Friday, August 15, 2008

Forcalquier Cathedral

Forcalquier CathedralIf it is difficult to picture sleepy, stately Aix as one of the most brilliant centres of mediæval Europe, and the garrisoned castle of Tarascon filled with the gay courtiers and fair ladies of King René's Court, it will be almost impossible to walk in the smaller Provençal “cities,” and see in imagination the cavalcades of mailed soldiers who clattered through the streets on their way to the castle of some near-by hill-top, my lord proudly distinguishable by his mount or the length of his plume, a delicate Countess languishing between the curtains of her litter, or a more sprightly one who rode her palfrey and smiled on the staring townsfolk. It is almost impossible to conceive that the four daughters of Raymond Bérenger, a Queen of the Romans, of France, of Naples, and of England, were brought up in the castle of the little hillside hamlet of Saint-Maime Dauphin. Provence is quiet, rural, provincial; a land of markets, busy country inns, and farms; not of modern greatness nor of modern renown. Its children are a fine and busy race, no less strong and fine than in the land's more stirring times, but they live their years of greatness in other, “more progressive” parts of France, and the Provençal genius, which remains very native to the soil, is broadly known to fame as “French.” Like some rich old wine hidden in the cellars of the few, Provence lies safely ensconced behind Avignon and Arles, and only the epicures of history penetrate her hills.

Her mediæval ruins seem to belong to a past almost as dead and ghostly as her Roman days, and to realise her Middle Ages, one must leave the busy people in the town below, climb one of the hills, and sitting beside the crumbling walls of some great tower or castle, watch the hot sun setting behind the low mountains and lighting in a glow the bare walls of some other ruined stronghold on a neighbouring height. The shadows creep into the valleys, the rocks grow grey and cold, and the clusters of trees beside them become darkly mysterious. Then far beneath a white thread seems to appear, beginning at the valley's entrance and twisting along its length until it disappears behind another hill. This is the road; and by the time the eye has followed its long course, daylight has grown fainter. Then Provence takes on a long-lost splendour. To those who care to see, cavalcades of soldiers or of hunters come home along the road, castles become whole and frowning, the dying sun casts its light through their gaping window-holes, as light of nightly revels used to shine, and a phantom Mediævalism appears.

One of the powerful families of the country, the Counts of Forcalquier, sprang from the House of Bérenger in the XI century, and a hundred and fifty years later, grown too great, were crushed by the haughty parent house. More than one hill of Eastern Provence has borne their tall watchtowers, more than one village owed them allegiance, and a large town in the hills was their capital and bore their name. And yet not a ruined tower that overlooks the Provençal mountains, not a village, gate, or castle—Manosque or old Saint-Maime,—but speaks more vividly of the old Counts than does Forcalquier, formerly their city, now a mere country town which has lost prestige with its increasing isolation, many of its inhabitants by plagues and wars, and almost all of its picturesque Mediævalism through the destructiveness of sieges.

Long before this day of contented stagnancy, in 1061, when Forcalquier, fortified, growing, and important, claimed many honours, Bishop Gérard Caprérius of Sisteron had given the city a Provost and a Chapter, and created the Church of Saint-Mary, co-cathedral with that of Notre-Dame of Sisteron. Not contented with this honour, Forcalquier demanded and received a Bishopric of her own. Her hill was then crowned by a Citadel, her Cathedral stood near-by, her walls were intact. Now the Citadel is replaced by a peaceful pilgrims' chapel, the walls are gone, Saint-Mary, ruined in the siege of 1486, is recalled only by a few weed-covered stumps and bits of wall, and its title was given to Notre-Dame in the lower part of the town.

No Cathedral is a sadder example of architectural failure than Notre-Dame of Forcalquier because it has so many of the beginnings of real beauty and dignity, so many parts of real worthiness that have been unfortunately combined in a confused and discordant whole. If, of all little cities of Provence, Forcalquier is one of the least unique and least holding, its Cathedral is also one of the least satisfying. It is not beautiful in situation nor in its own essential harmony, and the fine but tantalising perspectives of its interior may be found again in happier churches.

The exterior shows to a superlative degree that general tendency of Provençal exteriors to be without definite or logical proportions. A large, square tower, heavier than that of Grasse, served as a lookout, a tall, thin little turret served as a belfry. In the façade there is a Gothic portal which notwithstanding its entire mediocrity is the chief adornment of the outer walls. They are irregular and uncouth to a degree and their only interesting features are at the eastern end. Here the smaller, older apses on either side betray the church's early origin. The central apse, evidently of the same dimensions as the Romanesque one originally designed, was re-built in severe, rudimentary Gothic. Looking at this shallow apse alone, and following its plain lines until they meet those of the big tower, there is a straight simplicity that is almost fine,—but this is one mere detail in a large and barren whole, and the Cathedral-seeker turns to the nearest entrance.

The first glimpse of the interior is so relieving that one is not quick to notice its lack of architectural unity. The few windows give a soft light, and the brown of the stone has a mellowness that is both rich and reposeful. If the Cathedral could have been finished in the style of the first bays of the nave, it would have been a nobly dignified example of the Romanesque. Could it have been re-built in the slender Gothic of the last bay, it would have been an exquisite example of Provençal Gothic. Rather largely planned, its old form of tunnel vaulting and the fine curve of its nave arches and heavy piers are in violent contrast to the Gothic bay, with its pointed arch, its clustered columns and carved capitals, which, even with the shallow choir and its long, slim windows, is too slight a portion of the Cathedral to have independence or real beauty. From its ritualistic position, it is the culminating point of the church, and its discord with the Romanesque is unpleasantly insistent. The side aisles, which were built in the XVII century, are low, agreeable walks ending in the chapels of the smaller apses. They are neither very regular nor very significant; but they give the church pleasant size and perspectives, and by avoiding the unduly large and shining modern chandeliers which hang between the nave arches, one gets from these side aisles the suggestive views which show only too well what true and good architectural ideas were brought to confusion in the re-building, the additions, and the restorations of the centuries. In painting, anachronisms may be quaint or even amusing; but in architecture, they are either grotesque or tragic, and in a church of such fine suggestiveness as Notre-Dame at Forcalquier, one is haunted by lingering regrets for what might and should have been.

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