Monday, August 4, 2008

Antibes Cathedral

Antibes CathedralThat part of the southern coast of France called the Riviera seems now only to evoke visions of the most beautiful banality; of a life more artificial than the stage—which at least aims to present reality—transplanted to a scene of such incomparable loveliness that Nature herself adds a new and exquisite sumptuousness to the luxury of civilisation. The Riviera means a land of many follies and every vice;—each folly so delicious, each vice so regal, they seem to be sought and desired of all men. Where else can be seen in such careless magnificence Dukes of Russia with their polish of manner and their veiled insolence; Englishmen correct and blasé; Americans a bit vociferous and truly amused; great ladies of all ages and manners; adventurers high and low; and the beautiful, sparkling women of no name, bravely dressed and barbarously jewelled? Such is the Riviera of to-day; the life imposed upon it by hordes of foreign idlers in a land whose warmth and luxuriance may have lent itself but too easily to the vicious and frivolous pleasures for which they have made it notorious, but a land which has no native history that is effeminate, nor any so unworthy as its exotic present. “The Riviera” may be Nice, Beaulieu, and their like, but the Provençal Mediterranean and its neighbouring territory have been the fatherland of warriors in real mail and of princes of real power, of the Emperor Pertinax of pagan times, of those who fought successfully against Mahmoud and Tergament, and of many Knights of Malta, long the “Forlorn Hope” of Christendom.

Discreetly hidden from vulgar eyes that delight in the architecture of the modern caravanserai, are the ruins of these older days—Amphitheatres, Fountains, Temples, and Aqueducts of the Romans; the Castles, Abbeys, and Cathedrals of mediæval times. Here are the larger number, if not the most interesting, of those curious churches of the sea, which protected the French townsman of the Mediterranean coast from the rapacity of sea-rovers and pirates, and many more orthodox enemies of the Middle Ages.

From the great beauty of its situation, the small city of Antibes is at once a type of the old régime and of the new. Lying on the sea, with a background of snow-capped mountains, it has not entirely escaped the fate of Nice; neither has it yet lost all its old Provençal characteristics. It is a pathetic compromise between the quaint reality of the old and the blatancy of the new. The little parish church is of the very far past, having lost its Cathedral rank over six hundred years ago to Sainte-Marie in Grasse, a town scarcely younger than its own. It is the type of the church of this coast, with its unpretentious smallness, its strength, and its disfiguring restorations; and it is, especially in comparison with Vence and Grasse, of small architectural interest. The façade, and the double archway which connects the church and the tower, are of the unfortunate XVIII century, the older exterior is monotonous, and the interior, an unpleasing confusion of forms.

The real interest of the little Cathedral is its ancient military strength, neither very grand nor very imposing, but very real to the enemy who hundreds of years ago hurled himself against the hard, plain stones. From this view-point, the mannered façade and the inharmonious interior matter but little. Toward the foe, whose sail might have arisen on the horizon at any moment, the protecting church presented the heavy rounded walls and safely narrowed windows of its three apses, and behind them the military omen of the severe, rectangular tower. High in every one of its four sides, seaward and landward, was a window, from which many a watcher must have looked and strained anxious eyes. This is the significance of the little sea-side Cathedral, this the story its tower suggests. And now when the sea is sailed by peaceful ships, and the Cathedral only a place of pious worship, the tower with its gaping windows is the only salient reminder of the ancient dignity of the church; the reminder to an indifferent generation of the days when Antibes fulfilled to Christians the promise of her old, pagan name, Antipolis, “sentinel” of the perilous sea.

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