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.