Saturday, August 16, 2008

Vaison Cathedral

Vaison CathedralOn the banks of a pleasant little river among the Provençal hills is Vaison, one of the ancient Gallic towns which became entirely romanised; and many illustrious families of the Empire had summer villas there as at Arles and Orange. Barbarians of one epoch or another have devastated Vaison of all her antique treasures, except the remains of an Amphitheatre on the Puymin Hill. Germanic tribes who swooped down in early centuries destroyed her villas and her greater buildings; and vandals of a later day have scattered her sculptures and her tablets here and there. Some are in the galleries of Avignon; a Belus, the only one found in France, was sent to the Museum of Saint-Germain; and in the multitude of treasures in the British Museum, the most beautiful of all her statues, a Diadumenus, is artistically lost. In the days when it still adorned the city, during the reign of the Emperor Gallienus, Vaison was christianised by Saint Ruf, her Bishopric was founded, and in 337 the first General Council of the Church held in Gaul assembled here. Another Council in the V century, and still another in the VI, are proof of her continued importance.

Among the first of Gallo-Roman cities, she was also among the first to suffer. Chrocus and his horde who sacked Orange, seized her Bishop and murdered him; and Alains, Vandals, and Burgundians, following in their wake, brought disaster after disaster to the cities lying near the Rhone. Vaison, by miracle, did not lose her prestige. In the X and XI centuries she built her fine Cathedral with its Cloisters, and in 1179 she was still great enough to excite the covetousness of Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse. This magnificent and ambitious prince built a castle on a height above the city, and as he had before terrorised my Lord Bishop of Carpentras, so now he seized the anointed person of Bérenger de Reilhane, who was not only Vaison's Bishop, but her temporal prince as well. Bérenger was a sufficiently powerful personage to make an outcry which re-echoed throughout Christendom; the Pope and the Emperor came to his aid; and in the Abbey Church of Saint-Gilles-du-Gard, Raymond VI did solemn penance, and, before receiving absolution, was publicly struck by the Papal Legate with a bundle of birch rods. Above the Bishop's Palace the great castle still loomed in menace, but on that day Bérenger de Reilhane triumphed and Vaison was at peace.

It was a peace which presaged her quiet, uneventful downfall. For other interests were growing stronger in the country, other cities grew where she stood still, and in the XIV century, when Avignon became the seat of papal power, Vaison had passed from the world's history. Her Bishopric endured till 1801, but her doings are worthy only of provincial chronicles and to-day she is but a little country town, served by the stage-coach. She still lies on both banks of the river; the “high city,” with long rows of deserted houses, climbs the side of the steep hill and is dominated by the ruins of the great castle, which Richelieu destroyed. The “lower city,” which is the busier of the two, lies on the opposite bank; and on its outskirts, in a little garden-close, almost surrounded by the fields, is the Cathedral,—solitary, lonely, and old.

The decoration of the exterior is slight, a dentiled cornice and a graceful foliated frieze extend along the top of the side-walls, which although most plainly built, are far from being severely angular or gaunt and have a quaint and pleasing harmony of line. The west front is so featureless that it scarcely deserves the title of façade. The south wall, which is clearly seen from the road, has a small portal and plain buttresses that slope at the top. The central apse is rectangular and heavy, the little southern apse is short and round, and that of the north is tall and thin as a pepper-box. Behind them rise the pointed roof of the nave and the heavy tower. The whole apse-end is constructed in most picturesque irregularity, and the new red of the roof-tiles and sombre grey of the old stone add greatly to its charm.

Unlike many churches of its period Notre-Dame of Vaison is three-aisled. Slender, narrow naves, whose tunnel vaults are not extremely lofty, end in small circular apses. The nave is a short one of three irregular bays, and over the last, which precedes the choir, is the little eight-sided dome, which instead of projecting above the roof is curiously placed a little lower than the tunnel vaulting of the other bays. The High Altar, which originally belonged to an older church, is well placed in the simple choir; for it belongs in style, if not in actual fact, to the first centuries of the Faith; and in the semi-darkness behind the altar, the old episcopal throne still stands against the apse's wall, in memory of the custom of the Church's early days. The low arches of the aisles, the dim lighting of the church, its simple ornaments of classic bands and little capitals, its slight irregularities of form and carvings, make an interior of fine and strong antique simplicity.

A little door in the north wall leads to the Cloisters, which are happily in a state of complete restoration, and not as a modern writer has described them, “practically a ruin.” The wall which overlooks them has an inscription that adjures the Canons to “bear with patience the north aspect of their cells.” The short walks have tunnel vaults with cross-vaults in the corners and in parts of the north aisle. Great piers and small, firm columns support the outer arches; and on the exterior of the Cloister the little arches of the columns are enclosed in a large round arch. Many of the capitals are uncarved, some of the piers have applied columns, but many are ornamented in straight cut lines. On one side, two bays open to the ground, forming an entrance-way into the pretty close, where the bushy tops of a few tall trees cast flickering shadows on the surrounding walls and the little grassy square.

The Cloister is small and simple in its rather heavy grace. Noise and unrest seem far from it, and underneath its solid rounded vault is peace and shelter from the world. And in its firm solidity of architecture there is the spirit of a perfect quiet, a tranquil charm which must insensibly have calmed many a restless spirit that chafed beneath the churchly frock, and fled within its walls for refuge and for helpful meditation.

Few Provençal Cathedrals have the interest of Vaison and its Cloister. Lying in the forgotten valley of the Ouvèze, in an old-fashioned town, all its surroundings speak of the past and its atmosphere is quite unspoiled. The church itself has been spared degenerating restorations; and although it has no sumptuousness as at Marseilles, no grandeur as at Arles, no stirring history as the churches that lay near the sea, although it is one of the smallest and most venerable of them all, no Cathedral of the Southland has so great an architectural dignity and merit with so ancient and so quaint a charm.

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