Perhaps a Phœnician settlement, certainly a Carthaginian mart, later a Grecian city, and in the final years of the pagan era possessed by the Romans, no city of France has had more diverse influences of antique civilisation than Marseilles, none responded more proudly to its ancient opportunities; and not only was it commercially wealthy and renowned, but so rich in schools that it was called “another, a new Athens.” It was also the port of an adventurous people, who founded Nice, Antibes, la Ciotat, and Agde, and explored a part of Africa and Northern Europe; and at the fall of the Roman Empire it became, by very virtue of its riches and safe harbour, the envy and the prey of a succession of barbaric and “infidel” invaders. In the Middle Ages it had all the vicissitudes of wars and sieges to which a great city could be subjected. It had a Viscount, and from very early days, a Bishop; it was at one time part of the Kingdom of Arles; and later it recognised the suzerainty of the Counts of Provence. When these lords were warring or crusading, it took advantage of their absence or their troubles and governed itself through its Consuls; became a Provençal Republic after the type of the Italian cities and other towns of the Mediterranean country; treated with the Italian Republics on terms of perfect equality; and although finally annexed to France by the wily Louis of the Madonnas, its people were continually haunted by memories of their former independence, and not only struggled for municipal rights and liberties, but took sides for or against the most powerful monarchs of continental history as if they had been a resourceful country rather than a city. It succored the League, defied Henry IV and Richelieu; and treating Kings in trouble as cavalierly as declining Counts, Marseilles tried at the death of Henry III to secede from France and recover its autonomy under a Consul, Charles de Cazaulx. Promptly defeated, it still continued to think independently, and struggle, as best it might, for freedom of administration; and although from the time of Pompey to that of Louis XIV it has had an ineradicable tendency to stand against the government, it has survived the results of all its contumacies, its plagues, wars, and sieges, and the destructiveness of its phase of the Revolution, when it had a Terror of its own. Notwithstanding modern rivals in the Mediterranean, Marseilles is to-day one of the largest and most prosperous of French cities. Built in amphitheatre around the bay, it is beautiful in general view, its streets bustle with commercial activity, and its vast docks swarm with workmen. The storms of the past have gone over Marseilles as the storms of nature over its sea, have been as passionate, and have left as little trace. Instead of Temples, Forum, and Arena, there are the Palais de Longchamps, the Palais de Justice, and the Christian Arch of Triumph. Instead of the muddy and unhealthy alley-ways of Mediævalism, there are broad streets and wide boulevards, and in spite of its antiquity Marseilles is a city of to-day, in monuments, aspect, spirit, and even in class distinction. “Here,” writes Edmond About, “are only two categories of people, those who have made a fortune and those who are trying to make one, and the principal inhabitants are parvenus in the most honourable sense of the word.”
“In the most honourable sense of the word,” the Cathedral of Marseilles is also typical of the city, “parvenue.” Its first stone was placed by Prince Louis Napoleon in 1852, and as the modern has overgrown the classic and mediæval greatness of Marseilles, so the new “Majeure” has eclipsed, if it has not yet entirely replaced, the old Cathedral; and except the stern Abbey-church of Saint-Victor, an almost solitary relic of true mediæval greatness, it is the finest church of the city.
The new Cathedral and the old stand side by side; the one strong and whole, the other partly torn down, scarred and maimed as a veteran who has survived many wars. Even in its ruin, it is an interesting type of the maritime Provençal church, but so pitiably overshadowed by its successor that the charm of its situation is quite lost, and few will linger to study its three small naves, the defaced fresco of the dome, or even the little chapel of Saint-Lazare, all white marble and carving and small statues, scarcely more than a shallow niche in the wall, but daintily proportioned, and a charming creation of the Renaissance. Fewer still of those who pause to study what remains of the old “Majeure,” will stay to reconstruct it as it used to be, and realise that it had its day of glory no less real than that of the new church which replaces it. In its stead, Saint-Martin's, and Saint-Cannat's sometimes called “the Preachers,” have been temporarily used for the Bishop's services. But now that the greater church, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, has been practically completed, it has assumed, once and for all, the greater rank, and a Cathedral of Marseilles still stands on its terrace in full view of the sea. Tradition has it that a Temple of Baal once stood on this site and later, a Temple to Diana; that Lazarus came in the I century, converted the pagan Marseillais and built a Christian Cathedral here. A more critical tradition says that Saint Victor first came as missionary, Bishop, and builder. All these vague memories of conversion, more or less accurate, all the legends of an humble and struggling Christianity, seem buried by this huge modern mass. It is not a church struggling and militant, but the Church Established and Triumphant. It is a vast building over four hundred and fifty feet long, preceded by two domed towers. Its transepts are surmounted at the crossing by a huge dome whose circumference is nearly two hundred feet, a smaller one over each transept arm, and others above the apsidal chapels. The exterior is built with alternate layers of green Florentine stone and the white stone of Fontvieille; and the style of the church, variously called French Romanesque, Byzantine, and Neo-Byzantine, is very oriental in its general effect.
An arcade between the two towers forms a porch, the entrance to the interior whose central nave stretches out in great spaciousness. The lateral naves, in contrast, are exceedingly narrow and have high galleries supported by large monolithic columns. These naves are prolonged into an ambulatory, each of whose chapels, in consonance with the Cathedral's colossal proportions, is as large as many a church. The building stone of the interior is grey and pink, with white marble used decoratively for capitals and bases; and these combinations of tints which would seem almost too delicate, too effeminate, for so large a building, are made rich and effective by their very mass, the gigantic sizes which the plan exacts. All that artistic conception could produce has been added to complete an interior that is entirely oriental in its luxury of ornamentation, half-oriental in style, and without that sober majesty which is an inherent characteristic of the most elaborate styles native to Western Christianity. Under the gilded dome is a rich baldaquined High Altar, and through the whole church there is a magnificence of mosaics, of mural paintings, and of stained glass that is sumptuous. Mosaics line the arches of the nave and the pendentives, and form the flooring; and in the midst of this richness of colour the grey pillars rise, one after the other in long, shadowy perspective, like the trees of a stately grove.
In planning this new Provençal Cathedral its architects did not attempt to reproduce, either exactly or in greater perfection, any maritime type which its situation on the Mediterranean might have suggested, nor were they inspired by any of the models of the native style; and perhaps, to the captious mind, its most serious defect is that its building has destroyed not only an actual portion of the old Majeure, but an historic interest which might well have been preserved by a wise restoration or an harmonious re-building. And yet, with the large Palace of the Archbishop on the Port de la Joliette near-by, the statue of a devoted and loving Bishop in the open square, and the majestic Cathedral of Sainte-Marie-Majeure itself, the episcopacy of Marseilles has all the outward and visible signs of strength and glory and power.
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