Monday, August 4, 2008

Arles Cathedral

Arles CathedralIn the midst of the wealth of antique ruins, near the Theatre, the Coliseum, and the Forum of this “little Rome of the Gauls,” stands a noble monument of the ruder ages of Christianity, the Cathedral, Saint-Trophime. Here Saint Augustine, apostle to England, was consecrated; here three General Councils of the Church were held, here the Donatists were doomed to everlasting fire, and here the Emperor Constantine, from his summer palace on the Rhone, must have come to “assist” at Mass. The building in which these solemn scenes of the early Church were enacted soon disappeared and was replaced by the present one whose older walls Révoil attributes to the IX century. The present Cathedral's first documentary date is 1152, in the era of the Republic of Arles. The name of Saint-Etienne was changed, and the body of Saint-Trophime, carried in state from the ruined Church of the Aliscamps, was buried under a new altar and he was solemnly proclaimed the Patron of the richest and most majestic church in all Provence.

The portal is one of the noblest works of Mediævalism, the richest and most beautiful portal of the South of France; and no others in the Midi, except those of Saint-Gilles-du-Gard and Moissac, are worthy of comparison with it. In boldness and intellectuality of conception it excels many of the northern works and equals the finest of them. For the builder of the northern portal seems to have held closely to one architectural form, the beautiful convention of the Gothic style; and within that door he placed, in a more or less usual way, the subjects which the Church had sanctioned. In nearly every case the treatment of the subject is subordinated to the general architectural plan and symmetry. At Saint-Trophime there was the limit of space, the axiom that a door must be a door, and doubtless many allowable subjects. But within these necessary bounds the unknown sculptor recognised few conventionalities. The usual place for the portrayal of the Last Judgment, the tympanum, was too small for his conception of the scene; the pier that divides his door-way was not built to support the statue of the church's patron saint; he had a multitude of fancies, and instead of curbing them in some beautiful conventionality of form, as one feels great northern builders often did, this artist made a frame within which his ideas found free play, and, forcing conventionality to its will, his genius justified itself. For not only is the portal as a whole, full of dignity and true symmetry, but its details are thoughtfully worked out. They show, with the old scholastic form of his Faith, the grasp of the unknown master's mind, the intellectuality of his symbolism, and few portals grow in fascination as this one, few have so interesting an originality.

French Cathedrals
French Cathedrals

Detail of Left and Right Portals


In design it is simple, in execution incomparably rich. The principal theme of the Last Judgment has Christ seated on a throne as the central figure, and about him are the symbols of the four Evangelists. This is the treatment of the tympanum. Underneath, Patriarchs, Saints, Just, and Condemned form the beautiful frieze. The Apostles are seated; and to their left is an angel guarding the gates of Paradise against two Bishops and a crowd of laymen who have yet to fully expiate their sins in Purgatory. Behind them, naked, with their feet in the flames, are those condemned to everlasting Hell; and still beyond is a lower depth where souls are already half-consumed in hideous fires. On the Apostles' extreme right is the beginning of our human history, the Temptation of Adam and Eve; and marching toward the holy men, on this same side, is the long procession of those Redeemed from Adam's fall, clothed in righteousness. An angel goes before them, and hands a small child—a ransomed soul—to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The end panels treat the last phases of the dominant theme;—a mammoth angel in the one weighs the souls of the dead; and an equally awe-inspiring devil in the other is preparing to cast two of the Lost into a sea of fire.

The remainder of the portal tells of many subjects, and represents much of the theological symbolism of its time. Light, graceful columns, with delicately foliated capitals and bases rich with meaning sculptures, divide the lower spaces into niches, and in these niches stand statues of Apostles and of Saints, each having his story, each his peculiar attributes; and about these chief figures are carved rich designs, strange animals, and numberless short stories of the Bible. Above there is a small, subsidiary frieze; below, the pedestals which tell the tale of those who stand upon them. The figures have life and meaning, if not a true plasticity; and in this portal there is instruction, variety, and majesty, wealth of allegory and subtle symbols for those who love religious mysteries, and splendour of sculpture for those who come in search of Art.

There are those to whom a simple beauty does not appeal. After the richness of the portal's carving, the interior of Saint-Trophime is to them “far too plain;” in futile comparison with the Cloister's grace, it is found “too severe;” and one author has written that only “when the refulgence of a Mediterranean sun glances through a series of long lances, ... then and then only does the Cathedral[Pg 144] of Saint-Trophime offer any inducement to linger within its non-impressive walls.”

It may not be denied that, together with nearly all the Cathedrals of Provence, this interior has suffered from the addition of inharmonious styles. The most serious of these is its Gothic choir of the XV century, which a certain Cardinal Louis Allemand applied to the narrower Romanesque naves. With irregular ambulatory, chapels of various sizes, and a general incongruity of plan, this construction has no architectural importance except that of a prominent place in the church's worship. The remaining excrescences, Gothic chapels, Ionic pilasters, elliptical tribune, and the like, are happily hidden along the side aisles or in the transepts; and during the restoration of Révoil the naves were relieved of the disfiguring “improvements” of the XVII century, and stand to-day in much of their fine old simplicity. Beyond the fifth bay, and rising in the tower, is the dome of dignified Provençal form that rests on the lower arches of the crossing. Small clerestory windows cast sheets of pale light on the plain piers, rectangular and heavy, that rise to support a tunnel vault and divide the church into three naves of great and slender height.

The stern, ascetic style of the XI and XII centuries has given the nave piers mere small, plain bands as capitals, and for churchly decoration has allowed only a moulding of acanthus leaves placed high and unnoticed at the vaulting's base. There is no pleasing detail and no charming fancy; but a fine, exquisite loftiness, a faultless balance of proportion, are in this severe interior, and its solemn and majestic beauty is not surpassed in the Southern Romanesque.[Pg 145]

Beyond the south transept, a short passage and a few steps lead to the Cloisters, the most famous of Provence, perhaps of France. Large, graceful, and magnificent in wealth of carving, they have yet none of the poetic charms that linger around many a smaller Cloister. The vaultings are not more beautiful than other vaults less known; although they have the help of the great piers, the little, slender columns seem too light to support so much expanse of roof, and even the church's tower, square and high, looks dwarfed when seen across the close. The very spaciousness is solitary, and the long vista of the walks conduces to vague wonderings rather than to peaceful hours of thought. It has not the dreamy solitude of Vaison, nor the bright beauty of Elne's little close, nor any of the sunny cheerfulness that brightens the decaying walls of Cahors.

The marvel of these Cloisters is the sculptured decorations of their piers and columns. Those of the XII century are the richest, but each of the later builders seems to have vied as best he might, in wealth of conception and in lavishness of detail, with those who went before, and, even in enforced re-building, the addition of the Gothic to the Romanesque has not destroyed the harmony of the effect. In all the sculptors' schemes, the outer of the double columns were given foliated patterns or a few, simple symbols, and the outer of the piers were channelled and conventionally cut; and although the fancy of the sculptor is marvellously subtle and full of grace, his greatest art was reserved for the capitals of the inner columns and the inner faces of the piers, which meditating priests would see and study. The symbolism authorised by Holy Church, the history of precursors of Our Lord, the incidents of His life and the more dramatic doings of the Saints, all these are carved with greatest love of detail and of art; and in them the least arduous priest could find themes for a whole year of meditation, the least enthusiastic of travellers, a thousand quaint and interesting fancies and imaginations. It is not so much the beauty of the whole effect that is entrancing in these Cloisters, nor that most subtle influence, the good or evil spirit of a past which lingers round so many ancient spots, as that mediæval thought and mediæval genius that found expression in these myriad fine examples of the sculptor's art.

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