Fréjus, which claims to be “the oldest city in France,” was one of the numerous trading ports of the Phœnician, and later, during the period of her civic grandeur, an arsenal of the Roman navy. Her most interesting ruins are the Coliseum, the Theatre, the old Citadel, and the Aqueduct, suggestions of a really great city of the long-gone past. Fréjus lost prestige with the decadence of the Empire, and after a destruction by the Saracens in the X century, Nature gave the blow which finally crushed her when the sea retreated a mile, and her old Roman light-house was left to overlook merely a long stretch of barren, sandy land. Owing to this stranded, inland position, she has escaped both the dignity of a modern sea-port and the prostitution of a Rivieran resort, and is a little dead city, the seat of an ancient Provençal “Cathedral of the Sea.” This Cathedral is largely free from XVII and XVIII century disfigurements; and the pity is that having escaped this, a French church's imminent peril, it should have become so built around that the character of the exterior is almost lost. The façade is severely plain, an uninteresting re-building of 1823, but the carved wood of its portals is beautiful. The towers, as in other maritime Cathedrals of Provence, recall the perils and dangers of their days; and these towers of Fréjus, although none the less practically defensive, have a more churchly appearance than those of Antibes, Grasse, and Vence. Over the vestibuled entrance rises the western tower. Its heavy, rectangular base is the support of a super-structure which was replaced in the XVI century by one more in keeping with conventional ecclesiastical models. Then the windows of the base, whose rounded arches are still traceable, were walled in; and the new octagonal stage with high windows of its own was completed by a tile-covered spire. The more interesting tower is that which surmounts the apse. This was the lookout, facing the sea, the really vital defence of the church. Its upper room was a storage place for arms and ammunition, and on the side which faces the city was open, with a broad, pointed arch. Above, the tower ends in machiolated battlements and presents a very strong and stern front seaward, perhaps no stronger, but more artistic and grim than towers of other Provençal Cathedrals.
The entrance of the church is curiously complicated. To the left is the little baptistery; directly before one, a narrow stairway which leads to the Cloister; and on the right, a low-arched vestibule which opens into the nave of the Cathedral. The interior of Saint-Etienne is dark and somewhat gloomy, but that is an inherent trait of a fortress-church, for every added inch of window-opening brought an ell of danger. The nave is unusually low and broad, and its buttressed piers are of immense weight, ending severely in a plain, moulded band. On these great piers rest the cross-vaults of the roof and the broad arches of the wall. The north aisle, disproportionately narrow, is a later addition. Behind the altar is a true Provençal apse, shallow and rectangular, and beyond its rounded roof opens the smaller half-dome. Architecturally, this is an interesting interior; but the traveller who has not time to spend in musings will fail to see it in its original intention;—cold, severely plain, heavy, with perhaps too many arch-lines, but sober and simple. A futile wooden wainscot now surrounds the church and breaks its wall space, liberal coats of whitewash conceal the building material, and taking from the church the severity of its stone, give it an appearance of poor deprecatory bareness.
Near the entrance of the Cathedral is its most ancient portion, the baptistery, formerly a building apart, but now an integral part of the church itself. It is perhaps the most interesting Christian monument in Fréjus, a reminder of those early centuries when, in France as in Italy, the little baptistery was the popular form of Christian architectural expression. Here it has the very usual octagonal shape; the arches are upheld by grayish columns of granite with capitals of white marble, and in the centre stands the font. Between the columns are small recesses, alternately rectangular and semi-domed, and above all, is a modern dome and lantern. Structurally interesting, and reminiscent of the stately baptistery of Aix, the effect of this little chamber, like the church's interior, is marred by the whitewashes from whose industrious brushes nothing but the grayish columns have escaped. And here again, the traveller who would see the builders' work, free from the disfigurements of time, must pause and imagine.
Yet even imagination seems powerless before the desecration of the little Cloister. Charming it must have been to have entered its quiet walks, with their slender columns of white marble, to have seen the quaint old well in the little, sun-lit close. Now, between the slender columns, boards have been placed which shut out light and sun. The traveller sat down on an old wheel-barrow, waiting till he could see in the dim and misty light. All around him was forgetfulness of the Cloister's holy uses; signs of desecration and neglect. One end of the cloister-walk was a thoroughfare, where the wheel-barrow had worn its weary way; and even in the deserted corners there was the dust and dirt of a work-a-day world. The beautiful little capitals of the slender columns rose from among the boards, clipped and worn; above, he dimly saw the curious wooden ceiling which would seem to have taken the place of the usual stone vaulting; through chinks of the plank-wall he caught glimpses of a little close; and at length, having seen the most melancholy of “Cathedrals of the Sea,” in its disguise of whitewash, decay, and misuse, he went his way.
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