-drops
I blossomed, happy, in love.
In the ray of the sun, I closed for the night and woke up old. 
And yet I was beautiful, yes, the most beautiful
rose in your garden.”

…. We are so very little, and my friend the rose
Died this morning. 
The moon in darkness kept a vigil for my friend,
But I saw her in my dream, lighting up the nights
Her soul was dancing well above the clouds,

She smiled at me.
Believe me if you wish
But I need to hope, or I am nothing,
Or else so very little. 

time machine

The heat that pushed us indoors during these dog days of the Alpine summer has placed me in front of the grandfather clock in the only cool room in the chalet, the dining-sitting room, for hours – working, socialising, keeping fresh. Every hour it strikes the hour twice, at the exact time and two minutes later – ‘in case we didn’t hear it the first time’ my mother says, and on the half-hour, once. It’s a clear chime, which carries throughout the chalet, even with the doors shut : there is no chance of not hearing it and so when we go to bed, we remove the lead weight that sets off the clock every half-hour. Then only the unrelenting pendulum swings loudly in the night.


It’s long since I examined this symbol both of time fleeing and permanence. Its casing is rough, rustic, hewn together some 150 years ago from fir wood by a peasant in the mountains of Maurienne in Savoy. Over time it has been polished with beeswax until its patina darkened its colour to a deep honey.

The mechanism comes from the Jura mountains, watch country to this day, where clockmakers used to work in small workshops and sent clock and watch mechanisms throughout Europe. The tin-glazed clock face is surrounded by a detailed brass bas relief depicting a mountain huntsman brandishing a rifle, a dog at his side, on a stylised background of oak leaves, acorns and ivy.


I’m wondering about the three men who made this clock. The clockmaker, unusually, did not mark his name or area on the clock face. The bas-relief artist must have worked with the clockmaker, perhaps in the same workshop or close by, to order. He and the peasant-carpenter remain as anonymous as the clockmaker (how do I know he was not a trained carpenter? Because he made an uneven, rough casing out of what looks like the ends of wood used for making other, larger furniture.) The peasant who bought the mechanism with this decorated clock face was not poor : he could afford a good quality movement that still works 150 years later and tells the right time to the minute. But he was not rich: he had to build his own case, out of cheap fir wood. He made it to last, using thick square wood pegs to hold together the strong boards.


He invested in two pieces of glass: a large necessary one in front of the clock face, and a smaller one he must have chosen for his own pleasure, revealing the brass pendulum, battered by time.


Was he a grandfather, assembling his clock during his well-deserved retirement from back-breaking high altitude Alpine farming and animal husbandry? Or perhaps a mountain guide who whiled away his winter evenings in a makeshift workshop in the decades before winter sports took over the Maurienne and turned his descendants into skiing instructors and ski patrollers in the resorts above Albertville. Was he a young man building a clock for his wife-to-be, to impress her parents and prove his resilience and time-worthiness?

His way of life has disappeared from the Alps. His land was sold to make ski slopes and build chalets for tourists. His great-great-grandchildren live in flats and few of them would know how to make a grandfather clock case. His family sold his clock, perhaps to buy some newly necessary household item or simply because it was old and out of fashion. In the 1960s, Alpine antique dealers went from farm to farm, buying clocks, chests, beds and tables, often for next to nothing from families who didn’t realise their value and timeless beauty.

There is still a handful of bas-relief artists and traditional clockmakers in the Jura, but most have closed their workshops, replaced by high-tech workers or cheaper mass-producing factory workers, many of them in Asia. They too have been overtaken by relentless time.

We collect these ancient rustic pieces to give ourselves a window onto a past that was never ours. The grandfather clock is a time machine to a lost world, a magical bridge to a traditional clockmaker, a brass-working artist in the valleys of the Jura and a mountain peasant-carpenter whose life left no other trace of its passage and culture. Time was slower when that clock was made. It has accelerated beyond the imaginings of its makers, faster than the skiers who whizz down those mountains in winter. Yet the clock is still there and tells the time in the way it always did. It has just struck six: the same six chimes the farmer heard in his rugged wood and stone house 150 years ago. Time has passed. Time has stood still.