Monday, August 4, 2008

Carpentras Cathedral

Carpentras is a busy provincial town, the terminus of three diminutive railroads and of many little, lumbering, dust-covered stages. It stands high on a hill, and from the boulevards, dusty promenades under luxuriant shade-trees, which circle the town as its walls formerly did, there is an extended view over the pretty hills and valleys of the neighbouring country. At one end of the town the Hospital rises, an immense, bare, and imposing edifice of the XVIII century, built by a Trappist Bishop; and at the other is the Orange Gate, the last tower of the old fortifications. Between these historic buildings and the encircling boulevards are the narrow streets and irregular, uninteresting buildings of the city itself. It is strange indeed that so isolated a place, which seems only a big, bustling country-town, should have been of importance in the Middle Ages, and that bits of its stirring history must have caused all orthodox Europe to thrill with horror. Stranger still would be the forgetfulness of modern writers, by whom Carpentras is seldom mentioned, were it not that the city's real history is that of the Church political, a story of strange manners and happenings, rather than a step in the vital evolution towards our own time.

In the Middle Ages Carpentras was an episcopal city, the capital of the County Venaissin, governed by wealthy, powerful, and ambitious Bishops, who took no small interest in worldly aggrandisement. Passing by gift to the Papacy, after the sudden death of Clement V it was selected as the place of the Conclave which was to elect his successor. The members were assembled in the great episcopal Palace, when Bertrand de Goth, a nephew of the dead Pope, claiming to be an ally of the French prelates against the Italians in the Conclave, arrived from a successful looting of the papal treasury at Montreux to pillage in Carpentras. He and his mercenaries massacred the citizens and burned the Cathedral. The episcopal Palace caught fire, and their Eminences—in danger of their lives—were forced to squeeze their sacred persons through a hole which their followers made in the Palace wall and fly northward.

This unfortunate raid left Carpentras with many ruins and a demolished Cathedral, deserted by those in whose cause she had unwittingly suffered. The new Pontiff was safely elected in Lyons, and upon his return to the papal seat of Avignon he administered Carpentras by a “rector,” and it continued as it had been before, the political capital of the County. During the reigns of succeeding Popes it was apparently undisturbed by dangerous honours, until the accession of the Anti-Pope, Benedict XIII. So great was this prelate's delight in the city that he reserved to himself the minor title of her Bishop, re-built her walls, and was the first patron of the present and very orthodox Cathedral, Saint-Siffrein. By a curious destiny, the church had this false prelate not only as its first patron, but as its first active supporter; and in 1404 he sent Artaud, Archbishop of Arles, in his name, to lay its first stone.

Wars and rumours of wars soon possessed the province. Benedict fled, and through unrest and lack of money the work of Cathedral building was greatly hindered. In the meantime the ruins of the former Cathedral seem to have been gradually disintegrating, and in 1829 the last of its Cloister was destroyed, to be replaced by prison cells; and now only the choir dome and a suggestion of the nave exist, partly forming the present sacristy. From these meagre remains and from writings of the time, it may be fairly inferred that Saint-Pierre was a Cathedral of the type of Avignon and Cavaillon and the old Marseillaise Church of La Majeure, and that, architecturally considered, it was a far more important structure than Saint-Siffrein. With this depressing knowledge in mind the traveller was confronted with a sight as depressing—the present Cathedral itself.

Fortunately, churches of a period antedating the XVII century are seldom so uninteresting. Nothing more meagre nor dreary can be conceived than the façade with its three, poor, characterless portals. They open on a large vaulted hall, with chapels in its six bays and a small and narrow choir. The principal charm of the interior is negative; its dim misty light, by concealing a mass of tasteless decorations and the poverty and bareness of the whole architectural scheme, gives to the generous height and size of the room an atmosphere of subdued and mysterious spaciousness. The south door is the one bit of this Gothic which passes the commonplace. Set in a poor, plain wall, the portal has a graceful symmetry of design; and its few carved details, probably limited by the artistic power of its builder, are so simple and chaste that they do not inevitably suggest poverty of conception. The tympanum holds an exotic detail, a defaced and insignificant fresco of the Coronation of the Virgin; and on the pier which divides the door-way stands a very charming statue of Our Lady of Snows, blessing those who enter beneath her outstretched hands.

This simple portal, and indeed the whole church, is a significant example of Provençal Gothic, a style so foreign to the genius of the province that it could produce only feeble and attenuated examples of the art. Compared with its northern prototypes, it is surprisingly tentative; and awkward, unaccustomed hands seem to have built it after most primitive conceptions.

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