Thursday, August 7, 2008

Digne Cathedral

Digne CathedralWell outside the Alpine city of Digne, and almost surrounded by graves, stands a small and ancient church which is seldom opened except for the celebration of Masses for the Dead. Coffin-rests stand always before the altar, and enough chairs for the few that mourn. There are old candlesticks for the tapers of the church's poor, and hidden in the shadows of the doors, a few broken crosses that once marked graves, placed, tenderly perhaps, above those who were alive some years ago and who now rest forgotten; on battered wood, one can still read a baby's age, an old man's record, and the letters R. I. P.

In this strange, melancholy destiny of Notre-Dame-du-Bourg there seems to be a peculiar fitness. The mutability of time, forgetfulness, and at length neglect, which death suggests, are brought to mind by this old church. Once the Cathedral of Digne, but no longer Cathedral, it stands almost alone in spite of its honours and its venerable age. After the desecration by the Huguenots, its episcopal birthright was given to a younger and a larger church; the city has moved away and clusters about its new Cathedral, Saint-Jérome; and Notre-Dame-du-Bourg is no longer on a busy street, but near the dusty high-road, amid the quiet of the country and the hills.

Parts of its crypt and tower may antedate 900, but the church itself was re-built in the XII and XIII centuries. The course of time has brought none of the incongruities which have ruined many churches by the so-called restorations of the last three hundred years, and although its simple Romanesque is sadly unrepaired, it is a delight to come into the solitude and find an unspoiled example of this stanch old style.


The Romanesque shows forth its great solidity in the exterior of its churches, and nowhere more than in Digne's deserted Cathedral. Flat buttresses line the walls, the transepts are square and plain, and on either side the façade wall is upheld by a formidable support. This severity of line is not greatly modified by the deep recesses of a few windows; nor is the tower—which lost its spire three hundred years ago—of less sober construction, less solidly built. Below the overhanging eaves of a miserable roof and the curious line of the nave vault which projects through the wall, is a round window with a frame of massive rolls and hollows; and below this again, under a narrow sloping covering, is the deep arch of the Cathedral's porch. This, in its prime, must have been the church's ornamental glory. Beneath the outer arch, which is continued to the buttresses by half-arches, are the great roll-mouldings that twist backward to a plain tympanum. Capitals still support these massive curves of stone, but the niches in which the columns formerly stood are empty, and grinning lions, lying on the ground, no longer support the larger columns of the plain arch. All stands in solemn decay.

The traveller entered a battered, brass-nailed door and saw before him the stretch of a single, empty nave, a choir beneath whose lower vault are three small windows, and on either side the archways which he knew must lead to narrow transepts. In the south side, plain, rounded windows give a glimmering light, and over each projects an arch, the modest decoration of the walls. Far above rises the tunnel-vault, whose sheer height is grandly dignified; the arches rest on roughly carved capitals, and the outer rectangle of the piers is displaced for half a column. The rehearsal of these most simple details seems but the writing of “the letter which killeth,” and not the portrayal of the spirit that seems to live within these walls. Details which seem so poorly few when read, are nobly so when seen. This small old church has a true religious stateliness, and it seemed as if a priest should bring the Sanctuary-light which says, “The Lord is in His holy temple.”

Saint-Jérome was built between 1490 and 1500, a hundred years before its episcopal elevation, and forms a most complete antithesis to Notre-Dame-du-Bourg which it supplanted in 1591. Where Notre-Dame is small, Saint-Jérome is large, where the old church is simple, the newer one is either pretentious or sumptuous, and where the one is Romanesque, the other is Gothic.

The present Cathedral stands on the heights of the city; and from one side or another its clean, straight walls can be seen in all their large angularity and absence of architectural significance. Towers rise conventionally above the façade; and a big broad flight of white stone steps leads to three modern portals that have been built in an economical imitation of the sculptured richness of the XIII century.

The interior, also Gothic, has neither clerestory nor triforium, and its naves are covered by a vaulting which springs broadly from the round, supporting piers. The conception is not noble, it has no simplicity, and no more of spiritual suggestion than a Madonna of Titian; but the space of the nave is so largely generous and the new polychrome so richly toned that the church has majesty of space and harmony, deep lights and subdued colourings; it is large and sumptuous with the munificence of a Veronese canvas, a singular and most curious contrast to the cold severity of its outer walls.

Before the High Altar of this Church lies buried one whose spirit suggests the Christ, a Bishop, yet a simple priest, whose life deserves more words than does the whole of Saint-Jérome, once his Cathedral-church. He was a Curé of Brignoles, one of those keen, yet simple-hearted and hard-working priests who often bless Provençal towns. He had no great ambitions, no patronage, no ties except a far-off brother who was an upstart general of that most upstart Emperor, Napoleon. One day while the priest was pottering in his little garden,—as Provençal Curés love to dig and work,—a letter was handed him, marked “thirty sous of postage due.” He was outraged. His shining old soutane fell from the folds in which he had prudently tucked it, he shrugged his shoulders and protested,—“A great expense indeed for a trivial purpose. Where should he find another thirty sous for his poor? He never wrote letters. Therefore by no argument of any school of logic could he be compelled to receive them. Obviously this was not for him.” The unexpected letter was one for which his brother had asked and which Napoleon had signed, a decree which made him Bishop.

Long afterwards this simple, saintly prelate saved a man from crime, and history relates that this same man died at Waterloo as a good and faithful soldier fighting for the fatherland. His benefactor, that loyal servant of Christ and His Church, soon followed him in death, and unlike many a Saint whom this earth forgets his memory lives on, not only in the little city of the snow-clad Alps, but in the hearts of those who read of his good deeds. For Monseigneur Miollis of Digne is truly Monseigneur Bienvenu of “Les Misérables,” and only the soldier of Waterloo was glorified in Jean Valjean.

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