Sunday, August 10, 2008

Béziers Cathedral

Bezier CathedralYou have only to look from a distance at any old-fashioned Cathedral-city and you will see in a moment the mediæval relations between Church and State. The Cathedral is the city. The first object you catch sight of as you approach is the spire tapering into the sky, or the huge towers holding possession of the centre of the landscape—majestically beautiful—imposing by mere size. As you go nearer, the pinnacles are glittering in the tints of the sunset, when down below among the streets and lanes twilight is darkening. And even now, when the towns are thrice their ancient size, ... the Cathedral is still the governing force in the picture, the one object which possesses the imagination, and refuses to be eclipsed.” These words are the description of Béziers as it is best and most impressively seen. From the distance, the Cathedral and its ramparts rise in imposing mass, a fine example of the strength, pride, and supremacy of the Church.

As we approach, the Cathedral grows much less imposing, and its façade gives the impression of an unpleasant conglomeration of styles. It is not a fortress church, yet it was evidently built for defence; it is Gothic, yet the lightness and grace of that art are sacrificed to the massiveness and resistive strength, imperatively required by southern Cathedrals in times of wars and bellicose heretics. The whole building seems a compromise between necessity and art.

It is, however, a notable example of the Gothic of the South, and of the modifications which that style invariably underwent, through the artistic caprice of its builders, or the political fore-sight of their patrons, the Bishops.

The façade of Saint-Nazaire of Béziers has a Gothic portal of good but not notable proportions, and a large and beautiful rose-window. As if to protect these weaker and decorative attempts, the builder flanked them with two square towers, whose crenelated tops and solid, heavy walls could serve as strongholds. Perhaps to reconcile the irreconcilable, crenelations joining the towers were placed over the rose-window, and at either end of the portal, a few inches of Gothic carving were cut in the tower-wall. The result is frank incongruity. And the traveler left without regret, to look at the apse. It cannot be denied that the clock-tower which comes into view is very square and thick; but in spite of that it has a simple dignity, and as the apse itself is not florid, this proved to be the really pleasing detailed view of the Cathedral. The open square behind the church is tiny, and there one can best see the curious grilled iron-work, which in the times of mediæval outbreaks protected the fine windows of the choir and preserved them for future generations of worshippers and admirers. It was after noon when the traveller finished his investigations of Saint-Nazaire; and as the southern churches close between twelve and two, he took déjeuner at a little café near-by and patiently waited for the hour of re-opening. Had there been nothing but the interior to explore, he could not have spent two hours in such contented waiting. But there was a Cloister,—and on the stroke of two he and the sacristan met before the portal.

In the Cloister-close stands a Gothic fountain; but the days when its waters dropped and tinkled in the stillness, when their sound mingled with the murmured prayers and slow steps of the priests,—those days are long forgotten. The quaint and pretty fountain is now dry and dust-covered; while about it trees and plants and weeds grow as they may, and bits of the Cloister columns have fallen off, and niches are without their guarding Saints.

By contrast, the Cathedral itself seems full of life. Its interior is an aisle-less Gothic room, whose fine height and emptiness of column or detail give it an appearance of vast and well-conceived proportions. Except the really beautiful windows of the choir, which are a study in themselves, there is very little in this interior to hold the mind; one is lost in a pleasant sense of general symmetry. As the traveller was sitting in the nave, a few priests filed into the choir, and began, in quavering voices, to intone their prayers, and in the peacefulness of the church, in the trembling monotony of the weak, old voices, his thoughts wandered to the stirring history which had been lived about the Cathedral, and within its very walls. For Béziers was and had always been a hot-bed of heretics. Here in the IV century, long before the building of the Cathedral, the Emperor Constantius II forced the unwilling Catholic Bishops of Gaul to join their heretical Aryan brethren in Council; here the equally heretical Visigoths gave new strength to the dissenters; and here, again, after centuries of orthodoxy which Clovis had imposed, a new centre of religious storm was formed. It was about this period, the XII and XIV centuries, that the Cathedral was built; and it is perhaps because of the strength of those French protestants against the Church of Rome, the Albigenses, that its essentially Gothic style was so confused by military additions. At the beginning of the troublous times of which these towers are reminders, Raymond-Roger of Trencavel, the gallant and romantic Lord of Carcassonne, was also Viscount of Béziers; and contrary to the fanatical enthusiasm of his day, was much disposed toward religious toleration; therefore in the early wars of Catholics and Protestants the city of Béziers became the refuge not only for the terrified Faithful of the surrounding country, but for many hunted Protestants. In the XIII century, the zeal of the Catholic party, reinforced by the political interests of its members, grew most hot and dangerous. Saint Dominic had come into the South; and in his fearful, fiery sermons, he not only prophesied that the Albigenses would swell the number of the damned at the Day of Judgment, but also advocated that, living, they should know the hell of Inquisition. Partisans of the Catholic Faith were solemnly consecrated “Crusaders” by Pope Innocent III, and wore the cross in these Wars of Extermination as they had worn it in the Holy Wars of Palestine. In 1209 their army advanced against Béziers, and from out their Councils the leaders sent the Bishop of the city to admonish his flock.

All the inhabitants were summoned to meet him, and they gathered in the choir and transepts of the Cathedral,—the only parts which were finished at that time. One can imagine the anxious citizens crowding into the church, the coming of the angered prelate, whose state and frown were well calculated to intimidate the wavering, and the tense silence as he passed, with grave blessing, to the altar. In a few words, he advised them of their peril, spiritual and material; he told them he knew well who was true and who false to the Church, that he had, in written list, the very names of the heretics they seemed to harbour. Then he begged them to deliver those traitors into his hands, and their city to the Legate of the Holy Father. In fewer words came their answer; “Venerable Father, all that are here are Christians, and we see amongst us only our brethren.” Such words were a refusal, a heinous sin, and dread must have been written on every face, as without a word or sign of blessing, the outraged Bishop swept from the church and returned to the camp of their enemy.

The Crusaders' Councils were stormy; for some of the nobles wished to save the Catholics, others cried out for the extermination of the whole rebellious place, and finally the choleric Legate, Armand-Amaury, Abbot of Cîteaux, could stand it no longer, and cried out fiercely, “Kill them all! God will know His own.” The words of their Legate were final, the army attacked the city, and—as Henri Martin finely writes,—“neither funeral tollings nor bell-ringings, nor Canons in all their priestly robes could avail, all were put to the sword; not one was saved, and it was the saddest pity ever seen or heard.” The city was pillaged, was fired, was devastated and burned “till no living thing remained."

“No living thing remained” to tell the awful tale, and yet with time and industry, a new and forgetful Béziers has risen to all its old prestige and many times its former size; the Cathedral alone was left, and its most memorable tale to our day is not that of the abiding peace of the Faith, but that of the terrible travesty of religion of the twenty-second of July, hundreds of years ago.

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