The Citroën and the Cathedral

I think that cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals: I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object. The New Citroën by Roland Barthes 1957 (Mythologies, Viking Press)

I got an email from my friend David McDonell (CEO of Iconicloud) about this wonderful article by Roland Barthes. It was impossible to ignore and our Via Lucis community might find this interesting. Barthes wrote in 1957 of the introduction of the Citroën DS. The pronunciation of DS in French is equivalent to the word deesse, or “goddess” and we find that reference in the passage that follows.

“It is obvious that the new Citroën has fallen from the sky inasmuch as it appears at first sight as a superlative object. We must not forget that an object is the best messenger of a world above that of nature: one can easily see in an object at once a perfection and an absence of origin, a closure and a brilliance, a transformation of life into matter (matter is much more magical than life), and in a word a silence which belongs to the realm of fairy-tales. The D.S. – the “Goddess” – has all the features (or at least the public is unanimous in attributing them to it at first sight) of one of those objects from another universe which have supplied fuel for the neomania of the eighteenth century and that of our own science-fiction: the Deesse is first and foremost a new Nautilus.”


“This is why it excites interest less by its substance than by the junction of its components. It is well known that smoothness is always an attribute of perfection because its opposite reveals a technical and typically human operation of assembling: Christ’s robe was seamless, just as the airships of science-fiction are made of unbroken metal. The D.S 19 has no pretensions about being as smooth as cake-icing, although its general shape is very rounded; yet it is the dove-tailing of its sections which interest the public most: one keenly fingers the edges of the windows, one feels along the wide rubber grooves which link the back window to its metal surround. There are in the D.S. the beginnings of a new phenomenology of assembling, as if one progressed from a world where elements are welded to a world where they are juxtaposed and hold together by sole virtue of their wondrous shape, which of course is meant to prepare one for the idea of a more benign Nature.”


“We are therefore dealing here with a humanized art, and it is possible that the Deesse marks a change in the mythology of cars. Until now, the ultimate in cars belonged rather to the bestiary of power; here it becomes At once more spiritual and more object-like, and despite some concessions to neomania (such as the empty steering wheel), it is now more homely , more attuned to this sublimation of the utensil which one also finds in the design of contemporary household equipment … One is obviously turning from an alchemy of speed to a relish in driving.”

The launch of the Citroën DS19 at the 1955 Paris Motor Show (Photo from Design Museum, London)
The launch of the Citroën DS19 at the 1955 Paris Motor Show (Photo from Design Museum, London)

“The public, it seems, has admirably divined the novelty of the themes which are suggested to it. … In the exhibition halls, the car on show is explored with an intense, amorous studiousness: it is the great tactile phase of discovery, the moment when visual wonder is about to receive the reasoned assault of touch (for touch is the most demystifying of all senses, unlike sight, which is the most magical). The bodywork, the lines of union are touched, the upholstery palpated, the seats tried, the doors caressed, the cushions fondled; before the wheel, one pretends to drive with one’s whole body. The object here is totally prostituted, appropriated: originating from the heaven of Metropolis , the Goddess is in a quarter of an hour mediatized, actualizing through this exorcism the very essence of petit-bourgeois advancement.”

This is a wonderful piece of writing and understanding by a great thinker. The entire article can be read here, and Barthes’ essay on French cuisine can be found here.

Flaminio Bertoni at work (Photo from Design Museum, London)
Flaminio Bertoni at work in 1933 (Photo from Design Museum, London)

And by the way, the designer of the DS is not anonymous; the car was created by Flaminio Bertoni. In this photograph, if the subject on which he was working was a historiated capital, we could imagine him as one of our beloved medieval sculptors adorning a cathedral.

6 thoughts on “The Citroën and the Cathedral

  1. Oh là là! We had one when I was a child in France! So comfortable & with a kind of pneumatic lift that allowed us to drive on the rough little mountain roads of Ardêche? Loved it!

    1. Catherine, so nice to hear from you. Did you live in the Ardêche as a child? PJ and I will be photographing there in spring – there is a wonderful cluster of Romanesque churches there.

  2. Dennis, your blog never ceases to amaze me. I’m not a huge car enthusiast, but this was a nice change of pace. Also, have you and PJ settled on when exactly you will be in the Ardeche? I would love to trail you both and see you (or help you, if possible) at work.

    1. Nathan, I’m not a “car-wienie” either, but this was fascinating. My friend Dave McDonell sent me the link and I couldn’t help posting.

      As far as our trip, we are thinking that we will be in the Ardeche somewhere around middle-to-late May. I would love to discuss our plans, can you contact me by email (link in the “About” section)?

  3. Dennis, nice and surprising post. I’ve also drawn the DS once, a car that I love for sentimmental and iconic reasons:

    This car has been related with art, technology, future…but this relation with cathedrals is rather interesting!

    1. Wonderful drawings and tribute, Hugo. Thanks for this. The relation to the cathedral is in the quote from Barthes at the beginning where he says “I think that cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals: I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists …”

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