Wednesday, September 30, 2009

St. Pierre de Beauvais

Beauvais Cathderal
Beauvais is by no means an inaccessible place, though how often have we known one who could not tell in what part of France it was situated. Of course, being "off the line" is sufficient excuse for the majority of hurried travellers to pass it by, but, leaving this debatable point out of the question, let us admit, for the nonce, that it is admirably located if one only chooses to spend a half-day or more in visiting the charmingly interesting city and its cathedral, or what there is of it, for it exists only as a luminous height sans nave, sans tower, and sans nearly everything, except a choir of such immensity that to see it is to marvel if not to admire. It is indeed as Hope has said, "a miracle of loftiness and lightness; appearing as if about to soar into the air."

How many readers, who recognize the charms for which the cathedral is most revered, know that it was intended to rank as the St. Peter's of the north, and like its Roman prototype, was to surpass all other contemporary structures in size and magnificence. This was marked out for it when, in the middle sixteenth century, the builders of its central spire, which fell shortly after, sought to rival the Italian church in a vast Gothic fabric which should be the dominant northern type in contra-distinction to that of the south. This of itself, were there no other contributory interests, which there are to a very great degree, should be all-sufficient to awaken the desire on the part of every one who journeys Parisward to obtain a more intimate acquaintance with this great work. Here was an instance of ambition overleaping itself,—exceeding by far the needs and conditions of its environment and like many another ill-planned venture, it fell to ruin through a lack of logic and mental balance. To-day we see a restored fabric, lacking all the attributes of a great church except that which is encompassed by that portion lying eastward of the nave proper, its frail buttresses knitted together by iron rods, its piers latterly doubled in number, and many more visible signs of an attempt to hold its walls and roofs up to the work they have to perform.

The present structure, in so far as certain of its components go, was commenced within five years of Amiens (1225), which calls to mind the guide-book comparison, which seems so appropriate that it must really have previously originated from some other source,—Amiens, "a giant in repose;" Beauvais, "a Colossus on tiptoe."

Its designer built not wisely, nor in this case too well, for before the end of the century the roof had fallen, and this after repeated miscalculations and failures. At this time the intermediate piers of the choir were built and a general modified plan adopted.

Ruskin's favourite simile, with respect to St. Pierre de Beauvais, was that no Alpine precipice had the sheer fall of the walls of this choir,—or words to that effect, which is about as far-fetched as many other of his dictums, which have since been exploded by writers of every degree of optimism and pessimism. Certainly it is a great height to which this choir rises, one hundred and fifty-three feet it has been called, which probably exceeds that of Amiens by a dozen or more feet, though authorities (sic) vary with regard to these dimensions, as might be supposed; but it is no more like unto a wall of rock than it is to a lighthouse.

With the crumbling of the sixteenth-century spire on Ascension Day, 1573, restoration of the transepts was undertaken and work on the nave resumed, which only proceeded, however, to the extent of erecting one bay to the westward, which stands to this day, the open end filled in with scantling, weather proofing, and what not,—a bare, gaunt, ugly patch. Had it been possible to complete the work on its original magnificent lines, it would have been the most stupendous Gothic fabric the world has ever known.

Not entirely without beauty, in spite of its great proportions, it is more with wonder than admiration that one views both its details and proportions. Though it is perhaps unfair to condemn its style as unworthy of the Augustan age of French architecture, surely the ambition with which the work was undertaken was a laudable one enough, and it is only from the fact that it spells failure in the eyes of many who lack initiative in their own make-up, that it only qualifiedly may be called a great work.

The choir, which now dates from 1322, perforce looks unduly short, by reason of the absence of a nave to add to the effect of horizontal stability; and the great height of the adjoining transept; but the chevet and buttresses are certainly a marvel of grace and towering forms.

The portals of the transept are of the period of Francis I., with flowing lines and ornate decorations—"having passed the severity and ethical standards of maturity, and progressed well along the path to senility," as a vigorous Frenchman has put it. True enough in its application is this livid sentiment,—perhaps,—but its jewel-like south portal, like the "gemmed" west front of Tours, forms an attractive enough presentment to please most observers who do not delve too deeply into cause and effect. The north portal is less ornate, but its beautifully carved doors are by the same hand as that which worked the opposite portal. The ornamental stonework here is unusual, suggesting an arrangement which may or may not have been intended as a representation of the "Tree of Jesse." In any case it is a remarkable work of flowing Gothic "branches," which, though mainly lacking its intended interspersed figures, is not only unique among exterior decorations, but appears as a singularly appropriate treatment of a grand doorway.

Adjoining the choir on the right is a sacristy occupying a small structure, and to the westward is a fragmentary edifice known as the Basse Œuvre,—one of the oldest existing buildings in France; a Romano-Byzantine work, variously stated as of the sixth to eighth century and forming a portion of the original church which occupied the site of the present Cathedral.

The general impressiveness of this great church—the memory which most of us will carry away—is caused by its immensity, its loftiness, and the general effect of lightness. These form an irresistible galaxy of features which can hardly fail to produce a new and startling sensation upon any observer.

As to decorative embellishments, the church is by no means lacking. The coloured glass, typical of the best period of the art, is luxurious and extensive; that contained in the north and south transept rose windows being the exceedingly beautiful work of Le Prince, a celebrated sixteenth-century artist.

Numerous side chapels surround the ambulatory of the choir, and on the west wall of the transept are hung the eight tapestries after the sixteenth-century Raphael cartoons now at South Kensington. These tapestries are, it is to be presumed, late copies, since, of the two early sets woven at Arras, one is preserved in the Vatican and the other at the Museum at Berlin. A modern fresco of Jeanne Hachette, a local Amazon, adorns one of the choir chapels. A modern astronomical clock, with numerous dials, striking figures, and crowing cocks, is placed near the north transept. It might naturally be supposed that in our day the canons of good taste would plead against such a mere "curio" being housed in a noble church.

The former Bishop's Palace, dating from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, is now the Palace of Justice. The present episcopal residence is immediately to the north of the Cathedral and is modern.

As a tapestry-making centre Beauvais ranks with the famous Gobelin Manufactory at Paris.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Notre Dame d'Amiens

Amiens Cathedral
The ever impressive Cathedral of Notre Dame d'Amiens is in most English minds the beau ideal of a French cathedral. It is contemporary with Salisbury in period, at least, but it has little to remind one of the actual features of this edifice. Often associated therewith, as a similar type, it has little in reality in common, except that each is representative of a supreme style. Beyond this it is hard to see how any expert, archæologist, antiquary, or what not, would seek to discover relationship between two such distinct types. Salisbury is the ideal English cathedral as to situation, surroundings, and general charm and grace. This no one would attempt to deny; but, in another environment, how different might it not appear,—as for instance placed beside Amiens, where in one particular alone, the mere height of nave and choir, it immediately dwindles into insignificance. Under such conditions its graceful spire becomes dwarfed and attenuated. Need more be said?—The writer thinks not, since the present work does not deal with the comparative merits of any two cathedrals or of national types; but the suggestion should serve to demonstrate how impossible it is for any writer, however erudite he may be, to attempt to assign precedence, or even rank, among the really great architectural works of an era. This observation is true of many other examples of art expression.

The cathedral at Amiens is dedicated to the Virgin, and is built in the general form of a Latin cross. Over the principal doorway of the south portal, on one of the upper plinths, may be seen the inscription which places the date of the present edifice.

En l'an`que l'Incarnatio valait mcc et xx. Ro....rs, ifu: rimisit: le première piere: iasis,... le cors.... Robert...


The work was undertaken by one Robert de Luzarche, in the episcopate of Evrard de Fouilloy, the forty-fifth Bishop of Amiens, whose tomb may be seen just within the western doorway, and occupies the site of other66 structures which had been variously devastated by fire or invasion in 850, 1019, 1137, and 1218. For fifty years the work went on expeditiously under various bishops and their architects. "Saint" Louis, Blanche of Castille, Philippe the Hardy, and the city fathers all aided the work substantially, and the fabric speedily took on its finished form. Through the later centuries it still preserved its entity, and even during the Revolution its walls escaped destruction and defilement through the devotion of its adherents.

In later days important work and restoration has been carried out under the paternal care and at the expense of the state; and the city itself only recently contributed 45,000 francs for the clearing away of obstructing buildings.

A French writer has said, "It is only with the aid of a Bible and a history of theology that it is possible to elucidate the vast iconographic display of the marvellous west front of the cathedral at Amiens." Like Reims, its three portals of great size are peopled with a throng of statues. The central portal, known as the Porche du Souvenir, contains the statue of the Good God of Amiens; that on the right is called after the Mère de Dieu, and that on67 the left for St. Fermin the Martyr. Above the gables is the "Gallery of Kings," just below the enormous rose windows. Above rise the two towers of unequal loftiness, and lacking, be it said, thickness in its due proportion. The carven figures in general are not considered the equal in workmanship of those at Reims, though the effect and arrangement is similar. For a complete list of them, numbering some hundreds on this façade alone, the reader must refer to some local guide-book, of which several are issued in the city.

The south portal, the Portal de la Vierge dorée or Portal de Saint Honoré, shares company with the west façade in its richness of sculpture and its rose window and its gable. Here also are to be seen the supporting buttresses which spring laterally from the wall of the transept and cross with those which come from the choir.

The north portal, on the side of the Bishop's Palace, does not show the same richness as the others, though perhaps more than ordinarily ornate.

The spire above the transept crossing is a work of the sixteenth century, and is perhaps more remarkable than its rather diminutive68 appearance, in contrast with the huge bulk of the edifice, would indicate.

The extreme height of nave and choir (147 feet), adds immeasurably to the grand effect produced by the interior, a height in proportion to breadth nearly double that usual in the English cathedrals. The vaulting is borne aloft by over one hundred columns. The natural attribute of such great dimension is a superb series of windows, a promise more than fulfilled by the three great rose windows and the lofty clerestory of nave and choir. The sixteenth century glass is exceedingly profuse and brilliant.

The lateral chapels of the nave were added subsequent to the work of the early builders, all being of the sixteenth century, while the eleven choir chapels are of the thirteenth century, all with very ornate iron grilles, which are a feature only second to a remarkable series of "choir stalls," numbering over one hundred, showing a wonderful variety of delicate carved figures of the sixteenth century, the work of one Jean Turpin, the subjects being mainly Biblical.

A stone screen with elaborate sculptures in high relief surrounds the choir, that on the south representing the legend of St. Firmin,69 the patron of Picardy, and that on the north, scenes connected with the life of John the Baptist. In a side chapel dedicated to St. John reposes the alleged head of John the Baptist. Others have appeared elsewhere from time to time, but as they are not now recognized as being genuine, and the said apostle not being hydra-headed, it is possible that there will be those who will choose to throw the weight of their opinions in favour of the claim of Amiens.

The flying buttresses at Amiens are not of the singular lightness associated with this notably French characteristic; they are in the main, however, none the less effective for that, and assuredly, so far as the work which they have to perform is concerned, it was doubtless necessary that they should be of more than ordinary strength.

The view of the ensemble from the river shows the massiveness and general proportions in a unique and superb manner. Amiens is not otherwise an attractive city, a bustle of grand and cheap hotels, decidedly a place to be taken en route, not like Beauvais, where one may well remain as long as fancy wills and not feel the too strong hand of progress intruding upon his ruminations.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Notre Dame de Laon

For over twelve hundred years, until the see was abolished at the Revolution, Laon was the seat of a bishop who in point of rank was second only to the primate at Reims. Crowning the apex of a long isolated hill, upon which the entire town, now a fortress of the third class, is situated, the cathedral of Notre Dame de Laon, still so called locally, has endured since the beginning of the twelfth century, and may be considered a thoroughly representative transition example.

The present structure is on the site of one burned in 1112, and during comparatively recent years has been entirely restored.

Its crowning glory is in the disposition and number of its fine group of towers: two flank the western façade, and are rectangular at the base, dwindling to a smaller polygon, which is flanked with corner belfries and pierced by a tall lancet in the central structure, showing a wonderful lightness and open effect. A curious and unique feature of these towers is the addition of four oxen in carven stone perched high aloft in the belfries. These sculptured animals may be merely another expression of symbols of superstition, and if so are far more pleasing than some of the hideous and monstrous gargoyles ofttimes seen. Two other towers, each 190 feet in height, adjoin the transepts, to each of which is attached a double-storied, apsidal, ancient chapel. Two similarly projected towers are lacking. The lantern is square, with a shallow, conical, modern roof.

In the transition type Romanesque influences were evidently dying hard. The Gothic was seldom full blown, and at Laon shows but the merest trace of pointedness to the arches of the western façade, either in the portals or in the higher openings.45

The lack of a circular termination to the choir is but another indication of a link with a transitory past; an undeniably false note and one very unusual in France, the choir being of the squared-off variety so common in England. This may be coincident with the English custom of the time, or it may be directly due to a local English influence;—most probably the latter, inasmuch as an English prelate held the see for a time, and the city, in the early fifteenth century, was for a number of years in English hands. It is significant that in some of the smaller churches of the diocese is to be noted the same treatment.

The rose windows of both the eastern and western façades are Gothic in inception and treatment, and are unusually acceptable specimens of these supreme efforts of the French mediæval builders, the glass therein being distinctly good, though perhaps not remarkable.

The transepts are rectangular and, with the ensemble of the entire structure, were their towers completed, there would be produced, not only a unique example, but a towering effect only a degree less interesting than the perfectly proportioned pyramidal form so much admired in the perfectly developed Gothic.

The interior is equally attractive with the exterior, and, though the church is not by any means of remarkable dimensions, it presents in its appropriate disposition of detail a far more roomy and pleasing arrangement than many a larger example.

The transepts are divided into a nave and side aisles, the columns which partition them, like those of the nave proper, being cylindrical and of massive proportions, which, however, lighten as they rise to the vaulting. They are unusually symmetrical when viewed together, the capitals of the lower series being ornately carved, each of a varying design.

Above the aisles are lofty galleries. The nave chapels were added in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The stained glass, like that of the rose windows, is in the nave distinctly good, particularly that of the lower range on the southerly side. The pulpit, of carved wood of the Renaissance period, is not of the importance and quality of this class of work to be seen across the Rhine border.

The former Bishop's palace, adjoining the left of the choir, is now the Palais de Justice. A few remains of a former Gothic cloister are to be remarked, surrounded by the later construction.