Saturday, August 9, 2008

Montpellier Cathedral

Montpellier CathedralMontpellier is “an agreeable city, clean, well-built, intersected by open squares with wide-spread horizons, and fine, broad boulevards, a city whose distinctive characteristics would appear to be wealth, and a taste for art, leisure, and study.” The “taste” and the “art” are principally those of the pseudo-classic style, an imitation of “ancient Greece and imperial Rome,” which the French of the XVIII century carried to such unpleasant excess. The general characteristics of the imitation, size and bombast, are well epitomised in the principal statue of Montpellier's fine Champ de Mars, which represents the high-heeled and luxurious Louis XIV in the unfitting armour of a Roman Imperator, mounted on a huge and restive charger. Such affectation in architectural subjects is the death-blow to all real beauty and originality, and Montpellier has gained little from its Bourbon patrons except a series of fine broad vistas. No city could offer greater contrast to the ancient and dignified classicism of Nîmes.

If the mediæval origin of Montpellier were not well known, one would believe it the creation of the Renaissance, and the few narrow, tortuous streets of the older days recall little of its intense past, when the city grew as never before nor since, when scholars of the genius of Petrarch and the wit of Rabelais sought her out, when she belonged to Aragon or Navarre and not to the King of France. This is the interesting Montpellier.

In the XIII century, she had a University which the Pope formally sanctioned, and a school of medicine founded by Arabian physicians which rivalled that of Paris. More significant still to Languedoc, her prosperity had begun to overshadow that of the neighbouring Bishopric of Maguelonne, and a bitter rivalry sprang up between the two cities. From the first Maguelonne was doomed. She had no schools that could rival those of Montpellier; she ceased to grow as the younger city increased in fame and size, till even history passed her by, and the stirring events of the times took place in the streets of her larger and more prosperous neighbour. Finally she was deserted by her Bishops, and no longer upheld by their episcopal dignity, her fall was so overwhelming that to-day her mediæval walls have crumbled to the last stone and only a lonely old Cathedral remains to mark her greatness. In 1536 my Lord Bishop, with much appropriate pomp and ceremony, rode out of her gates and entered those of Montpellier as titular Bishop for the first time.

He did not find the townsmen so elated by the new dignity of the city as to have broken ground for a new Cathedral, nor did he himself seem ambitious, as his predecessors of Maguelonne had been, to build a church worthy of his rank. However, as a Bishop must have a Cathedral-church, the chapel of the Benedictine monastery was chosen for this honour and solemnly consecrated the Cathedral of Saint-Pierre of Montpellier. This chapel had been built in the XIV century, and at the time of these episcopal changes, only the nave was finished. It was, however, Gothic; and as this style had become much favoured by the South at this late period, the Bishop must have believed that he had the beginning of a very fine and admirable Cathedral. In the religious wars which followed 1536, succeeding prelates found much to distract them from any further building; the Cathedral itself was so injured that such attention as could be spared from heretics to mere architectural details was devoted to necessary restorations and reconstructions, and the finished Saint-Pierre of to-day is an edifice of surprising modernity.

In the interior, the nave and aisles are partially of old construction, but the beautiful choir is the XIX century building of Révoil. Of the exterior, the entire apse is his also, and as the portal of the south wall was built in 1884 and the northern side of the Cathedral is incorporated in that of the Bishop's Palace, only the tower and the façade are mediæval.

None of the towers have much architectural significance, either of beauty or originality. In comparison with the decoration of the façade they make but little impression. This decoration has more original incongruity than any detail ever applied to façade, Gothic or Romanesque, and is an extreme example of the license which southern builders allowed themselves in their adaptation of the northern style. It is a vagary, and has appealed to some Anglo-Saxon[Pg 245] travellers, but French authorities, almost without dissent, allude to it apologetically as “unpardonable.” Its general effect is somewhat that of a porte-cochère, whose roofing, directly attached to the front wall, is gothically pointed, and supported by two immense pillars. The pillars end in cones that resemble nothing in the world so much as sugar-loaves, and the whole structure is marvellously unique. Yet strange to say, the effect of the façade, with the smoothness and roundness of its pillars and the uncompromising squareness of its towers, while altogether bad, is not altogether unpleasing. Standing before it the traveller was both bewildered and fascinated as he saw that even in the extravagance of their combinations, the builders, with true southern finesse, had avoided both the grotesque and the monstrous.

As a whole, Saint-Pierre is a fine Cathedral; through many stages of building, enlarging, and re-constructing, its style has remained consonant; but the general impression is not altogether harmonious. The perspective of the western front, which should be imposing, is destroyed by a hill which slopes sharply up before the very portal. The façade is attached to the immense, unbroken wall of the old episcopal Palace, and the majesty, which is a Cathedral's by very virtue of its height alone, is entirely destroyed by a seemingly interminable breadth of wall. Reversing the natural order of things, the finest view is that of the apse. And this modern part is, in reality, the chief architectural glory of this comparatively new Cathedral and its comparatively modern town.

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