Saint Germain - L'Auxerrois
( Originally Published 1921 )
FAIRLY launched now upon the birth of the Gothic, Paris presents an embarrassment of riches in churches which show the transition as well as the full flower of this delightful period. A visit to Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois, the most accessible, as it is the most perfect example of its type, might well be preceded by a tour of some of the smaller, fragmentary churches, of earlier actual construction, such as Saint-Germain-de-Charonne, near the cemetery Pere Lachaise, Saint-Pierre-de-Montmartre, Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, and most beautiful of all the old priory church of Saint-Martin-des-Champs, now part of the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers.
If one leaves these for a following chapter, it is not only because Saint-Germain-I'Auxerrois antedates them in point of foundation, but also with the hope that as acquaintance with these churches grows the loiterer will have more interest in discovering such scattered relics of a richer time, and more cleverness in detecting their genuine features.
In Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois as it stands we see, despite much lamentable modification and restoration, a very beautiful example of Gothic architecture in its flower. The belfry belongs to the XIIth century, the main entrance, choir, and apse to the first half of the XIIIth, the greater part of the facade, the nave, the transepts, and the chapels to the XVth and XVIth centuries.
Restorations have been many and disastrous, the last dating from the reign of Napoleon III, when the edifice was made part of an architectural scheme which included the erection of the town hall or Mairie of the Arrondissement du Louvre, built in imitation of the Gothic church to which it forms a pendant, and the tower, by Ballu, standing between them.
The value of this arrangement, so confusing to visitors, is more than doubtful. While making rather a handsome terminus to the Louvre the imitations rob Saint-Germain of its unique importance, diminish its intrinsic lustre.
As Saint-Germain-des-Pres relates to the good bishop of Paris, so Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois is dedicated to the still earlier bishop of Auxerre, him who consecrated Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris. Though the exact period of its foundation is unknown, Lebeuf thinks it was first constructed to commemorate some miracle or act of Saint-Germain d'Auxerre during his sojourn in the city, or that it may have been erected by Saint-Germain of Paris, as a tribute to his greatly venerated predecessor.
After the tradition of the diocese King Childebert and Ultrogothe, his queen, enriched the new church, whose importance became second only to that of the cathedral. In 866 it was sacked by the Normans and converted by them into a for-tress, after which it was called Saint-Germain-le-Rond, from its circular form. From the time of Charlemagne at least, a public school of great celebrity attracted to the cloister numerous students, its location recalled in the name of the Place de. l'Ecole, running from behind the right side of the church to the quai, which formerly bore the same name, the name by which they were known in the XIIIth century. The life of King Robert (by Helgaud) mentions the rebuilding of the church by this prince, but that reconstruction has been wiped out by a later one done with thoroughness and deliberation.
A cloister once enclosed a part of the church and the house of the dean stood opposite the porch, between the church and the Louvre; old cuts show chapels, one each side of the porch, and a steeple surmounting the tower. It was from this tower that the tocsin was rung after mid-night on the morning of August 24, 1572, by the order of Catherine de Medicis, as the signal for the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew, and the modern tower marks the spot where, two days before, an attempt had been made upon the life of Admiral Coligny, the first victim of the massacre, as he was returning from the Louvre to his home, in the Rue de Betizy, along the Rue des Fosses Saint-Germain. The house from which the shot was fired was that of the Canon Pierre de Pille de Villemur, a former preceptor of the Duke of Guise. It stood in the Rue des Fosses Saint-Germain, contiguous to the church, into which there was an opening from it by a back door. The assassin made his escape through the cloister, mounted a horse which stood ready saddled for him, and fled from the city by the Porte Saint-Antoine.
In the Place de l'Ecole lived in the XIVth century Etienne Marcel, provost of the merchants of Paris, who as chief of the Jacquerie led the revolt of the lower classes against the nobles during the captivity of the king, Jean le Bon; and here lived also, as a boy of fourteen, Calvin, the reformer, with his uncle Richard, a locksmith, in a little room overlooking the church, awakened each morning by the chants to attend the College de la Marche.
The church, of course, antedates the Louvre, which at its most remote construction dates from the time of Philippe Auguste, but when built both the Louvre and the Tuileries became parishioners of Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois, making it the royal church of Paris, and many princes of France were baptised here.
It is undoubtedly the portico which gives to the church its distinguished character and contributes its most piquant note of elegance. This porch is the work of Jean Gaussel, and dates from 1435, in the reign of Charles VII. Its picturesqueness is created in part by the disposition of the seven pointed arches which give free access to it, five across the front and one at each end. The vaulted ceiling, low at the sides and high in the middle, is marked by prismatic ribs converging from the angles and tied together at their points of junction by a boss, or stud, or escutcheon, elaborately sculptured. The central one, bearing the arms of France, has been displaced, but on the two sides, under the lower vaultings, one makes out readily the circular de-signs, in full relief, painted and gilded, of the Last Supper and the Adoration of Christ by the Shepherds. Where the ribs finish against the walls, there are consoles representing a fool with his bauble, grotesques, and little animals in different attitudes, carved with relish.
Of the ancient figures of the porch there re-main but that of Sainte-Marie-I'Egyptienne, against the second pillar from the left end, and a much mutilated Saint Francis of Assisi at the other extremity. The carving of the former is vigorous, the figure lifelike and animated, obviously much earlier than the others. The sculptor had evidently filled himself with the naive history of this saint, for in the quaint figure, clothed in her long, wavy tresses, and holding piled one upon the other the three loaves of bread with which she is to be nourished during a lifetime of penitence in the desert, we seem to feel the whole touching story as told in La Legende Doree.
Translated from the Latin of the most ancient manuscripts, the story runs briefly that Zozime, an abbot, having crossed the Jordan, hoping to encounter in the desert some saintly hermit, saw one day before him a bizarre creature, entirely nude, with the body burned black with the sun.
Seeing him the creature fled across the sands and Zozime ran after it " with all the force of his legs." Then it spoke surprisingly, saying : " Abbe Zozime, why do you pursue me? Pardon me that I cannot turn towards you ; it is because I am a woman, and quite nude. Throw me your cloak, in order that, being covered, I may look at you without shame." The abbot, stupefied to hear himself called by name, divined at once that he had to do with a person of super-natural powers. He threw his mantle and, prostrating himself before her, asked her to bless him. But she said: " It is for you rather to bless me, father, you who are clothed with the dignity of priesthood."
The abbot now more than ever convinced that the woman was indeed especially endowed prevailed upon her to bless him and afterwards to tell him her history. " I am called Marie," she begins, " and I was born in Egypt." At the age of twelve, recounts Marie, she went to Alexandria and commenced the career of public courtesan, which she continued for seventeen years, but being converted in Jerusalem, where she had gone from curiosity to see the holy cross, she had promised to renounce the world and live forevermore in chastity. While she was praying before the cross a stranger put three pieces of money into her hand, and with these she purchased the three loaves of bread.
Obeying a voice she crossed the Jordan and took up her abode in the desert, where for forty-six years she lived without ever seeing a human face, subsisting upon the three loaves of bread, which, becoming hard as stone, still sufficed for her nourishment.
Zozime comes again twice to the desert to ad-minister the holy sacrament to Marie on Easter day. The second time he finds her lying dead near the place of their first encounter, and where, aided by a friendly lion, he digs a grave and piously inters her remains.
The story, as told by the ancient narrator, is full of convincing detail, such as is demanded by children. Everything is accounted for. Having no money to pay her passage from Alexandria to Jerusalem when she wishes to make that pious pilgrimage with the other inhabitants of the city, she makes a bargain with the boatman, which, though shameful, she does not hesitate to de-scribe to Zozime, feeling, perhaps, that the end justified the means. While, as to her garments, " long ago," says she, " they fell in pieces."
It seems fairly certain that originally the spirited statue of the portico of Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois stood frankly nude according to the narrative. The bit of drapery, now hung across the arms, which may pass for the cloak of the abbe Zozime, was probably added by a prudish hand at some later date than the statue itself.
Though scraped of its rich gilding and colouring, to accord with the modern Mairie, the portico still retains something of the warmth of its former richness, and exhales a certain delicate glow. In the statue of the Egyptian are strong traces of pigment, while the little motifs of the ceiling are full of colour, and the doors are rich in gold leaf.
Three doors give access to the church ; those at the sides are of XVth century make. The central one belongs to the first half of the XIIIth century, and is therefore earlier than the portico itself. During the reign of Louis XIV it lost its central upright figure, a statue of Christ, and the " Last Judgment " of the tympanum. The pier has been replaced and a statue of the Virgin, of a later epoch has been supplied. The sculpture of the tympanum has been replaced by a painting on the stone, now nearly effaced.
The door preserves, however, the six statues of its embrasure and the three historic choirs of its archivolt. The study of Notre-Dame makes easy the reading of the story of this portal, and one recognizes in the figures to the left Saint-Vincent (the second patron of the church), a bearded king, presumably Childebert, and a queen, probably Ultrogothe—the benefactors of the original foundation; to the right, Saint-Germain d'Auxerre, in bishop's robes, Sainte-Genevieve with her candle and the traditional demon on her right shoulder trying to extinguish her light, and beside her an angel, smiling securely and holding an-other lighted taper ready to relight the saint's candle, should the demon succeed.
Each figure stands upon a grotesque support contrived to form a console. Saint-Vincent makes of the prefect who condemned him his footstool, Childebert treads upon a griffon, Ultrogothe upon a devil; while upon the opposite side we see a stooping man, and two demons of hideous form.
A Gothic inscription of the XVth or XVIth century once named the king and queen, but their identity seems plain enough in any case from the connection of Childebert and his consort with the original edifice and from the resemblance which the figure of the king bears to the statue of Childebert in the Louvre.
In the archivolt are assembled thirty figures in an excellent state of preservation relating to the Last Judgment, which, as in the central door of Notre-Dame, made the theme of the destroyed tympanum. In the first row of figures, to the left, sits Abraham, between two trees, holding upon his bosom, as it were, the redeemed, while upon the opposite side of the door is represented a vivid scene of Hell, with three lost souls, two demons, etc. Six angels, their eyes turned towards the tympanum, complete the first row of figures, and a cherub, with wings, makes the centre. The wise and foolish virgins fill the second choir, and, lest there be doubt as to which is which, the sculptor has veiled the hair of the former with scarfs and given them a modest air, their lamps upright and alight, while the foolish virgins are coiffed in a worldly manner and carry their lamps upside down. At the point of the arch two hands come through a cloud and hold a ribbon which floats to the right and left and still bears traces of lettering nearly effaced.
The twelve apostles, sitting each under a little dais and carrying the instruments of their martyrdom, form the third row over this door. The heads are remarkable in nobility and expression. John by exception holds the celestial palm and the vase from which the dragon issues,
Above the porch the facade is pierced by a rose window, at each side of which rises a small tower of elegant design, while surmounting all, upon the point of the gable end of the nave, is a modern angel, by Marochetti. The exterior is rich in stone carving of the XVth century—balustrades, gables, consoles, gargoyles, cornices embellished with leaves and flowers and little grotesques of men and beasts.
The buttresses end in small foliated steeples, from which are suspended at right angles the extraordinary gargoyles of this church—fantastic birds, griffons, monkeys, wolves, dogs, bears, etc. At the southwest angle a showman strikes with a ring upon a tablet and makes a monkey go through his paces; further down a savage, armed with a club, comes grinning out of the mouth of a hippopotamus. The consoles under the gargoyles are full of interest and reflect the lively imagination of the time. An opera glass would not be amiss for the study and thus aided one can distinguish a world of symbolism—a beggar with his dog, a fool, a sow suckling her family, the earth, represented as a globe, eaten by rats which escape across the crevasses while a cat watches the passage.
Unfortunately much restoration has destroyed a great deal and only a few of the numerous gargoyles remain.
The belfry rises from the right-hand side, at the southeast angle of the cross, where the choir joins the transept. That it belongs to the XIIth century, before the development of Gothic architecture, is plain from the full arch of the bays, the cornices with modillons, the little square pillars, the imposts of the Roman style. The balustrade is modern, for the XVIIIth century decapitated the tower, suppressed its high shire of stone and its four little steeples.
Inside, despite many changes, the effect of this old church is impressive and beautiful. Of its rich original ornamentation the nave retains only a few escutcheons, handsomely carved and locking the intersections of the ribs of the vaulting. Seated in the nave with the head turned to the roof one can make out clearly the figures of Saint Vincent, one of the patrons of the church, Saint John, Saint Landry, and Saint Christopher. The most elaborate is that of Saint-Germain in episcopal robes, painted and gilded against a rose in stone, in the Chapel to the Virgin, on the right-hand side of the nave.
This chapel occupies the entire space opening from the south aisle and constitutes a complete little church in itself, with stalls, organ, pulpit, a cloister in carved wood, and an altar rich in bas-reliefs. Upon the reredos is a richly carved tree of Jesse, full of royal figures, and in the centre a XIVth century Virgin, of painted stone, brought from a church in Champagne.
Such windows of value as Saint-Germain pre-serves of its former plenitude date from the XVth and XVIth centuries. These are the two roses to the north and south and six windows of the transept. Smaller and later than those of Notre-Dame, they are interesting for the beautiful shapes of the spaces into which the stonework of their construction divides them. The colouring is much less brilliant than that of earlier glass, but is soft and harmonious ; the effect here is, unfortunately, greatly diminished by the glare in this church caused by the suppression of the windows of the clerestory of the nave (destroyed about 1728) . When the whole church was lighted by windows similar to those of the transept the effect must have been very beautiful.
In the north rose the subject begins to develop from the centre, where is placed the Eternal Father in the costume of a pope. Around him are several circles of angels, cherubs, martyrs, and confessors. Amongst the martyrs are Saint-Vincent, Sainte-Agnes, Sainte-Marguerite, Sainte-Catherine, and Sainte-Marthe; amongst the confessors, Saint-Germain d'Auxerre and Saint-Louis.
The south rose, especially admirable for its effect of light and colour, develops the subject of the Holy Ghost, which in the form of a dove descends from the top compartment, from a sky filled with rays of glory. The Virgin and the apostles receive the first effusion of grace and light, which in diminishing brilliancy and increasing depth of shadow extends to a numerous choir of disciples and saints.
The side windows of the north and south transept belong to the XVIth century and show even more than the roses the growth of the art from the strict conventionality of early Gothic to the vivacity and picturesque costume of the Renaissance. All these windows were taken out during the war and are only now, little by little, being returned to their places.
The choir was enclosed until 1744 by a splendid rood-loft designed by Pierre Lescot and sculptured by Jean Goujon, the celebrated architect and sculptor of the Renaissance portions of the Louvre. This was taken out by the church war-dens and curates under the pretext of opening the sanctuary to the view of the faithful.
The Entombment and Four Evangelists, bas-reliefs in stone, are preserved amongst the treasures of the Renaissance sculpture in the Louvre.
This lamentable bit of ecclesiastic vandalism was perpetrated upon the suppression of the chapter. The new administration was not satisfied with the mere opening of the choir, they wished to improve the view thus presented by the creation of a modern choir, purified so far as was possible of the barbarous Gothic.
The actual plan of the disfigurement which one now sees was made by an architect called Bacarit. Under his direction the solid old columns of the choir were fluted, their leafy capitals transformed into garlands, while above the pointed arches was traced a stupid pattern in the stone. Only the vaultings, which could not be touched without weakening the construction, were spared, and in these may still be read the real date of the choir and apse, written large in the general form.
Saint-Germain was once rich in XVIth and XVIIth century tombs. The Louvre sent it many illustrious dead—officers of the royal house and artists whom kings had housed in the palace.
Besides chevaliers of orders, chancellors, gentle-men, secretaries of state, reposed the remains of the poet Malherbe, the savant Andre Dacier, the painters Coypel, Houasse, Stella, and Santerre; and the sculptors Sarazin, Desjardins, and Coyzevox.
Vaults hollowed out under the nave for the burial of ordinary parishioners still exist. There the bones are ranged with symmetry like a charnel house.
One cannot do better than to yield to the importunities of the sacristan, who is ever ready to show with care and intelligence the treasures of this church. It is he who will unlock for visitors the beautiful chapel to the Virgin, who will con-duct one to a little room built over the porch, to the right hand of the entrance, once dedicated to the archives and treasures of the chapter. There were two such rooms, to the left and right, and this one is still intact, with its old flooring, its carved wood wardrobes with iron hinges, and its old furniture. Amongst other things the room contains a triptych of the XVIth century carved and painted with the history of the Original Sin and the legend of the Virgin.
The pulpit and stalls have survived the Revolution; and the state seat of royalty, built in 1684, from designs by Lebrun, by Francois Mercier, still occupies an important place in the nave. The grill of the enclosure of the choir in polished iron with bronze ornaments is classed amongst the finest wrought iron work of the XVIIIth century.
The sacristan delights also in conducting visitors up the perilous ladders into the belfry, from which was rung the signal for the Massacre of Saint-Bartholomew, and to induce the unwary to ring the great bell at mid-day. This man is one of those rare creatures who knows his subject and loves it. I had a long talk with him one day soon after the declaration of the armistice when he had freshly returned from the trenches. He had " made all the front " he told me and returned unscratched, and to see him going peace-fully about his church duties one could scarcely figure him as an instrument in the recent calamity. He enticed me readily to the tower; we mounted stone stairways succeeded by delicately balanced ladders which bent. beneath our weight like straws, and finally landed upon a platform of rough boards, which formed little more than a ledge around the stone sides, while the middle yawned open above unfathomed depths.
The little man stepped about with the agility of a cat, urging upon me one folly after another until the thought struck me with force that he might readily have a touch of insanity as a result of his years of horror at the front, and I was seized with something of the panic which Henri IV experienced when he mounted the tower of Saint-Germain-des-Pres, accompanied by a single monk, to reconnoitre during the siege of Paris in 1589. I too was afraid the temptation to fling me down that abyss might prove too strong, but it was a mean thought, for the little sacristan was all kindness and jollity. We descended from the vertiginous scaffolding to the solid planks of the belfry in time to ring the angelus, and I shall never forget the little fellow clinging to the rope and letting the bell carry him high into space for my amusement, smiling gleefully the while like a merry gnome. He made me take hold when he had the bell well started and I scorched my hands with the ropes. Feeling that I had done some-thing exceptional I asked him if many ladies had made the trip to the extreme top, and, smiling with extraordinary glee, he said promptly: " Ah oui, Madame, surtout les Amcricaines."
During the upheavals of 1831 this church was robbed and pillaged by the mob. For six years after this the building was closed for worship and its sacristy and presbytery used as a mairie. Its demolition was decided upon in order to make a street from the Louvre to the Hotel de Ville, but the eloquence of Chateaubriand prevailed and the authorities were persuaded to spare "un des plus anciens monuments de Paris, et d'une epoque dont it ne reste presque plus rien."