“I want an ornate cathedral, one suitable to my rank,” said the Duke.
Pierre Otzmann tried to keep his eyes from wandering around the room, surely a sign of disrespect since he should be listening to his duke, but the walls were covered with paintings of cathedrals, including the great cathedral from the imperial capital. They weren’t very good paintings. Rather, they were the sort of cheap art that one could buy from a tourist stand in the street. They weren’t displayed properly either. They were just sort of slapped up on the wall.
Otzmann was an architect. He liked order.
The duke cleared his throat ominously.
“Yes, your grace. I understand.”
“You’ll have 30,000 universals to accomplish this. You are the best architect in my duchy. You will not fail me in this commission.” Otzmann’s heart sank. A universal was a small silver coin, the standard for imperial exchange. Just the semi-skilled laborers for the project would cost him around 6,000, and that was if he could get the project done efficiently. With only 24,000 for the artists, materials, and skilled labor? Not a chance!
Again the duke cleared his throat.
“Yes, your grace,” said Otzmann. “I will prepare plans for your approval.” What else could he say?
“You will not,” said the duke. This brought a look of surprise to Otzmann’s face. Very briefly. “What you will do is block off the site of the new cathedral with a high wall. Then you will build this cathedral within that wall. I will not see it until it is completed.” This was a long speech for the duke.
After a long pause, he continued. “I cannot decide what my cathedral should look like. I have seen all the major cathedrals of the realm. I know they are all better than mine. Their appearance brings respect to the rulers who commissioned them. Mine brings me snickers. You will create for me a cathedral of which I can be proud, one that will bring me honor and glory. You are the most talented man I know. You will do this for me. Fail at your peril!” The duke’s look matched his final words.
Otzmann went home to his workshop. He tinkered with paper and drafting tools. He looked at the ceiling and thought. Nothing came to him.
He commissioned the wooden wall that would be high enough to keep the duke from seeing the cathedral as it was being built. He wondered how he would keep the workers from talking, but he decided there would be time enough to worry about that later. Right now they could only talk about an empty city block!
About a week after he had received the commission, Otzmann decided to visit the town’s current cathedral, the one the duke thought was such a disgrace. He had intended to pray, but nothing came to mind, so he just sat in a pew. As he watched a woman came into the sanctuary. He couldn’t tell her age, but she was clearly poor. He knew it was not polite, but he kept watching her. She didn’t seem to notice. She dropped some coins in the offering box. She lit a candle. She knelt down on an old, worn kneeling rail to pray. He had to move a bit to see her face, but as she knelt, her face lit up and it looked like years fell off her. Finally, she got up and left, showing no sign that she had ever noticed Otzmann.
“I don’t know about honor,” thought Otzmann, “but there’s glory for you. That woman’s face shows the real glory of a cathedral. Now if I can just catch that in stone …”
It was still a couple of weeks before Otzmann went to the building site. He threatened all the workers with hanging if they told anyone what was going on. He did so on the authority of the duke. He was certain the duke would back him up. If he asked for another 100 universals, he would doubtless be denied. The neck of one of the workers? No problem!
The workers believed him.
The duke was happy to see work going on. He wondered why there was some work in the new cathedral when he went on one of his rare visits, but he didn’t argue. He had, after all, ordered his most creative subject to accomplish a mission, and people accomplished those missions given them by their duke. Well, or bad things happened to them, that is.
The big day came. The new cathedral was finished. The duke was to be given a tour of the new building before the church took it over and consecrated it.
Otzmann led the duke into the enclosure. The duke had been able to see the a couple of towers toward the front of the cathedral over the wall. They looked pretty plain to him, but he supposed that they would look ornate when connected with the remainder of the building.
The duke had never suffered such a shock in his life as the one he felt when he saw his new, ornate cathedral. It was drab. It was ordinary. It looked like pieces of other buildings around his duchy. He walked into the nave. He looked around the inside. There was stained glass in the windows, yes, but the designs were simple, almost childish. The pews were made of local wood. They were well built, but very ordinary looking. The altar was carved and decorated, yes, but again it was very simple work.
The kneeling rails looked like they must have come from the old cathedral. They were old, smooth, worn.
The duke was coming out of his shock, and becoming enraged. Otzmann thought to himself how much easier it was to think that if he was going to disappoint the duke, he might as well do it thoroughly, when there was no disappointed duke right there working up a good rage.
Then the duke appeared to physically take control of his temper. He turned to Otzmann. “You’re the best architect in my duchy,” he said. “Tell me. Is this the best my duchy can produce?”
“May I have a few moments to tell you about this cathedral first?” asked Otzmann.
Reluctantly the duke nodded.
“You wanted a cathedral to bring you honor and glory, one you could be proud of. You had pictures of the great cathedrals of the empire, and I knew you wanted something like them. So if your anger falls on me once I have explained myself and this building, you know that I did understand.” It was a bold statement. The duke appreciated boldness. In measure. Rarely.
So I asked myself what a cathedral is for, and how it might best be made truly ornate. I got my answer when a woman prayed in the old cathedral.”
“Nonsense!” exclaimed the Duke. “Women pray every day in every cathedral and misbegotten chapel of my duchy. There’s nothing special in that!”
“Perhaps, your grace, you need to look with the eyes of an artist. If I might show you …”
Otzmann led the duke to the outside wall of the church. Do you see these stones? Every one, you can see, has a name inscribed on it.”
“More like ‘scratched’ you mean.”
“Well, some are better at inscribing than others. Each stone comes from a cathedral or a chapel somewhere in your duchy. The stones were chosen by the people and sent here. Each piece of glass was made by a separate glassblower. Well, there weren’t enough for each piece, but every known glassblower in your realm is represented here.
“The designs were each made by the children of a different school in your realm. No artist outside of your duchy contributed anything. The altar was built here in the capital, but then travelled around the country as various people I chose added something to the carvings. The altar cloths and vestments were sewn in some of your smaller villages.”
“How did you keep all this secret?” asked the duke.
Otzmann refrained from noting that the duke could easily miss an earthquake provided it happened more than a block or so from his castle. “I threatened them with death, but in the end, I don’t think that mattered. I think they just wanted to surprise you.”
The duke looked almost thoughtful, a look that nobody could recall him having before.
“Each piece was prayed over and consecrated in the town or village it came from. I just fitted them into the resulting church.”
“And for this you spent my 30,000 universals?” asked the Duke.
“No,” said Otzmann. “Nobody would accept payment. I haven’t touched your fund. Your people have given you your cathedral.” He wanted to add, “And God gave you such people,” but he didn’t think that would be as well received.
“I don’t know what to think,” said the duke, in a rare moment of sincerity. “I think I will not have you hung. How could I? But I have no idea how to explain this cathedral to my peers.”
I’d tell them they should be fortunate enough to have such an ornate cathedral, thought Otzmann. But he didn’t say it.
((This story was written for and submitted to the one day at a time blog carnival – ornate.)