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Cathedral restorer immortalised in stone

Colleagues have given one stone mason a unique gift in recognition of his lifetime of work restoring Lyon’s historic buildings – a gargoyle in his image on the city’s cathedral. 

Head mason Mohamed Benzizine was immortalised in stone on the 12th century St Jean cathedral just weeks after being made a chevalier in the Légion d’Honneur.

His story is inspirational. Arriving in France from Algeria at 15, he said: “France was a paradise and I could not believe my good fortune.”

He began by picking fruit but his life changed when he started work as a stone mason and had his first job in a church. “I went to the top of the scaffolding and the stonework up there was incredible. I was jealous. I wanted to be able to do it too.”

It was the start of a 43-year career where he learnt his art from master craftsmen, then became head mason himself and began, in turn, passing on his knowledge and passion.
Now one of those he inspired has carved his likeness on to a broken gargoyle at St Jean.

His boss, Jacques Pellegrin, head of works at masons Comte, said: “It was a purely ornamental gargoyle missing its head.” It was a chimera, the body of an animal with a human head, but no one knew the identity. So it was decided to follow medieval tradition and give the sculptor free rein: to sculpt a likeness of a person they liked or a caricature of someone they disliked.
Sculptor Emmanuel Forchet decided to graft a likeness of his boss.

The decision was far from outlandish as Mr Benzizine is liked not only by colleagues but also by parishioners who “ask me to move a table here, or adjust the scaffolding there,” he said.
He has also earned the respect of those who work in the field of historic monuments. In recommending Mr Benzizine for the Légion d’Honneur, Didier Repellin, chief architect of historical monuments, said: “He masters perfectly the trade of a stone mason, with a profound and precise knowledge of his materials, their behaviour and the limits of their usage”.

Mr Benzizine was both touched but uncertain about the fame: “At the time I had a moustache but when I saw the gargoyle and its mous­tache, I was worried people would recognise me, so I shaved mine off”. The sculptor’s response was to slice the moustache off the gargoyle.

He also carved the words “Dieu est grand. Allahu Akbar” on to a stone ribbon on the gargoyle after consulting cathedral authorities. They were delighted one of the cathedral’s most dedicated stone masons would be immortalised there and also quite comfortable with the addition of the Arabic words, which mean “God is great”. It is just one of many references to other cultures to be found in the cathedral but it offended some in Lyon, who saw an incursion of Islam into a Catholic place of worship.

Similarly, some in the Muslim community felt a Muslim had no place in a church, saying Mr Benzizine should instead work on mosques. “French mosques are made of concrete: what interest is there for me in concrete?” said Mr Benzizine mildly.

But he was “horrified” by the criticisms: “It was an awful time. We even had police there to protect us”.

Mr Pellegrin said: “It is a shame, because the gargoyle was carved in the pure tradition of the Middle Ages, not to make any religious statement”.

Today, however, Mr Benzizine is pleased to note the gargoyle seems to have brought new visitors to the cath­edral. “Before the controversy around the gargoyle, I used to see school visits where Muslim children waited outside the church doors as Christian children entered. Now even the Muslim children come in.

“Veiled women, too. They have realised the church is a sacred place open to people of all confessions”.

Now, at 65 and with the Légion d’Honneur and being immortalised in stone, some people might be ready to hang up the tools of their trade but not Mr Benzizine. “I don’t want to hang about at home. I will continue to work until the moment when I can no longer climb the scaffolding”.

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