If there was ever a place that transported you back into the past, it’s the town hall of Basel, Switzerland. Stepping through its stone archway is like entering a portal into the time of knights and dragons. A guard in full armour looks down on a red stone courtyard lined with frescoes of ancient battles, court musicians and benevolent cherubs. You could explore it for hours, finding hidden paintings and sculptures, but there was one fascinating detail that most people missed: I call it “face to face with the Middle Ages”.
Climbing the stone staircase for a better view of the courtyard, I noticed a row of columns along the wall. And on it I found a gallery of amazingly detailed faces, running from end to end. Gargoyles, I thought — and some of them were pretty ugly, to be sure. But then it dawned on me: these were probably real people, people who lived and died 500 years ago and were lucky – or unlucky – enough to be chosen by the builder to have their faces carved into a wall at town hall.
These were no idealized, heroic figures. Little details give each of them a character all their own: a weak chin, a loutish grin, a glimpse of curly hair under a medieval cap. And those little imperfections made them all the more real, as if I’d come upon them in an unguarded moment. Amid these grand portrayals of knights and heroes, I had come face to face with the real people of the Middle Ages.
Why the city burgers of Basel decided to put these homely folk on the wall of their town hall is a mystery. But I’ve seen common folk portrayed in the columns and gargoyles of other public buildings; in fact, there are some in the city hall of Toronto, my home town. And in many cases, they’re portrayed like this, in a less than flattering light.
Maybe it’s the architect’s little joke, poking fun at his friends and enemies. Or maybe it’s a little comic counterpoint to all the pomp and finery that marks these buildings. In fact, that’s almost a hallmark of grand medieval buildings: no matter how great and heroic they appear, there’s always some little character off in a corner, thumbing his nose at it all.
No matter what the motives, however, this little row of medieval common folk is one of the lasting memories of my Viking cruise on the Rhine. It’s not often you come face to face with the Middle Ages.
Hint: click on the photo to see it full-size.
I was a guest of Viking Cruises on this trip; however, the opinions I express are my own.