Monday, August 18, 2008

Sisteron Cathedral

French CathedralsThe traveller is curious,—frankly curious. Almost every time that he enters a Cathedral, his memory recalls the words of Renan, “these splendid marvels are almost always the blossoming of some little deceit,” and after he has feasted his eye, he thinks of history and of details, and of Renan, prejudiced but well-informed, and wonders what was here the “little deceit.” At Grasse, he had longed for the papers a certain lawyer has, which tell much of the city's life a hundred and fifty years ago, and at Sisteron, he sat by the Durance, wondering how he could induce a kind and good old lady of a remote corner of Provence to lend him an ancient manuscript, which even the gentle Curé said she “obstinately” refused to “impart.” Blessed are they who can be satisfied with guide-books, as his friends who had visited Avignon and Arles, Tarascon and the Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, and had seen Provence to their entire edification while he was merely peering about Notre-Dame-des-Doms and the Fort Saint-André. Of a more indolent and leisurely turn of mind, he suffers—and perhaps justly—the penalty of his joyous idleness, for even lawyers and good ladies with hidden papers are rare. Revolutionary sieges, fires, and a wise discretion have led to the destroying of many a fine old page, and it is often in vain one goes to these decaying cities of Provence. “We see,” he said, gesticulating dejectedly, “we see their towers and their walls, but if we say we know that place, how many times do we deceive ourselves. It is too often as though we claimed to know the life and thought and passions of a man from looking on his grave.”

But—to consider what we may know. Sisteron is an old Roman city, most strongly and picturesquely built in a narrow defile of the Durance. On one side the river is the high, bare rock of La Baume; on the other, a higher rock where houses, supporting each other by outstretched buttresses, seem to cling to the sheer hillside as shrubs in mountain crevasses, and are dominated and protected by a large and formidable fortress-castle that crowns the very top of the peak. The town walls are almost gone; the fortress is abandoned; since the Revolution there are no longer Bishops in Sisteron; but the old town has lost little of its war-like and romantic atmosphere of days when it commanded an important pass, and when the way across the Durance was guarded by a drawbridge, and a big portcullis that now stands in rusty idleness.

It is claimed that the Bishopric of this stronghold was founded in the IV century, and grew and flourished mightily, until the Bishop dwelt securely on his rock, his Brother of Gap had a “box” on the opposite bank, the Convent of the little Dominican Sisters was further up the river, and, besides this busy ecclesiastical life, there was the world of burghers in the town and its Convent of Ursulines. Here came once upon a time a sprightly lady who added a thousand lively interests. This was Louise de Cabris, sister of the great Mirabeau, “who, when a mere girl, had been married to the Marquis de Cabris. Part knave, part fool, the vices of de Cabris sometimes ended in attacks of insanity. His marriage with one who united the violence of the Mirabeaus to the license of the Vassans was unfortunate; ... and after Louise began to reign in the big dark house of the Cours of Grasse, life never lacked for incidents.” Matters were not mended by the arrival of her brother, twenty-four and wild, and supposed to be living under a “lettre de cachet” in the sleepy little town of Manosque. The two were soon embroiled in so outrageous a scandal that their father, who loved a quarrel for its own sake, sided with the prosecution; and declaring that “no children like his had ever been seen under the sun,” took out a “lettre de cachet” for Louise, who was sent up to Sisteron, where he requested her to “repent of her sins at leisure in the Convent of the Ursulines.” Inheriting a brilliant, restless wit and unbridled morals, her life with the stupid, vicious Marquis had not improved her natural disposition, and she soon set Sisteron agog. On pretence of business all the lawyers flocked to see her; and with no pretence at all the garrison flocked in their train. When the Ursulines ventured to remonstrate, she diverted them with such anecdotes of gay adventure as were never found between the pages of their prayer-books. Finally the whole town was divided into two camps; her foes called her “a viper,” and many an eye peered into the dark streets, many a head was judiciously hidden behind bowed shutters, to see who went toward the Convent; till by wit and scheming and after some months of most surprising incident, Louise carried her point, left the good Ursulines to a well-merited repose, and returned to the Castle of Mirabeau,—to laugh at the townsfolk of Sisteron.

When in the city, the prelates occupied their Castle of the Citadel with the high lookouts and defences, far from their Cathedral, which is in the lower town near the heavy, round towers of the ramparts. This church, which has been very slightly and very judiciously restored, is of unknown date, probably of the XII century, it is faithful to the native architectural tradition, and in some details more interesting than many of the Provençal Cathedrals. Its exterior is small and low. There are the familiar, friendly little apses of the Romanesque; near them, above the east end of the north aisle, the squat tower with a modest, modern spire; and at its side, above the roof-line, is the octagon that stands over the dome. All this structure is unaffectedly simple. The walls and buttresses which enclose the aisles are plain, and it is only by comparison with this architectural Puritanism that the façade may be considered ornate. Near the top of its wall, which is supported by sturdy piers, are three round windows, with deep, splayed frames. The largest of them is directly above the high, slender portal that is somewhat reminiscent of the Italian influence, so elaborately marked further up the valley, at Embrun. The rounded arch of the door-way and its pointed gable are repeated, on either side, in a half-arch and half-gable. An allegorical animal, in relief, stands above the central arch, and a few columns with delicate capitals complete the adornment of the entrance-way, which, in spite of being the most decorative part of the church, is most discreet.

Nine steps lead down into an interior that is small, very usually planned, and much defaced by XVII century gilt—yet is essentially dignified and impressive. Eliminate the tawdry altars, take away the stucco Saints and painted Virgins, let the chapels be mere shadowy corners in the dark perspective, and the little church appears like the meeting-place of the Faithful of an early Christianity. Its nave and each of the narrow side aisles rise to round tunnel-vaults; there are but five bays, and the last is covered by a small, octagonal dome. The whole church is built of a dark stone that is almost black, its lighting is very dim, and centres in the little apses where the holiest statues stand and the most sacred rites are celebrated; and the worshippers, shrouded in twilight, have more of the atmosphere of mystery than is usual in the Cathedrals of Provence, the subtle influence of quiet shadowy darkness that is so potent in the churches of the Spanish borderland.

Many will pass through Sisteron and enjoy its rugged strength, its sun-lit days, its narrow streets, and the peaks that stand out in solemn sternness against the dark blue sky at night. Notre-Dame-de-Pomeriis has none of the salient beauty of any of these, and to appreciate its ancient charm, it must not be forgotten that the Provençal Cathedral has not the distinction of size or the elaboration of the greater Cathedrals of Gascony, that it is far removed from the fine originalities of Languedoc, that it is conventional, and, as it were, clannish, and that its highest dignity is in a simple quiet that is never awe-full. There is, in truth, more than one church of this country that needs the embellishment of its history to make it truly interesting. But Notre-Dame of Sisteron is not of these. It is not the big, empty shell of Carpentras, nor the little rough Cathedral of Orange. It is the smaller, more perfect one, of finer inspiration, which the many will pass by, the few enjoy.

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