Monday, March 9, 2009

Axis Monday: Castles in the Sky

Towers or spires are the most common manmade form of the axis mundi. However, in certain cases a castle or palace may take on the same characteristic.

Now it is obvious that certain castles or palaces--Versailles is the most apparent--hold some of the same traits as the axis mundi, just as the U.S. Capitol does today. But these are political axes mundorum. They do indeed represent the center of all things for a nation or culture, upon which all converges, but solely in that political sense. These structures, or similar ones, are also metonymous for the government itself (e.g. 'The White House today released a statement that..." and similar ubiquities).

But these two castles do not bridge the mundane and the symbolic in that particular way. These are more naturalistic axes. They form central poles less because of their history or importance than their position. Both are situated halfway between Earth and Sky.

Swallow's Nest
Swallow's Nest has no political importance. It is not particularly large (65 ft x 33 ft), nor particularly old (1911). But it is nevertheless spectacular. It is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Crimea. And it forms a triple bridge between Earth, Sea, and Sky:

Much of Swallow's Nest's power comes from the continuity between cliff and castle. The natural rock transitions quite smoothly into the artificial stone. The castle appears to belong exactly where it is; indeed, it would be shocking if it wasn't there.

From a different angle:
This photograph emphasizes sea and sky over stone. The sea forms a nearly perfect line with the bottom of Swallow's Nest, which emphasizes the castle's liminal standing at a junction of three worlds.

The small size of Swallow's Nest--despite its great stature--suggests that it is a conduit or a bridge between the world. But the next palace is not so humble. Quite simply, it reigns from on high.


The archetypical fantasy castle on a far-off hillside is real, and rules over field and forest from a high peak in Bavaria.

The location of the castle speaks for itself but the castle holds other secrets which make its existence even more wondrous.

This photochrom of the castle dates from the 1890s, shortly after its completion. As the photos suggest, it stands upon a high pinnacle (like Swallow's Nest) and behind it lie endless misty mountains which give way only to sky. The first photo shows Neuschwanstein as a local axis; the second, however, presents it entirely within the realm of the sacred--the extremely romanticized print leaves out everything of humanity, except the castle itself. And the castle, though made by human hands, does not seem out of place.

The castle's background shows that I am not all smoke and mirrors:

-Ludwig II, King of Bavaria--also known as the Swan King, the Mad King, and the Fairy-tale King--commissioned the palace. He did so on behalf of Richard Wagner, to whom he wrote a letter about the castle:
"It is my intention to rebuild the old castle ruin at Hohenschwangau near the Pollat Gorge in the authentic style of the old German knights' castles... the location is the most beautiful one could find, holy and unapproachable, a worthy temple for the divine friend who has brought salvation and true blessing to the world."
Neuschwanstein--named for the palace of Wagner's Swan Knight, Lohengrin--is thus not an axis because it provides a conduit or link between the worlds, but because the castle is itself a sacred object, made manifest in our world. The hierophany, the revelation of the sacred, appeared to Ludwig, and he revealed the already extant spiritual power of the mountaintop.

Other points of note:
-No architect designed the castle. A theatrical set designer drew the plans. Wagner himself hired the man.
-Even today, no one may take photographs inside the castle. The only way to see what the inside looks is, quite simply, to go there.
-Ludwig did not live to see the castle completed. A doctor commissioned by the state declared him insane in 1886, and the king was arrested and dragged out of Neuschwanstein. Both the doctor and the king were found drowned not long after.

Neuschwanstein is, in short, straight out of mythology, and wrought from pure archetype.

But, although it is almost without question the most fabulous (i.e. out of fable) castle in the world, and holds great wondrous power, it is still just an axis. It is a product of human design, and it must pale always before the true natural sacred, the Holy Mountain, before which Neuschwanstein is next to nothing:

1 comment:

  1. The Sublime and Beautiful
    with an introductory discourse concerning Taste, and several other additions

    Edmund Burke

    If you haven't read it, it may be time: