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Apse and northern facade (Felix Benoist, 1861, lithograph)

Saint Denis was a third century Roman Christian who was sent to Roman Gaul by Pope Fabian. Denis was the first bishop of Paris, but when relations between pagans and Christians soured in the era of the Decian persecutions, he was martyred by decapitation upon Montmartre, the highest hill of Paris. According to tradition, after he was beheaded, Denis picked up his head and carried it 10 kilometers (6 miles) north while delivering a stirring ceremony. When the decapitated saint found the right spot (in what are now the suburbs of Paris—but what was then a Gallo-Roman cemetery) he put down his head and expired. In the late 5th century, St. Genevieve purchased this land and built Saint-Denys de la Chapelle. In the early 7th century, Dagobert, the king of the Franks chose this site as the location of a great Benedictine monastery the Abbey of Saint Denis. The site became a major center for pilgrimages during the Middle Ages (and the monastery grew even more rich due to a lucrative whaling concession, from the crown), but as the centuries wore on, the Carolingian church started to wear out (and the original sacred complex was not big enough to contain the throngs of worshipers).

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West façade of Saint Denis, before the dismantling of the north tower (c. 1844 – 1845)

Thus, in the 12th century, Abbot Suger, a close friend of the kings of France, began to rebuild the church in a grand new style involving pointed arches, flying buttresses, large windows, high towers, and great interior spaces. This style—an abrupt departure from the Romanesque style, which had dominated architecture–was initially known as the French style. As the political fortunes of the Angevin dynasty waxed, the style spread throughout France, England, the Low Countries, Germany, Spain, northern Italy, and Sicily. The style quickly was renamed Gothic style and it became the dominant architecture of Europe in the late middle ages (and beyond). The Basilica of Saint Denis, the resting place of deceased French kings (did I mention that all but three French kings are buried there? I probably should have said that) was the first great Gothic building–the first high cathedral.

800px-St_denis_naveThe nave of the Basilica of St. Denis. Shot from the chancel.

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 The Choir of the Basilica of Saint Denis
 

 
 

 

Białowieża Forest

Long ago Eastern Europe was covered by vast virgin forests.  Almost all of these woodlands have long ago been cut down to make way for agriculture, roads, or towns, but in the northeast corner of Poland one of these ancient forests still survives.

Until late in the 14th century, Białowieża forest located at the junction of the Baltic Sea watershed and the Black Sea watershed was a primeval forest so thick that travelers could pass through the region only by river. Even in the fifteenth century roads and bridges were rare in the ancient woodlands of eastern Poland and the human population remained sparse to non-existent.  Because the lands were so empty of people but full of animals, the kings of Poland adopted Białowieża forest as a royal game preserve.  The Polish monarchy also used the forest as a wilderness retreat: it was in the dark fastness of his forest hunting lodge that King Władysław holed up to escape the Black Death.

Hunters returing to Białowieża Hill (1820, print)

The region remained a pristine royal forest until the partition of Poland delivered the forest to Russian hands.  Even the Russian tsars were beguiled by Białowieża forest, for it was one of the last wild preserves for the largest land animal in Europe, the mighty wisent.  In 1801 Tsar Alexander I was moved by the plight of wisent herds (which had swiftly dwindled due to poaching). The tsar reintroduced a hunting ban and hired a small number of peasants as game rangers.  Alexander II reinstated the ban in 1860 and in 1888 the tsars assumed direct ownership of the entire forest.

Great Gray Owl

During World War I the forest fell under German control and, from 1915 to 1918, the occupying army rushed to cut down Białowieża’s timber and hunt down all remaining wildlife. But even the Germans had their hands full during those tumultuous years and they lost World War I before they could despoil the entire forest.  Białowieża came under Soviet control and during Stalin’s era, all Polish inhabitants were “deported to remote parts of the Soviet Union” and replaced by Soviet forest workers.  When German troops again retook Białowieża in World War II, the Soviet forest workers in turn disappeared. Hermann Göring harbored ambitious plans to create the world’s biggest hunting reserve at Białowieża, but, in the end, the Nazis predictably used the remote location as a grave for resistance fighters.  When the Germans retreated they destroyed the ancient hunting lodges of the Polish throne, but they did not destroy the forest itself. After the war the forest was divided between Poland and the Belarusian State of the Soviet Union. Both regions became protected wilderness areas.

The brickwork Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas on the outskirts of Białowieża

Because of this history, Białowieża Primeval Forest is now the last remaining primary deciduous and mixed forest of the European lowlands.  The land is a refuge for pine, beech, alder, spruce, and towering oaks which have never known the axe. Just as the forest lies in the place where two watersheds meet, it also straddles the boreal and temperate zone: plants and animals from south and north live wild in the park.

The World Heritage Convention website enumerates the many wildlife species which currently live in the forest writing, “these wilderness areas are inhabited by European bison, a species reintroduced into the park in 1929, elk, stag, roe deer, wild boar, lynx, wolf, fox, marten, badger, otter, ermine, beaver and numerous bats. It is also a showplace reserve for tarpan (Polish wild forest horse). The avifauna includes corncrake, white-tailed eagle, white stork, peregrine falcon and eagle owl.”

A Wisent Flees into Bialowieza Forest

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

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