Amazing articles on just about every subject...


French And English Churches

( Originally Published 1912 )



ALTHOUGH the mediŠval churches of France and England were built by men of the same faith and for the same Catholic ritual; although England was long under a French domination and a large part of France was for one or two hundred years occupied by and ruled over by Englishmen; yet, because national traits always assert themselves, English and French churches differ as much as if an ocean parted them instead of the narrow waters of the English Channel. On the one side we find both cathedral and parish church modest, long, low, and picturesque, and on the other side they are self-asserting, aspiring, stately, and majestic. The English buildings are set amid the green of cathedral close or village churchyard and blend with a rural landscape. Those of France are of a grander type and rise from stone-paved streets and from amid the burghers' houses. In fact the building of the cathedrals of France was an expression not only of religious feeling but also of the struggle for civil liberty. It was thus that the king, the bishop, and the people of France asserted themselves against the power of monk and abbot. City vied with city in France in raising each a more glorious shrine than the other. But no such civil ambitions gave birth to the English churches. The Englishman's one thought seems to have been to make his temples beautiful. Perhaps we can thus in part explain why the distinguishing and precious qualities of English work are found in quiet beauty and picturesque composition, and why the French buildings join consummate constructive skill to majestic, ambitious, and brilliant work in the arts of design.

From a distance we see the towers and lanterns of Wells rise above rounded masses of green foliage. When we reach its walls we find them springing from emerald lawns and embowered in trees, the home of cawing rooks and soaring pigeons. There is nothing in France like the picturesque grouping of these English buildings, or their setting of close and cloister, of garden and clipped green lawn and ancient trees. The Frenchman never formed such harmonious features of church and scenery. Here at Wells the three time-worn towers rise high above us and group nobly with the chapter house and its quaint approaches, with the great octagon of the Lady Chapel, and with the backing of tall trees. Above the peace of the bishop's garden and terrace and the ivy-clad palace from hour to hour the chimes vibrate and die away : Ś

"Lord, through this hour
Be thou our guide,
That by thy power
No foot may slide."

What an abode is this of the bishop's! It is the finest example of a thirteenth-century house existing in England. Indeed it seems a lordly habitation for a priest of One who had not where to lay his head. With the New England minister, who saw his more favored brother's fields and farm and cattle and books, we exclaim, "All this, and heaven too!"

The decency and order which bring to such perfection the lawns and paths and trees of the close prevail also within the church. We are shown by the verger through aisle and chapel peopled only by the effigies of those who lie below, and we feel troubled that a building raised as a house of prayer should be treated so nearly as a museum of mediaeval art. Where are the people of the town, its rich, its poor, the thankful, the unhappy? Have the great multitude no part in this vast temple that was built that they might worship in it? We think of the Westminster verger who roughly disturbed the devout Catholic as he knelt to pray, saying, "Hif this sort hof thing goes hon, we shall soon 'ave people praying hall hover the habbey." However, there comes an hour when verger and visitor cease their rounds. At . first, as we but dimly catch in the distant hum of priestly voice sonorous Old Testament sentences or familiar words from the Gospels, we feel how vain is the attempt to gratify in these vast and echoing buildings a Protestant interest in sermon and book. But as the fading sunlight shines through the western window and casts its color alike on the few living worshipers and on tomb and boss and gray stone wall, the organ notes, " wandering and lingering on as loath to die," pulsate through the stony fabric, and

"through the long-drawn aisle and echoing vault The pealing anthem swells the note of praise."

The great solemn place is filled with the sweetness of boyish voices. We heartily join in the long, tuneful "Amen" as it rings down the empty nave and echoes back again from distant vault and chapel. Under these influences we see anew the beauty around us, and feel that if the Englishman was not the engineer, the sculptor, or in many ways the ambitious designer we find in the Frenchman, he surely felt to the utmost the "beauty of holiness," and imprisoned it in pier and vault and tomb and glass, in carved front and graceful spire.

Let us now turn from the gentle and pastoral beauty of the English cathedral and gain a closer view of a French church. From a distance we see it, lofty and majestic, overtopping the steep-roofed town. Its traceried windows are so huge that the masonry between them seems too slight to carry the ceiling vaults. It is, however, steadied by countless flying buttresses which cross the low aisles in giant leaps and carry the thrust of the stone ceilings to those high-pinnacled piers which stand in ordered ranks about the building. At the east end these splendid scaffoldings radiate around the circular apsis and span its chapels. Far above them, over the crossing of nave and transept, rises the lofty flŔche, enriched with pinnacles and statues, its silver-white lead work brightened by faded color and gold.

The bishop's palace is hard by, a dignified but ascetic-looking abode, and the dwellings of the old town climb upon and cling to the sides of the church. There is no green lawn, no quiet close, no cozy dwelling for the priests joined to this great serious structure, but from the stone-paved place, where white-capped bonnes and red-trousered soldiers gossip and chatter, broad steps lead to the platform before the three cavernous portals of the cathedral.

How gloriously peopled are these triumphal arches ! The na´ve sculptors have crowded the stonework with representations of the virtues, the signs of the zodiac, the handicrafts, and the employments of the seasons. Here we find Adam and Eve, the wise and foolish virgins, the Magi, the Apostles, and in the centre is portrayed the Last Judgment and Christ bearing the Gospel. Above all this, ranks of angels and seraphim fill the retreating arches and. seem to join in the Te Deum and sing,

"To thee all angels cry aloud;
The heavens and all the powers therein."

At every door these celestial choirs meet over your head as you enter the church. Above the crocketed gables and pinnacles of these porches stand the statues of Judah's kings, and over them story upon story of arcades rise around the great rose window to the pointed gable, and to the tops of the two towers that long have waited for their spires. Crockets and leafage, statue and bas-relief, gargoyle and pinnacle are scattered over this fašade in sufficient abundance to furnish two or three such fronts as that of the Somersetshire cathedral. All is in key with the great doorways and the majestic scaffold of buttresses. All is masculine and confident. Everywhere you recognize technical skill and brilliant execution. There is nothing tentative or simply picturesque.

It is Sunday, and the vast nave is thronged with ardent worshipers, bowed in solemn adoration before the mysteries of the mass. Around the entrances and in secluded aisles there is stir and movement. People come and go with utter absence of self-consciousness. The city-dressed son escorts his country-clad parents. Little children patter about the doorways in their clattering wooden shoes, and offer each other holy water with their finger-tips. The inquisitive visitor stares and chatters. The beg-gars are at the doors. The shrines are tawdry. But as, alike in village and town, French people live in the view of their neighbors and do not mind trifles, so these little incidents seem in no wise to affect their fulfillment of religious duties. Undisturbed they recite their prayers with that healthy, unaffected simplicity and directness which is characteristic of French provincial people. On other days than Sunday it is much the same. Just as humble dwellings cluster against the walls of these great French churches, so distinctions of poverty and wealth have no place in this meeting-ground for all classes. Riches and poverty no longer count. When in these churches it seems scarcely conceivable that irreligion is a mighty power in France or that the Roman Catholic Church is now passing through dark days. Certainly what-ever religious devotion the town possesses still daily and hourly centres here, and certainly the religion here upheld gets close to the common people. Life and death, hell and heaven, the last judgment, virtue and vice are portrayed in the carvings of the doorways. Interest in these themes fills these great temples daily with a devout population today as they did when the cathedrals were built.

Of all the features that mark and identify the English church, its square eastern ending would seem to be the most universal and the most characteristic. In France the choir of a church has a circular end, and the aisle encircles that, and is roofed in consequence with much involved and irregular vaulting. Beyond the aisle is the chevet or surrounding range of chapels. Throughout England, however, a church, whether small or great, has a square ending. In a few exceptional instances we find a church which seems misplaced. Westminster Abbey, with its apsidal east end and encircling eastern chapels, is built upon a French plan. Norwich, Peterborough, Lichfield, and Canterbury have circular endings. The choir of the latter, built by a Frenchman, recalls in its Corinthianesque shafts and capitals, as well as in other details, the cathedral in the French town of Sens, from whence its builder came to Canterbury. On the other hand, Laon is one of the few French cathedrals that have that square eastern termination which is so nearly universal in England. Many may think that the simple quiet English termination should be preferred to the intricate vaulting and tangled perspective of the French chevet with its flanking chapels; but the French method is the more ambitious, involves vastly greater constructive skill, and produces by far the more magnificent effects.

Nowhere are the contrasts between French and English churches more striking than in their relative proportions, and in the different relations that height bears to breadth in these structures. We pass beneath a vaulted gatehouse and enter the precincts of the cathedral at Wells. Before us, rich with carving and shafts and arcading, and with those many statues that are unrivaled in similar English work, rises the western front of the great church. Great, do we say? Well, greatness is relative. This whole front at Wells is thirty-one feet wider than that at Amiens, but is only one half as high; and the nave at Wells is but twice as high as it is wide, though that of Amiens is three times its own width. This difference, both in actual height and in the relation of height to width, is further emphasized by the scale of subordinate details. At Wells the church is entered through three small doors that are insignificant features in the rich fašade. A man can span those opposite the aisles, and they do not rise much above his head. In France you would find, instead of these humble entrances, grand steps of approach and large triumphal arches lined with rank above rank of sculpture.

In both countries next to the size and proportions of the general mass of the church the bell tower is the most impressive exterior feature of these cathedral churches, and of the parish churches that surround them. Who shall say that those of France or England are the finer ! If you travel across Normandy, you find almost every village possessed of a stone-spired church echoing those of Bayeux and of Lisieux or of Saint-Etienne at Caen. But in Northamptonshire it is the same. Every village there is as rich, and, if you substitute towers for spires, it is the same in Somersetshire. In France they are stately and severe; in England they charm. The same characteristics apply to those cases where in both countries ambition prompted a central lantern or a group of towers or spires. The Frenchman who built his churches to majestic heights also laid foundations for and sometimes built imposing towers and spires. The dignity and seriousness of the south spire at Chartres, or of those at Saint-Etienne at Caen, or the spire at Vend˘me are hardly to be found in England. At Coutances and Bayeux and Caen, and at the church of Saint-Ouen in Rouen, we find a great central lantern besides the western spires. At Rouen and Bordeaux and Laon and Chartres construction was well advanced for towers not only at the west end but at both transepts. These great preparations for a group of towers rarely reached in France a final result. The Englishmen, however, either be-cause what they aimed at was not beyond reach, or because they truly prized a graceful and beautiful composition, did often carry to completion their clusters of spires and towers. Some of the spires, such as those of Lincoln, have now fallen, but France can hardly offer a central one to vie with those of Salisbury or Norwich, or such a group of three spires as those at Lichfield, or of spireless towers such as those at Lincoln or Canterbury or Wells.

The shafts, the. mouldings, the carving, and the vaulting that one finds in the two countries present the same contrasts. At first the mediaeval Frenchman was satisfied with simple cylindrical shafts between aisle and nave; with square-topped capitals modeled on classical and Corinthian forms; with arches and vault ribs adorned only with a large roll on the arrises; and with carving of a Byzantine character. This all gave a stately columnar design, but did not emphasize the majestic heights that as time went on were so much prized. In visiting French cathedrals one is to-day constantly wondering whether the early Corinthianesque work to be seen in Notre Dame at Paris and at Sens is more or less noble than later work, such as the naves of Amiens and Bourges and Tours, where the column gave way to the lofty clustered Gothic pier and where carving yielded to a closer imitation of natural forms. At the same time that you admire the dignity and nobility of the massive colonnades and sculptured capitals of Paris and Sens, you miss the aspiring vertical lines of the lofty piers of Amiens and Beauvais and Tours.

But that recasting of classic or Romanesque forms which produced such fine results in France never prevailed in England. There the simple shaft for the great piers that separate nave and aisle was discarded when the round-arched Norman style was superseded. The Gothic clustered shaft, less noble, perhaps, but more intricate and more aspiring, was the constant English form. As the chisel displaced the axe in the shaping of stone, England grew incomparably rich in mouldings. They appear in broad masses on arch and vault rib, on label and jamb, depending sometimes on the light and shadow in their carefully arranged waves and hollows and fillets, and sometimes on the foliation or tooth ornament interspersed among the mouldings. English-men became so expert with mouldings that in Early English work even the caps and bases are round and formed wholly of moulded annular work Ś a fashion entirely English and never adopted in France. Even on such an important cathedral as Salisbury, sculpture is almost wholly absent and mouldings on arch, base, and capital form the main enrichment. But at other periods English Gothic carved foliage, without exactly copying nature, is full of its energy, elegance, and vigor, and in its graceful curves and masses portrays all the elements of plant life. In figure sculpture England never made any approach to the almost classic figures of Chartres and Amiens; but English foliage was, if not so noble and stately in conventional beauty as the French, at least more free and tender and flowing.

Finally also, the building of vaulted ceilings as practiced by the French was, except where the exigencies of the chevet complicated it, as simple as the mouldings of the arches that inclosed it. But in England a scheme of vault ribs, at first simple, was by degrees enriched by subdividing ribs. The intersections of these ribs were decorated with carved bosses, and the vault surfaces were covered with fanlike tracery, until these English ceilings became an important and splendid part of the decorative and constructive scheme.

The close study of these Gothic churches in either country is of surprisingly recent date. Not long since men thought them barbarous, uncouth, and not worthy of serious study. Indeed, whitewash and lack of care wrought more destruction than Puri-tan and Roundhead, or than Time itself. Sir Walter Scott was among the earliest to praise the Gothic minster. His idea was that the lines of these lofty arches were modeled upon forest forms.

"Thou wouldst have thought some fairy's hand
'Twixt poplars straight the osier wand
In many a freakish knot had twined,
Then framed a spell, when the work was done,
And changed the willow wreaths to stone."

By later writers the origin of Gothic art is found by one in natural forms; by another, in an appreciation for the aspiring forms of the pointed arch introduced by crusaders, who had become familiar with it in Sicily and the East; and by yet another in a development from Roman art. Sir Gilbert Scott and M. Viollet-le-Duc attributed the origin and introduction of Gothic to structural necessities, to the difficulty of vaulting irregular spaces, and to facility of construction. Recently, Professor Moore, in his scholarly book, has thrown new and clear light on this subject. He admits that all these influences may have been at work in the development of Gothic building. He agrees with M. Viollet-le-Duc that its actual origin was in France, and that it was due to constructive needs. He points out that in the English church the clerestory windows rarely occupy the entire space from pier to pier; that the flying buttresses are there neither essential nor very frequent; that the vaults are largely supported by thick walls and shallow buttresses, and often spring from a wall instead of from strongly marked piers. He finds such a church merely the earlier Romanesque structure with pointed arch details, and not the same complete organism as the great French fabric. For in that the slender piers that carry the vaults are firmly marked inside and outside; also the entire space between the piers is occupied by a traceried window; and the thrust of the vault ribs is carried in a visible manner by the flying buttress from the wall piers over aisle and chapel to the great outer buttress, which in turn is loaded to security by the lofty mass of the pinnacle. He thinks that this brilliantly conceived framework of pier and vault, of buttress and pinnacle, contained the most essential spirit of Gothic art; and that in France alone do we find the whole structure of a cathedral one fully organized and visible framework which the wealth of applied ornament only serves to emphasize.

In by far the larger part of the English churches the detail one now sees is late and of the perpendicular period. Though the Early English and decorated periods had national peculiarities, they were cousins of similar work across the Channel. But Perpendicular Gothic was a distinctly English growth, and in the hands of great artists like William of Wykham it became the most stately period of English Gothic architecture. What was lost by the substitution of mechanical and geometric detail for naturalistic carving was more than made up for by noble proportions and balanced symmetry. What the Perpendicular style lost in poetry and imagination it gained in formality and stateliness. There is something almost classic in the regular repetitions and the grand and simple proportions of Winchester's nave or in the great chapels at Windsor and at Christ Church, Oxford, or in the chapel of Henry the Seventh at Westminster.

On the other hand, in the later work of France fantasy was given free rein and her later Gothic buildings were clothed with an exuberant abundance of intricate flamboyant detail. This French flamboyant work was a beautiful product, whether it appears in the flowing bars of window tracery and the flaming rays of the great roses, whether it covers with its dainty tabernacle work the deep recesses of porches, or whether it rises in stone pinnacle or oak canopy to a forest network of buttress and crocket and finial that rivals the intricacies of woodland branches. You see that the work of the thirteenth century better satisfies reason, but still your eyes delight in this fairylike construction and these fanciful creations. If you try to sketch this work, you respect still more the poetic genius that invented it and the art that carried it to perfection. Before the lacelike portals of Saint-Maclou and the intricate convolutions of the "crown of Normandy" or the wonderful gables of the Courts of Justice in Rouen, you recognize that the farthest bound has been reached, Ś that the end has come. But only a philosopher could bring himself to say that Gothic architecture thus met its fate in a sad decline. The artist feels rather that in its latest hours, when its work was done, it yielded itself wholly to romantic fancy; that, with a fairy touch, it spent itself upon flaring crocket and interwoven moulding, upon tangled snarls of miniature buttress and complicated pinnacle, upon a sylvan growth of window tracery and panel work; and that in this brilliant, fiery burst of flaming beauty the end of mediŠval architecture was indeed glorious.



Home | More Articles | Email: info@oldandsold.com