New Delhi, India
August 10, 2009
We’d already visited the Cathédrale St Nicholas and the Basilique Nôtre Dame next door to the Franciscan Church, both impressive enough in their own right, and this one looked unprepossessing in comparison. On the outside, it was nothing exceptional: a large building of pale buff stone, with a reddish-brown tiled roof and virtually no decoration on the outside.
Once inside, we discovered that the Eglise des Cordeliers is a building obviously designed by someone who believes in hiding one’s candle under a bushel: remove the bushel, and hey presto!—happy surprise. Unlike the series of gloomy Gothic churches we’d been visiting, this one was bright, light and airy on the inside. The interior is painted white, with tall windows all along the sides and at the far end, round the altar. Rows of arches outlined in pearl grey separate the nave from the chapels on either side. On the ceiling, and along the arch separating the choir stalls from the rest of the church, are swirling floral patterns of subdued colours: red, grey, gold and pale blue. With a little bit of effort, we were able to see details of the pattern: above each arch is a depiction of a golden urn, overflowing with fruit, flowers and foliage. The rest of the pattern—which resembles ribbons curving their way across the ceiling—is largely abstract.
After having admired the ceiling (and the simple silvery chandeliers that hang from it), we explored the church a little further by embarking on a clockwise circuit of the interior. All round the sides are small chapels, each made of highly polished stone used as an altar and as an ornate, heavy frame for a painting. The paintings are uniformly well made, depicting various scenes from the Bible, invariably pertaining to whichever saint the chapel’s dedicated to. Appropriately, the Franciscan monks, in their dark habits, appear in several of the paintings!
We found one of the most striking of the works in the church near the front door itself: a wooden triptych dating back to the early 16th century. This is an extremely ornate work of art, intricately carved and painted with a (in my opinion) too lavish use of gilt. The side leaves of the triptych depict the birth of Christ and the Adoration of the Magi, while the central panel depicts the crucifixion. The latter is the most interesting: the expressions on the faces of the grieving women, the jeering mob and the smug Pharisees are very well executed, but the artist falls flat on his face when it comes to clothing. The men all wear costumes that belong to 16th century Europe, not Christ’s Israel. What made me giggle was the clothing (rather, lack of it) on the two thieves crucified alongside Christ. Christ is depicted in a decorous swirling loincloth, but the two robbers get the short end of the stick: one of them’s wearing a very tight pair of Boxer shorts with a prominent codpiece, the other is in what looks like a woman’s undies, and that too fairly risqué. Delightful!
The other major work of art in the church is at the far end, beyond the choir stalls: an altarpiece designed, according to our Insight Guide, by the Master of the Carnation. ‘The Master of the Carnation’, incidentally, was the title given to the 15th century Swiss painter Paul Löwensprung. The altarpiece is a large, five-panelled affair made of wood. Like the triptych, this one too depicts the birth and subsequent adoration of Christ on the side panels, with the crucifixion in the centre. That’s where the resemblance ends; Löwensprung’s work is a more stately, accomplished and uncluttered one, with very few figures in it. The background is gilded and decorated with a damask-like pattern of darker gold; other than that, the colours are all muted, the figures life-like and imposing.
This end of the church had one last attraction to offer: the Gothic choir stalls, intricately carved and highly polished, dating from the 13th century.
All in all, a beautiful church and well worth a visit. If you’re at the Cathédrale St Nicholas next door, make it a point to stop by here for a few minutes too.
From journal Fribourg: The Best of Both Worlds