Monday, August 4, 2008

Toulon Cathedral

Toulon, although a foundation of the Romans, owes its rank to-day to Henry IV, to Richelieu, and to Louis XIV's busy architect, Vauban. It is the “Gibraltar of France,” a bright, bustling, modern city. Sainte-Marie-Majeure, one of its oldest ecclesiastical names, is a title which belonged to churches of both the XI and XII centuries; but in the feats of architectural gymnastics to which their remains have been subjected, and in the wars and vicissitudes of Provence, these buildings have long since disappeared.

A few stones still exist of the XI century structure, void of form or architectural significance, and the ancient name of Sainte-Marie-Majeure now protects a Cathedral built in the most depressing style of the industrious Philistines of the XVII and XVIII centuries. It is not a Provençal nor a truly “maritime” church, it is not a fortress nor a defence, nor a work of any architectural beauty. It has blatancy, size, pretension,—a profusion of rich incongruities; and although religiously interesting from its chapels and shrines, it is architecturally obtrusive and monstrous.

The vagaries of the architects who began in 1634 to construct the present edifice, are well illustrated in the changes of plan to which they subjected this unfortunate church. The length became the breadth, the isolated chapel of the Virgin, part of the main building; the choir, another chapel; and the High Altar was removed from the eastern to the northern end, where a new choir had been built for its reception. This confusion of plan was carried out with logical confusion of style and detail. The façade has Corinthian columns of the XVII century; the nave is said to be “transition Gothic,” the choir is decorated with mural paintings, and the High Altar, a work of Révoil, adds to the banalities of the XVII and XVIII centuries a rich incongruity of which the XIX has no reason to be proud. The whole interior is so full of naves of unequal length, and radiating chapels, of arches of differing forms, tastes, and styles, that it defies concise description and is unworthy of serious consideration. Provence has modest Cathedrals of small architectural significance, but except Sainte-Réparate of Nice, it has none so chaotic and commonplace as Sainte-Marie-Majeure of Toulon.

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