Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Vence Cathedral

Vence CathedralA founder of the French Academy and one of its first immortal forty was Antoine Godeau, “the idol of the Hôtel Rambouillet.” His mind was formed, as it were, by one of the most clever women of that brilliantly foolish coterie, he sang frivolous sonnets to a beautiful red-haired mistress whom he sincerely admired, and when he entered Holy Church, none of his charming friends believed that he would do more than modify the proper and agreeable conventionalities of his former life. They thought that he would add to the grace of his worldly manner the suavity of the ecclesiastic, that he would choose a pulpit of Paris, and that, sitting at his feet, they could enjoy the elegant phrases with which he would embellish a refined and delicately attenuated religion. But an aged prelate of the far South judged the new priest differently, he had sounded the heart of the man who, at the age of thirty, had quietly renounced a flattering, admiring world; and his dying prayer to Richelieu was that Godeau should succeed him in the See of Vence. The keen worldly wisdom of the Cardinal confirmed the old Bishop's more spiritual insight, and Godeau was named Bishop of the neighbouring Grasse.

Far away in his mountain-city of flower gardens and sweet odours, the new Bishop wrote to his Parisian friends that, for his part, he “found more thorns than orange-blossoms.” The Calvinists, from the rock of Antibes, openly defied him; in spite of the vehement opposition of their Chapters and against his will, the Bishoprics of Grasse and Vence were united, and he was made the Bishop of the two warring, discontented Sees. He was stoned at Vence; and even his colleague in temporal power, the Marquis of Villeneuve, showed himself as insolent as he dared. At length the King came to his aid, and being given his choice of the Sees, Godeau immediately left “the perfumed wench,” as he called Grasse, and chose to live and work among his one-time enemies of Vence. This gentle and courageous prelate is typical of the long line of wise men who ruled the Church in the tight little city of the Provençal hills. From Saint Véran the wonder-worker, and Saint Lambert the tender nurse of lepers, to the end, they were men noted for bravery, goodness, and learning, and it was not till the Revolution that one was found — and fittingly the last—who, hating the “Oath” and fearing the guillotine, fled his See.

This city of good Bishops was founded in the dim, pagan past of Gaul. From a rocky hill-top, its inhabitants had watched the burning of their first valley-town and they founded the second Vence on that height of safety to which they had escaped with their lives. Here, far above the Aurelian road, the Gallic tribes had a strong and isolated camp. Then the prying Romans found them out, and priests of Mars and Cybele replaced those of the cruder native gods, and they, in turn, gave way to the apostle of the Christians. Where a temple stood, a church was built; and unlike many early saints who looked upon old pagan images as homes of devils and broke them into a thousand pieces with holy wrath and words of exorcism, the prelate of Vence buried an image of a vanquished god under each and every pillar of his church, in sign of Christian triumph.

These early days of the Faith were days of growth for the little city, and she prospered in her Mediævalism. High on her hill, she was too difficult of access to suffer greatly from marauding foes, and hidden from the sea, she did not excite the cupidity of the Mediterranean rovers. When Antibes and Nice were sacked, her little ledge of rock was safe; and people crowded thick and fast behind her walls, until no bee-hive swarmed so thick with bees as her few streets with citizens. Here were arts and occupations, burghers and charters, riches and liberties. Here came the Renaissance, and Vence had eager, if not famous sculptors, painters, and organ-builders, and a family of artists whom even the dilettante Francis I deigned to patronise.

Such memories of a busy, energetic past seem fairy-tales to those who walk to-day about the dark and narrow streets of Vence. She scarcely has outgrown her ancient walls, her civic life is dead, and in her virtual isolation from the modern world she lives a dreary, quiet old age.

The old Cathedral, Notre-Dame, lies in the heart of the town; and takes one back along the years, far past the Renaissance, to those grim mediæval days when even churches were places of defence. It is a low, unimpressive building, said to have been built on the site of the Roman Temple in the IV century. Enlarged or re-built in the X century, it was then long and narrow, a Latin cross. But in the XII century, deep, dark bays were added; in the XV, tribunes were built, the form of the apse was changed to an oval and it was decorated in an inharmonious style; and a hundred years ago the nave vault was re-built in an ellipse.

In the side wall there is a low portal of a late, decadent style, which opens on the little square, but there is no real façade; and to see the church, the traveller passed under the old round arch of the Bishop's Palace, through a small, damp street to another tinier square where the apse and tower stand. The little Cathedral-churches of Provence are always simply built, but here a rectangle, a low gabled roof, a small, round-headed window in the wall, would have been architectural bareness if a high, straight tower had not crowned it all. This crenellated tower is a true type of its time, square, yet slim and strong, and crudely graceful as some tall young poplar of the plains beneath. In the XI and XII centuries, its early days, it was the city's lookout. Families lived high up in its walls, and the traveller could imagine, in this little old, deserted square, the crowds who gathered round the tower's base, and called for news of enemies and battle as moderns gather about the more prosaic bulletin of printed news. He could see them surging, peering up; and from above he almost heard the watcher's cry, “They're coming on,”—with the great answering howl beneath, and the rush to arms. Or, “They pass us by,” and then what breaking into little laughing groups, what joy, what dancing, and what praying, that lasted far into the evening hours.

The traveller came back in thought to modern times and went into the church, that church of five low naves and many restorations, that product of most diverse fancies. It is painted in lugubrious white, and its pillars have false bases in a palpable imitation of veined red marble. Its pure and early form, the Latin cross, is gone, its fine old stalls are hidden in a gallery, and at the altar Corinthian columns desecrate its ancient Romanesque. Yet in spite of the incongruities the atmosphere of the church is truly that of its dim past. There are the low broad arches, the great, supporting pillars that are massive buttresses; there is the simple practicality of a style that aimed at a protecting strength rather than at any art of beauty; there is the semi-darkness of the small, safe windows, and the little, guarded space where the praying few increased a thousand-fold in times of danger. This is, in spite of all defects, the small Provençal church where in days of peace cloudy incense slowly circled round the shadowy forms of chanting priests, and where in times of war a crowd of frightened women and their children prayed in safety for the men who sallied forth to fight in their defence.

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