Featuring worldwide places known for their art, sculptures, monuments, landmarks, travel articles

London – Westminster Abbey

Posted in United Kingdom  by admin on January 10th, 2010

Church, burial ground, coronation site and much more, Westminster Abbey continues to attract visitors over 900 years after its founding.

In many respects the architecture is common. There’s the traditional cross-shaped floor plan with a nave, north and south transepts and several round side areas. But both its execution and use raise The Collegiate Church of St Peter, Westminster (the official name) to among the highest examples of church construction.

For, here lie buried kings and poets, scientists and philosophers who have themselves raised humankind to the highest levels. Isaac Newton and James Clerk Maxwell (discoverer of electromagnetic theory, which later lead to radio and TV), Chaucer and Kipling, Dr. Samuel Johnson (creator of the first English dictionary) and many other justly famous names are interred here.

Here lie many of the kings of English history. Henry III, for example, who reigned from the age of nine for 56 years, is buried in the Abbey. Much of the current structure owes its origins to his efforts.

New discoveries are still being made within its walls. As recently as 2005 the burial tomb of its founder, Edward the Confessor (Edward I) was discovered beneath a 1268 AD Cosmati mosaic. A number of other royal tombs dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries were also found using ground penetrating radar.

But far from being merely about the dead, here the centuries of history come alive. Still an active church, Westminster Abbey is the site of services and events for all denominations. Used for every coronation since William the Conqueror’s in 1066, pageantry combines with austerity to create an atmosphere of grandeur.

That grandeur can be seen in the enormous vaulted ceilings, typical of early Gothic design. But the artistic grandeur combines with technological brilliance. Just as one example, the support arches are not the ornate visible ones, but are actually enclosed within the thick stone roof.

The art housed by the Abbey makes the site worth visiting. Inside the west entrance is a portrait of Richard II, painted in 1390, making it one of the oldest known contemporary portraits of a British monarch.

There are several outstanding monuments in the nave, including those depicting Winston Churchill and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior of WWI. This last was the last full-body interment in the abbey. Only containers of ashes are allowed now.

From the cloister, walk to the octagonal Chapter House near Poet’s Corner, one of the earliest constructed sections, built at the time of Henry III. Here you can see the mixture of architectural styles forming the Abbey, as the result of additions made over the centuries.

Stroll over to the south transept to view the original rose window with its nearby rare medieval sculpture. Three dimensional art was often considered sinful during the period.

Then stand near the center where the various architectural elements join and take in a 360 degree view. Almost 1,000 years of history in a brief glance, still alive and still being made.

The Abbey is easily reached by the tube (the London Underground subway system). Exit at the St James Park stop.

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Remember the Alamo

Posted in United States  by admin on December 17th, 2009

The Alamo, officially named the San Antonio de Valero Mission, is a former mission and military fort in San Antonio, Texas. It is now a museum drawing people interested in Texas history. When people say “Remember the Alamo”, they are referring to a significant battle in Texas’s Revolution against Mexico. The entire event lasted for thirteen days in February and March of 1836. It is famous for heavy rebel losses and illustrious participants, including the Mexican President Santa Anna and David Crockett.

This mission was first conceived of in 1716 and a Spanish viceroy authorized its construction. As the first in a chain of missions along the San Antonio River, it was intended as a vocational school for Native Americans after their conversion to Christianity. Training options included cattle-raising, weaving, carpentry, and stone masonry. However, the church was not completed until 1757, and mission activity was already waning by the mid-1760s! The Church abandoned the site by the 1790s.

Spanish soldiers, noting the defensive potential of the mission’s 12-foot walls, took over in 1803. In the coming years, Spain and Mexico would battle for control of land in North America. After the Mexican War of Independence in 1821, Texas became part of Mexican territory; it was part of a new state called “Coahila y Tejas”.

The Mexican government encouraged people from the US to settle this land. Hundreds of families, both American and Mexican, accepted the invitation. However, after the land became settled and colonists formed provincial governments, the Mexican government increased centralization of power.

Settlers became uncomfortable with President Santa Anna’s centralizing of government. In their view, the 1824 Constitution of Mexico guaranteed stronger states’ rights. Meanwhile, part of the centralization plan included dividing Coahila y Tejas into two states, one of which was Tejas.

Coahila soon seceded to become part of the short-lived Republic of the Rio Grande. Tejas declared its independence on March 2, 1835 and named itself the Republic of Texas. Settlers provoked the Mexican government early on by taking over military positions in La Bahia and San Antonio. In response, Santa Anna assembled 6,500 soldiers and led many to San Antonio’s Alamo Mission. Thousands of men may have deserted before arrival, but still, they greatly outnumbered the rebels fortressed in the Alamo.

Although they received reinforcements, the Texan rebels were outnumbered and could not sustain more than two weeks of attacks which inside their fortress. Ultimately, the Mexicans penetrated the old mission and killed most of the remaining soldiers through hand-to-hand combat. When the fighting was over, the Mexican forces left only sixteen alive. Most of these survivors were women, slaves, and children.

Although the revolutionaries did not win the Battle of the Alamo, their battle benefited the rebels’ cause overall. Emotionally, the battle stirred up settlers all across Texas and increased their resolve against President Santa Anna. Strategically, Santa Anna’s troops were stalled at the Alamo for two weeks. This allowed General Houston to assemble soldiers and supplies for a critical upcoming battle. Houston would later defeat Mexico in the decisive Battle of San Jacinto. Santa Anna would be captured while sneaking off the next day, and the revolutionaries would go on to win their independence. From 1836 to 1845, the Republic of Texas would be a sovereign state between the US and Mexico.

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The Washington Monument

Posted in Sculptures & Monuments, United States  by admin on November 30th, 2009

The Washington Monument, which is visible from almost everywhere in Washington, D.C., is truly a city landmark. The 555-foot tall obelisk has punctuated the National Mall since 1884. It honors George Washington, “Father of the United States”, who was unanimously elected the nation’s first President.

When George Washington died in 1799, Congress praised him as “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Politicians proposed a Washington monument in the early 1800s, but they disagreed about details. For example, should the monument include Washington’s tomb? Would it be appropriate to depict him in ancient Greek style? When a statue was eventually presented, people objected to the half-clad classical Greek sort of George. Congressional quibbling ultimately led to the creation of a private monument foundation.

The National Monument Society was formed in 1833. The members raised a considerable amount of money within a few years, and in 1836 they announced a design competition for the memorial.

An artist named Robert Mills submitted the winning design. He proposed a 600-foot obelisk that would protrude from a circular base. The base and obelisk would be decorated with statues and frescoes of national heroes, including a toga-clad George Washington in a horse-drawn chariot. In the end, however, the obelisk would be a bit shorter, and the artist’s plan for statues and frescoes would not be realized.

The monument’s cornerstone was laid amid great celebration in 1848. Ceremonially, the National Monument Society ensured that the stone was set with the same trowel George Washington had used when setting the Capitol’s cornerstone years earlier. The city celebrated that night with fireworks.

With the cornerstone set, the National Monument Society increased its efforts to fund the project. Ordinary citizens were urged to pledge $1 each. Businesses, professional organizations, foreign governments and Native American tribes contributed stones. Sometimes the stone donations were engraved with messages that didn’t speak to the theme of George Washington; one block of stone read, “We will not buy, sell, or use as a beverage, any spiritous or malt liquors, Wine, Cider, or any other Alcoholic Liquor.” Engraved stones make up interior walls of the hollow monument.

Scandal erupted around a stone donation in 1854, and the entire project came to a halt. The anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party stole and smashed a donation made by Pope Pius IX. They dumped the stone chips into the Potomac River. This resulted in Congress rescinding an approval for $200,000 in memorial funds. The Know-Nothings then assumed management of the monument society, but their legacy is unimpressive. Everything they added to the monument was eventually removed, and no real progress was made until after the Civil War.

Because of the cut in funding, the monument ended up being shorter than originally planned, and without the statues envisioned by Mills. A lag in construction time also led to stone being sourced from different quarry layers, so the coloring of the monument is not uniform.

Work was finally completed in 1884. The monument, though short of its goal, was the largest structure in the world until the Eiffel Tower was completed five years later. It was much larger than the Egyptian obelisks that inspired it; these are typically about 100 feet tall. The walls were made fifteen feet thick at the base and narrowed to 18 inches near the top. The monument was capped with a 100-ounce aluminum pyramid. At the time, aluminum was scarce and was valued like silver. This was the largest cast-aluminum item in the world.

Starting in 1888, adult male visitors were allowed to travel up the Washington Monument in a twenty-minute steam-powered elevator ride. Somehow the ride was deemed too risky for women and children; they would have to climb the 800 stairs for a view! Progressively speedier elevators were installed since then, and for safety reasons people are now forbidden to use the stairs.

From the top of the Washington Monument, tourists can see most of Washington, D.C. as well as parts of Maryland and Virginia. In March and April, flowering cherry trees can be spotted in West Potomac Park below.

Paris – Versailles

Posted in Europe, Modern & Historical Art  by admin on November 23rd, 2009

As you approach the gates of Versailles you inescapably have the feeling of entering not a palace but an entire city. The impression is justified given the massive scale of the building and the even larger grounds.

Beginning as a modest château of stone and slate to serve as a hunting lodge for Louis XIII (13th), Versailles blossomed – figuratively and literally – during the reign of his son. By 1682, after 20 years of work, the ‘Sun King’ took up residence… and then building really began.

At its height the grounds covered 1,800 acres and housed over 1,500 fountains besides the enormous palace. Around 300 remain today. Around the grounds are several distinct gardens. Watered by a system only part of which were 150km (90mi) of canals, the gardens and fountains are themselves a show on Sundays.

Covering 250 acres, the gardens were designed mostly between 1661 and 1700 and continue to amaze visitors. Be sure not to miss the large Fountain of Apollo, with the sun god driving a chariot of horses out of the surface.

Also on the grounds are huge stables. Closed to the public for almost 200 years, they were originally home to 600 horses owned by Louis XIV (14th). Now home to 20 Portuguese Lusitanian horses, the indoor arena is decorated with a sculpture and drawings of which the Sun King himself would have been proud.

Visitors can enjoy a directed tour of the stables and watch a morning dressage with costumed riders. (‘Dressage’, French for ‘training’, is a standard equestrian term. It means, roughly: training horses to move in complex patterns similar to a dance.)

But, of course, it is the château itself that forms the (literal and symbolic) center of the place. With 700 rooms no single visit could encompass more than a small percentage of the total.

Thousands of nobles and their servants lived here in the late 17th century, as Louis managed his government with tight reins within the palace gates. Which were always left open, interestingly, in order to give a sense that the palace was ‘owned by the people of France’.

Throughout the château are paintings, sculptures, wall hangings and structural elements drawn from all over Europe.

One of the main attractions, justly so, is the 73m (239ft) long La Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors). Bearing no resemblance to a fun-house, the high mirrors line the walls on one side with seventy windows open to the gardens on the other. Still impressive, the mirrors were the latest technology of the time and awed even jaded visitors. Set off by Corinthian pillars of green marble, the room (which once hosted many a formal dance) still dazzles.

Viewed by thousands of visitors daily, the château can be quite hot and stuffy in the summer, even outdoors. Dress appropriately. The grounds and palace are open year round and can be reached via the RER line C: Versailles – Rive Gauche.

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