A Monumental Truth
One of the fundamental elements of Streetscaping is the use of public art in parks, piazzas and public streetscapes. The most important public art is the sacred sculpture and architecture of memorials and great buildings of faith. In every Canadian city, town and village the Cenotaph stands at the heart of the community, upon which are inscribed the names of those who gave the supreme sacrifice in defense of Canada and our freedom. Their names are forever etched in stone and bronze. We honour and remember them.
In this the one hundred and fiftieth year of Canada’s Confederation, we have stopped amidst the April spring to remember another great and profound moment in our nation’s history, the one hundredth anniversary of the taking of Vimy Ridge. On July 1, 1867 the Dominion of Canada was born, but it was on April 9, 1917 the Nation of Canada was born.
“In those few minutes,” said Canadian Brigadier-General A.E. Ross of the Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge, “I witnessed the birth of a nation.” The Canadian Encyclopedia
Amidst the late spring snows and mud and melt of Northern France, one hundred years ago, Canadians came together for the first time in our history as one nation when the four divisions of the Canadian Corps won a brilliant victory on high ground impregnable to all others. Canadian spirit, ingenuity, good will, humor, commitment, courage, service, sacrifice and valour carried the day.
Today a truly magnificent piece of sacred architecture stands on this ridge. It stands to acknowledge this great victory and to remember the sacrifice of over sixty thousand Canadians who died in the First World War.
Photo: Canadian National War Memorial, Vimy Ridge, France, April 2007, SCM
Video: CBC News Vimy Ridge 2007, Published to YouTube
Much has been said and written about this amazing and beautiful structure, but few if any speak of the profound truth that these massive stones say, spoken by a young nation who mourned her loss and contemplated the true cost of war and victory.
Throughout Europe the Victory Arch or Triumphal Arch was the standard form of such architecture. They are based upon the Triumphal Arches of Imperial Rome. London’s Wellington Arch or Paris’ Arc de Triomphe are two famous examples from previous wars of empire and conquest. The British Imperial Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium and the British and French Memorial at Thiepval, France are two examples of this architecture built after the First World War.
Photo: Menin Gate, Ypres Belgium April 2017, AJG
Photo: Menin Gate, Ypres Belgium April 2017, AJG
Photo: Thiepval Memorial, France April 2017, AJG
Canada chose a different path. We refused to celebrate war, conquest or imperialism. We chose to speak the truth about war. We chose to speak of sacrifice and cost. Our hearts were broken, our world was broken, and our triumphal arch was broken.
Photo: Canadian National Vimy Memorial, Vimy, France, April 2017, AJG
Walter Allward, the Toronto architect who built this memorial, said its design came to him in a dream during the darkest days of the war. He understood the principles of sacred architecture and he knew the meaning of two pillars joined into an arch or gate. It was based on the sacred architecture of ancient Egypt the “Land of the Two Pillars”. The Romans copied this architecture, added their innovation of the arch and thus was born the public statement of empire and victory that stands in capitals and battlefields throughout the world. Indeed, as was reported by Peter Mansbridge in the CBC News broadcast from the Vimy ceremony on April 9, 2017, Walter Allward searched for the right stone to use and chose limestone from Split, Croatia last used by the Romans! Walter Allward was building a Roman Imperial Triumphal Arch and then breaking it.
Image: Walter Seymour Allward Design Submission, Dec 31, 1919
Two pillars speak about unity and balance. When joined in an arch or gateway, they speak of stability, truth, order, harmony, law, morality, justice, peace, faith, honour, hope, charity, knowledge and truth. These were the principles of the ancient Egyptian concept of Ma’at and are the foundations of civilization itself.
War is the destroyer of these principles.
The Vimy Memorial shows these foundations of civilization personified in sculpture, the “Chorus” representing Justice, Peace, Faith, Honour, Hope, Charity, Knowledge and Truth are allegorical figures whose sculpted faces speak of the horror and loss of war.
They also speak of grief.
Photo: Canada Bereft, Canadian National Vimy Memorial, April 2007, SCM
Great works of art are rich with metaphor, allegory, symbolism and imagery. Great works of art also speak the truth. Exoteric meanings are those most visible. At Vimy the two pillars or pylons are said to represent Canada and France. This may be true but the symbols on the monument invite us to consider further meaning. The pylon representing France has the fleur-de-lis engraved on its face. This symbol is of royal France more than post revolutionary France. It more accurately suggests the France that founded Canada, or more precisely the French speaking people who founded Canada.
Photo: Vimy Pylons with French and English emblems, Vimy France, April 2017, AJG
The Pylon said to represent Canada has the Cross of St. George engraved, the symbol of England. This was not a common symbol of Canada as the Canadian flag was the Red Ensign. Either it or the British Union flag would have been more appropriate. Another interpretation is the Cross of St. George represented the English speaking peoples who founded Canada; the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish. A less exoteric interpretation of the memorial is that the two pillars represent the unity of French and English peoples, the European founders of Canada. Note that we too showed our colonialist bias by not mentioning the First Nations People of Canada who also sacrificed and died in the blood soaked mud of France and Belgium.
But it is the breaking of Ma’at and the destruction of civilization that is the most esoteric of meanings. One must ask where did Allward’s “Chorus” come from and what are these extraordinary sculptures saying?
Indeed, one must ask what was the Canadian Battlefields Memorials Commission saying when they chose this design in October 1921?
Photo: Design competition, Canadian Battlefields Memorial Commission 1920-1921
Canada was a very different country after the horrors of the First World War. It was no longer a sleepy colonial backwater. The heroic men of the Canadian Corps earned our independence on the battlefields of Belgium and France. Canadians were not inferior to the Germans, or the British or French, indeed they proved themselves to be the best! The Canadian Corps went from strength to strength winning every battle going forward from Vimy. As these men gained knowledge and experience, they also gained confidence.
At the conclusion of this terrible war, Canada demanded to sign the Treaty of Versailles under its own name. Over the next few years Canada demanded independence from the British Parliament. The Statue of Westminster signed on December 11, 1931 enshrined this newly won independence into law.
Canada also gained the confidence to tell the truth. While we honour and celebrate the heroic men of the Canadian Corps, we also spoke of the terrible loss of so many of our sons.
“I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch, love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah” Leonard Cohen
As we prepare to gather for the celebration of Canada’s one hundred and fiftieth birthday, let us never forget the valour and sacrifice of all Canadians who serve and have served in our armed forces. May they, and we, forever serve the cause of freedom and peace. And may we forever serve the cause of Canada.
Photo: Peace Tower, Ottawa November 2015, AJG
Author: A.J. Good, Streetscape Canada