VIOLA: Save thee, friend, and thy music: dost thou live by thy labour?
Feste: No, sir, I live by the church.
VIOLA: Art thou a churchman?
Feste: No such matter, sir: I do live by the church; for I do live at my house, and my house doth stand by the church.
—Twelfth Night, Act III sc.1
Once when I was touring a European cathedral—I can’t remember which one because, well, even though I was a student and supposed to be studious they kind of tended to run together for me—the guide took the group to a collection of carved figures in one of the transepts. They were mostly demonic creatures—not technically gargoyles since gargoyles are outside and designed to sluice water—but one was a man frowning. The guide told us that this might have been a self-portrait or it may have been the artist’s caricature of someone he knew. It made me realize something that should have been obvious: behind every carving, behind every piece, was at least one person. The building of cathedrals employed hundreds and even thousands of people, most of them highly skilled artisans—so many that there wasn’t always a lot of oversight and artists could get pretty creative. In a different cathedral the guide gleefully pointed us to a nearly hidden carving of a couple in a 69 position, but that’s another story.
Baroque and Rococo design didn’t just add a lot of flair and frippery to cathedrals and other monuments. They provided work to artists, and an outlet for creative impulses. And I don’t mean to make flair and frippery sound like a bad thing either. Taking an ordinary object and giving it its own unique aesthetics makes it more interesting, maybe even more valuable. At the very least it gives artists something to do, which just goes to show that even if it ain’t Baroque it can still be fixed.
Thanks for this gem and for framing it with Twelfth Night, which we just saw at the Stratford Festival on Sunday. My favourite Shakespearean play, and it was a delight always, just like your writing:-)
That’s fantastic that I unintentionally timed this so perfectly, just after you saw Twelfth Night. It sounds like it was a fun production, and it really is one of Shakespeare’s best and funniest plays.
I’m so happy I llve by you here, Chris.
Thank you for that reminder that the internet is an amazing tool that can allow people who live great distances from each other to be side-by-side.