Thursday, August 14, 2008

Aix-en-Provence Cathedral

Aix-en-Provence CathedralThe old Cathedral of Saint-Sauveur at Aix is not one of those rarely beautiful churches where a complete and restful homogeneity delights the eye, nor is it a church of crude and shocking transitions. It is rather a well-arranged museum of ecclesiastical architecture, where, in sufficient historical continuity and harmony, many Provençal conceptions are found, and the evolution of Provençal architecture may be very completely followed. As in all collections, the beauty of Saint-Sauveur is not in a general view or in any glance into a long perspective, but in a close and loving study of the details it encloses; and so charming, so really beautiful are many of the diverse little treasures of Aix, that such study is better repaid here than in any other Provençal Cathedral. For this is one of the largest Cathedrals of the province, and the buildings which form the ecclesiastical group are most complete. With its baptistery, Cloister, church, and arch-episcopal Palace, it is not only of many epochs and styles, but of many historical uncertainties, and the hypotheses of its construction are enough to daze the most hardened archæologist.

The oldest part of the Cathedral is the baptistery, and the date of its origin is unknown. Much of its character was lost in a restoration of the XVII century, but its old round form, the magnificent Roman columns of granite and green marble said to have been part of the Temple to Apollo, give it an atmosphere of dignity and an ancient charm that even the XVII century—so potent in architectural evil—was unable to destroy.

In 1060, after the destructive vicissitudes of the early centuries, Archbishop Rostaing d'Hyères issued a pastoral letter appealing to the Faithful to aid him in the re-building of a new Cathedral; and it may be reasonably supposed that the nave which is at present the south aisle, the baptistery, and the Cloisters were the buildings that were dedicated less than fifty years later. They are the only portions of the church which can be ascribed to so early a period, and with the low door of entrance, the single nave and the adjoining cloister-walk, they constitute the usual plan of XI century Romanesque. Considering this as the early church, in almost original form, it will be seen that the portal is a very interesting example of the Provençal use not only of Roman suggestion, but of the actual fragments of Roman art which had escaped the invader; that the south aisle, in itself a completed interior, bears a close resemblance to Avignon; and that the Cloister, although now very worn and even defaced, must have been one of the quaintest and most delicate, as it is one of the tiniest, in Provence. Three sides of its arcades support plain buildings of a later date; the fourth stands free, as if in ruin. Little coupled columns, some slenderly circular, some twisted, and some polygonal, rest on a low wall; piers, very finely and differently carved, are at each of the arcade angles; the little capitals of the columns were once beautifully cut, and even the surfaces of the arches have small foliated disks and rosettes and are finished in roll and hollow. Unfortunately, a very large part of this detail-work is so defaced that its subjects are barely suggested, some are so eaten away that they are as desolate of beauty as the barren little quadrangle; and the whole Cloister seems to have reached the brink of that pathetic old age which Shakespeare has described, and that another step in the march of time would leave it “sans everything.”

About two hundred years later, in 1285, the Archbishop of Aix found the Cathedral too unpretending for the rank and dignity of the See, and he began the Gothic additions. Like many another prelate his ambitions were larger than his means; and the history of Saint-Sauveur from the XIII to the XIX century, is that oft-told tale of new indulgences offered for new contributions, halts and delays in construction, emptied treasuries, and again, appeals and fresh efforts. The beginnings of the enlarged Cathedral were architecturally abrupt. The old nave, becoming the south aisle, was connected with the new by two small openings; it retained much of its separateness and in spite of added chapels much actual isolation. The Gothic nave, the north aisle and its many chapels, the apse, and the transepts, whose building and re-construction stretched over the long period between the XIII and XVII centuries, are comparatively regular, uniform, and uninteresting. The most ambitious view is that of the central nave, whose whole length is so little broken by entrances to the side aisles, that it seems almost solidly enclosed by its massive walls. Here in Gothic bays, are found those rounded, longitudinal arches which belong to the Romanesque and to some structure whose identity is buried in the mysterious past. The choir, with its long, narrow windows, and clusters of columnettes, is very pleasing, and its seven sides, foreign to Provence, remind one of Italian and Spanish constructive forms and take one's memory on strange jaunts, to the far-away Frari in Venice and the colder Abbey of London. From the choir of Saint-Sauveur two chapels open; and one of them is a charming bit of architecture, a replica in miniature of the mother-apse itself. The paintings of this mother-apse are neutral, its glass has no claim to sumptuousness, and the stalls are very unpretending; but above them hang tapestries ascribed to Matsys, splendid hangings of the Flemish school that were once in old Saint Paul's.

With these beautiful details the rich treasure-trove of the interior is exhausted, and one passes out to study the details of the exterior. The Cathedral's single tower, which rises behind the façade line, was one of the parts that was longest neglected,—perhaps because a tower is less essential to the ritual than any other portion of an ecclesiastical building. Begun in 1323, the work dragged along with many periods of absolute idleness, until 1880, when a balustrade with pinnacles at each angle was added to the upper octagonal stage, and the building of the tower was thus ended. The octagon with its narrow windows rests on a plain, square base that is massively buttressed. It is a pleasant, rather than a remarkable tower, and one's eye wanders to the more beautiful façade. Here, encased by severely plain supports, is one of the most charming portals of Provençal Gothic. Decorated buttresses stand on either side of a large, shallow recess which has a high and pointed arch, and in the centre, a slim pier divides the entrance-way into two parts, pre-figuring the final division of the Just and the Unjust. A multitude of finely sculptured statues were formerly hidden in niches, under graceful canopies, and in the hundred little nooks and corners which lurk about true Gothic portals. Standing Apostles and seated Patriarchs, baby cherubs peering out, and the more dramatic composition of the tympanum—the Transfiguration,—all lent a dignity and wealth to Saint-Sauveur. Unfortunately many of these sculptures were torn from their crannies in the great Revolution; and it is only a few of the heavenly hosts,—the gracious Madonna, Saint Michael, and the Prophets,—that remain as types of those that were so wantonly destroyed. The low, empty gables that sheltered lost statues, their slender, tapering turrets, and the delicate outer curve of the arch, are of admirable, if not imposing, composition. The portal's wooden doors, protected by plain casings, abound in carvings partly Renaissance, partly Gothic. The Sibyls and Prophets stand under canopies, surrounded by foliage, fruits, and flowers, or isolated from each other by little buttresses or pilasters. This Gothic portal quite outshines, in its graceful elaboration, the smaller door which stands near it, in the simpler and not less potent charm of the Romanesque. And side by side, these portals offer a curiously interesting comparison of the essential differences and qualities of their two great styles. If the Romanesque of Saint-Sauveur is far surpassed at Arles and Digne and Sisteron, nowhere in Provence has Gothic richer details; and if the noblest of Provençal creations must be sought in other little cities, the lover of architectural comparisons, of details, of the many lesser things rather than of the harmony of a single whole, will linger long in Aix.

The old city itself shows scarcely a trace of the many historic dramas of which it has been the scene,—the lowering tragedy of the Vaudois time,—the bright, gay comedy of good king René's Court,—the shorter scenes of Charles V's occupation,—the Parliament's struggle with Richelieu and Mazarin,—the day of the fiery Mirabeau,—the grim melodrama of the Revolution,—all have passed, and time has destroyed their monuments almost as completely as the Saracens destroyed those of the earlier Roman days. Only a few, unformed fragments of the great Temple of Apollo remain in the walls of Saint-Sauveur. The earliest Cathedral, Sainte-Marie-de-la-Seds, has entirely disappeared, the old thermal springs are enclosed by modern buildings, and only the statue of “the good King René” and the Church of the Knights of Malta give to Aix a faint atmosphere of its past distinction. Who would dream that here were the homes of the elegant and lettered courtiers of King René's brilliant capital, who would think that this town was the earliest Roman settlement in Gaul, the Aquæ Sextiæ of Baths, Temples, Theatres, and great wealth? Aix is a stately town, a provincial capital which Balzac might well have described—with old, quiet streets that are a little dreary, with a fine avenue shaded by great trees in whose shadows a few fountains trickle, with lines of little stages that come each day from the country,—a city whose life is as far in spirit from the near-by modernity of Marseilles as it is from that of Paris, as quaintly and delightfully provincial as that other little Provençal city, the Tarascon of King René and of Tartarin.

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