Monday, August 11, 2008

Perpignan Cathedral

Perpignan CathedralPerpignan, like Elne, is in Rousillon. The period of her most brilliant prosperity was that of the Majorcan dominion in the XII century. Later she reverted to Aragon, and was still so fine a city that for two hundred years France coveted and sought her, until she finally yielded to the greedy astuteness of Richelieu and became formally annexed to the kingdom of Louis XIII. Perpignan is a gay little town, much affected by the genius and indolence of the Spanish race. Morning is work-time, noon-tide is siesta, but afternoon and evening were made for pleasure; and every bright day, when the sun begins to cast shadows, people fill the narrow, shady streets and walk along the promenade by the shallow river, under the beautiful plane-trees. The pavements in front of the cafés are filled with little round tables, and here and there small groups of men idle cheerfully over tiny glasses of liqueur and cups of cool, black coffee; perhaps they talk a little business, certainly they gossip a great deal. Noisy little teams filled with merry people run down from the Promenade to the sea-shore; and after an hour's dip, almost in the shadow of the tall Pyrénées, the same merry people return, laughing, to a cooler Perpignan. In the evening, they seek the bright cafés and the waiters run busily to and fro among the crowded little tables; the narrow streets, imperfectly lighted, are full of moving shadows, and through the open church-doors, candles waver in the fitful draught, and quiet worshippers pass from altar to altar in penance or in supplication.

All the old buildings of the city are of Spanish origin. The prison is the brick, battlemented castle of a Majorcan Sancho, the Citadel is as old, and the Aragonese Bourse is divided between the town-hall and the city's most popular café.

The Cathedral of Saint-Jean, which faces a desolate, little square, was also begun in Majorcan days and under that Sancho who ruled in 1324. At first it was merely a church; for Elne had always been the seat of the Bishopric of Rousillon, and although the town had suffered from many wars and had long been declining, it was not shorn of its episcopal glory until there was sufficient political reason for the act. This arose in 1692, and was based on the old-time French and Spanish claims to the same county to which these two cities belonged.

Over a hundred years before Charles VIII had plenarily ceded to Ferdinand and Isabella all power in Rousillon, even that shadowy feudal Suzerainty with which, in default of actual possession, many a former French king had consoled himself and irritated a royal Spanish brother. Ferdinand and Isabella promptly visited their new possessions, and made solemn entry into Perpignan. Unfortunately the Inquisition came in their train, and the unbounded zeal of the Holy Office brought the Spanish rule which protected it into ever-increasing disfavour. In vain Philip III again bestowed on Perpignan the title of “faithful city,” which she had first received from John of Aragon for her loyal resistance to Louis XI; in vain he ennobled several of her inhabitants and transferred to her, from Elne, the episcopal power. The city was ready for new and kinder masters than the Most Catholic Kings, and in 1642 the French were received as liberators.

During all these years the Cathedral had grown very slowly. Commenced in 1324, over a century elapsed before the choir was finished and the building of the nave was not begun until a hundred years later. The High Altar, a Porch, and the iron cage of the tower were added with equal deliberation, and even to-day it is still unfinished. The most beautiful part is the strongly buttressed apse; the poorest, the unfinished façade, which has been very fitly described as “plain and mean.” Looking disconsolately at it from the deserted square, scarcely tempted to go nearer, the traveller was astounded at the thought that for several centuries this unsightly wall had stared on generations of worshippers without goading them into any frenzy of action,—either destructive or constructive. His only comfort lay in the scaffolding which was building around it, and which seemed to promise better things.

The interior of the Cathedral is very large and lofty. It is without aisles and the chapels are discreetly hidden between the piers. Far above one's head curves the ribbed Gothic vaulting, and all around is unbroken space that ends in darkness or the vague outline of an altar, dimly lighted by a flickering candle. The walls are painted in rich, sombre colours, and the light comes very gently through the good old stained-glass windows. It is a southern church, dark, cool, and somewhat mysterious; quite foreign to the glare and heat of reality. People are lost in its solemn vastness, and even with many worshippers it is a solitude where most holy vigils could be kept, a mystic place where the southern imagination might well lose itself in such sacred ardours as Saint Theresa felt. The traveller liked to linger here; in the day-time when he peered vainly at the re-redos of Soler de Barcelona, at Mass-time, when the lighted altar-candles glimmered over its fine old marble, but best of all he liked to come at night. Those summer nights in Rousillon were hot and full of the murmur of voices. The Cathedral was the only silent place; more full than ever of the mysterious—the felt and the unseen. As one entered, the sanctuary light shone as a star out of a night of darkness; in a near-by chapel, a candle sputtered itself away, and a woman—whether old or young one could not see—lighted a fresh taper. Sometimes a man knelt and told his beads, sometimes two women entered and separated for their differing needs and prayers. Sometimes one sat in meditation, or knelt, unmoving, for a space of time; once a child brought a new candle to Saint Antony; always some one came or some one went, until the hour of closing. Then, the bell was rung, the door shut by a hand but dimly seen, and the last few watchers went out—across the little square, down this street or that, until they were lost in the darkness of the summer's night.

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