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Metz Cathedral at 800: The extraordinary art and architecture of 'God's Lantern'

Updated 30th November 2020
Cathédrale Saint Etienne de Metz illuminée, France.
Credit: Denis BRINGARD/Gamma-Rapho/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Metz Cathedral at 800: The extraordinary art and architecture of 'God's Lantern'
Written by Oscar Holland, CNN
It has been eight centuries, to the year, since Pope Honorius III issued an edict to raise money for a new cathedral in the city of Metz. And while it would be years before the first stone was laid, and three centuries until the building was complete, the French city has chosen 2020 to celebrate the birthday of a spectacular structure known as "God's Lantern."
It is a nickname befitting both of the building's distinctive honey-like glow -- a property of the local limestone -- and an expanse of stained glass that is among the world's largest. Featuring one of the tallest naves in Gothic architecture, Metz Cathedral (or to give it its formal name, the Cathedral of Saint Stephen) can be considered among the finest examples of medieval church-building.
And yet, it is far less famous than similarly-sized contemporaries, namely Cologne Cathedral and Notre Dame in Paris. According to Christoph Brachmann, who specializes in medieval art and architecture at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, this is due to Metz's long history of political wrangling, which saw the city change hands between kingdoms and empires.
The tall, narrow nave of Metz Cathedral.
The tall, narrow nave of Metz Cathedral. Credit: Philippe Clement/Arterra/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
"It shows just how national the perspective of art historians is," he said in a phone interview.
"The cathedral doesn't fit in any national context. Lorraine (the region Metz is located in) moved back and forth, from the 16th century, between France and Germany ... so it never served as a point of identification for either."
As a result, the building remains one of Western Europe's better-kept secrets, despite its unique architecture and a history that has seen it survive war, fire and sieges. And for fans of renowned artist Marc Chagall, it is something of a pilgrimage site -- in the late 1950s, the painter joined a centuries-long line of artisans to produce stained glass windows for the church.
Even now, the cathedral is evolving, with South Korean artist Kimsooja set to unveil a futuristic window design next year.

Reverence for the past

When the pope issued his decree in 1220, Metz was one of the largest and most important commercial hubs in the Holy Roman Empire. With Europe's architectural tastes progressing, the flourishing city would, by the middle of that century, replace many of its buildings with -- or renovate them in the style of -- Gothic ones.
An architectural detail on the church's ornate Gothic exterior.
An architectural detail on the church's ornate Gothic exterior. Credit: Bertrand Machet/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
Three dozen of them have survived to today, albeit "in varying states of preservation," according to Brachmann's research. What ties them together is the use of Jaumont limestone, which can only be quarried from a few hectares of land just outside Metz. With iron oxide giving it a vivid yellow hue, the stone was cut into uniform blocks and, though expensive at the time, used in structures across the city.
Metz Cathedral was the most impressive among them. But while the church bears many of the hallmarks of Gothic architecture -- flying buttresses, ribbed vaults and an ornate pointed spire -- the design broke with many of the traditions of the time.
Its low arcade and the absence of a two-towered western facade are both considered atypical, according to Brachmann. The building's small footprint also means that the church is remarkably narrow and is not orientated along the traditional west-east axis.
Some of this may be attributed to the steep hill found on one side. But it also appears that the cathedral was designed to preserve structures already on the site, which had been home to religious architecture long before the 13th century.
An aerial image of Metz's old town and cathedral.
An aerial image of Metz's old town and cathedral. Credit: Blom UK/Getty Images
This is evident, Brachmann said, in one of the building's most striking historical quirks: That the unknown architect incorporated an existing church into his design, rather than ordering its demolition and starting from scratch.
"Obviously they didn't want to destroy history in this case," Brachmann said of the apparent reverence towards Metz's architectural heritage. "The normal thing would have been to say (to those occupying the surrounding buildings), 'We'll give you some money and some land and you can move there.' This was the case in Amiens, when they extended the cathedral there in the 13th century.
"It would be the normal thing to do. What happened at Metz was very unusual."

Evolving through the ages

Construction would take another 300 years to complete, which was slow even by medieval standards. Aside from the logistical challenges, various other events contributed to the delay -- not least the War of Metz and a siege in the 1320s, as well as economic downturns and the Black Death's rampage throughout Europe.
While the cathedral was finally completed in 1520 (or thereabouts), it has continued to change with the prevailing tastes of the day.
A 14th-century rose window at Metz Cathedral.
A 14th-century rose window at Metz Cathedral. Credit: Philippe Clement/Arterra/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
During the Enlightenment, the Duke of Belle-Isle ordered the demolition of the cloister and buildings next to the cathedral to make way for a public square. Later in the 18th century, architect Jacques-François Blondel led a neoclassical renovation that saw the addition of a colonnade and portico, features more associated with ancient Greek temples than medieval churches.
With interest in Gothic architecture reignited in the 19th century, much of Blondel's work was then reversed. Many of the period's neo-Gothic alterations, however, resulted from an accidental fire in 1877 (caused by fireworks marking the visit of Kaiser Wilhelm I), according to Vivienne Rudd of Inspire Metz, the tourism agency that partnered with the cathedral for its 800th anniversary celebrations.
"Metz was lucky because the fire started on the outside and didn't ... damage the vaults too badly," she said in a phone interview.
The interior of Metz Cathedral pictured in 2012.
The interior of Metz Cathedral pictured in 2012. Credit: Jean-Christophe Verhaegen/AFP/Getty Images
In a parallel to the aftermath of the recent blaze at Notre Dame in Paris, almost 200 miles away, discussion on how to rebuild the roof ensued, Rudd added.
"When they put the new roof on, they thought, 'Oh yes, let's make it taller.' They then had to add extra decoration onto the cathedral so it would still look impressive. And they actually made it look a little bit more Gothic than it did before."

A 'play of light and shadow'

With around 6,500 square meters (70,000 square feet) of stained glass windows, the story of Metz Cathedral is not just one of religion and architecture -- it's one of art. The three are, however, closely linked: The development of flying buttresses during the Gothic period helped reduce the stress on load-bearing walls, allowing for larger openings that could be filled with dazzling displays of color.
Some of the cathedral's 70,000-square-foot collection of stained glass.
Some of the cathedral's 70,000-square-foot collection of stained glass. Credit: Shutterstock
Metz Cathedral's design took full advantage, and the resulting effect is a "play of light and shadow," Rudd said.
"At the time, all Gothic buildings had big windows and lots of stained glass, but what's particular in Metz is that we have so much of it," she explained. "The Book of Revelation (says) that after the day of judgement, you go to heaven and into this 'new Jerusalem.' It talks about the walls of the city being like colored jewels -- and this is what they tried to recreate with stained glass."
Through the years, the church has commissioned designs by artists spanning eras and styles. The three tiers of windows feature work by one of the 14th century's most famous glassmakers, Hermann von Münster, and that of renaissance artist Valentin Bousch less than 200 years later.
The romantic Charles-Laurent Maréchal contributed ornate religious scenes, while cubist Jacques Villon played with figuration and abstraction through jagged shards of color in the middle of the 20th century. French artist Roger Bissière, meanwhile, contributed a window comprising a mass of tiny quadrilateral pieces, chaotic in their placement but with clearer rationale when viewed from afar.
For Rudd, the modern windows' lack of figuration can produce a meditative affect. "When I look at the windows by Bissière, I always think that while they don't represent anything (specific), they're the sort of thing you could look at if you just want to stop thinking about anything and empty your mind."
Celebrated artist Marc Chagall produced a number of stained glass windows for the cathedral.
Celebrated artist Marc Chagall produced a number of stained glass windows for the cathedral. Credit: Rene Mattes/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
The most famous of the windows, however, are those by Marc Chagall. Openly inspired by biblical themes, the -- albeit non-practicing -- Jewish modernist used his commission to depict Old Testament figures central to both religions. Chagall, in his 70s at the time, dedicated much of his later career to stained glass, with his painterly technique giving his windows their distinctive swirling appearance.
"For me a stained glass window is a transparent partition between my heart and the heart of the world," Chagall said in 1962, at the opening of an Israeli synagogue that also bore some of his designs. "Stained glass has to be serious and passionate. It is something elevating and exhilarating. It has to live through the perception of light."
Marc Chagall works on a stained glass window for placement in Metz Cathedral.
Marc Chagall works on a stained glass window for placement in Metz Cathedral. Credit: Paul Almasy/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images

Stepping into the future

Metz's evolution doesn't end with Chagall. On November 2021, the cathedral's 800th anniversary program will culminate with the next step in the building's history: the unveiling of new stained glass windows.
Joining the rollcall of master glassmakers will be conceptual artist Kimsooja. In doing so, she will become not only the first non-European and first 21st-century artist to contribute a design, but also the first woman.
Precise details are yet to be announced, though the artist's rainbow-inspired installations offer a glimpse into her ultramodern approach.
A preview of South Korean artist Kimsooja's stained glass window, set to be unveiled next year.
A preview of South Korean artist Kimsooja's stained glass window, set to be unveiled next year. Credit: DRAC Paris/Atelier Parot/Kimsooja Studio
"She's using nano-particles to transform light," revealed Rudd, who has already seen some of the South Korean artist's test panels. "It's like when you have a prism, and it breaks into a spectrum of different colors."
"It almost looks like fixed colors, but if you look (closer), you see that it's moving slightly, and the colors are changing," she added. "As the light gets diffused, or as a cloud comes past, it will make a slight flickering."
Such innovation seems a fitting addition to a building that has, for the past eight centuries, strived to change with times.
This article was updated to clarify that the Inspire Metz tourism agency partnered with the cathedral for its 800th anniversary celebrations.