Grandeur of composition, nobility of silhouette, perfection of proportion, wealth of detail, infinitely varied play of light and shade combine to raise this composition so majestic, so serene, to the place it has ever occupied in the heart of anyone endowed with the slightest feeling for the beautiful.
Evening was coming on when I arrived in Troyes.
“In this town,” said the woman at the hotel desk, “we live surrounded by churches. When they light up the facades, I like to go out and walk at night. It is like walking between borders of lace.” She took me up four flights of stairs to an attic room, pushed open windows, and stood back. She was offering me the rooftops of Troyes, a benediction of grey stone, towers and clocks, steeples and orange tiles with carrousels of pigeons circling above. Twilight, like the bloom on a grape, was thickening around us.
Medieval theory reduced the idea of beauty to that of perfection, proportion, and splendor. Three things, says St. Thomas, are required for beauty: first, integrity or perfection, because what is incomplete is ugly on that account; next true proportion or consonance; lastly, brightness, because we call beautiful whatever has a brilliant color. –JOHAN HUIZINGA, “The waning of the Middle Ages”
I have been driving in a great, irregular circle around northern France, looking at cathedrals. Three weeks ago I arrived in Coutances and had felt, rather than seen, the cathedral straining upwards in the afternoon sunlight of the town square. A pure, geometric statement, it rose from the soil of Normandy, lancing the sky with its twin spires, so sure in its statement of divinity, so terrible in its size and age.
Coutances, through war and revolution, has lost the humanizing details of its sculpture. Curiously alive, it seemed, unsleeping, omnipresent in the old town and built to more than human dimensions. Continuously through its skeleton runs the transfer of weight from vault to buttress to pier to the ground. There was never any doubt in the minds of its builders as to whether or not God existed nor as to whether or not He would be present in this great house which human sweat and love and error was going to erect for Him.
Art in those times was still wrapped up in life.…Life was encompassed and measured by the rich efflorescence of the liturgy….All the works and all the joys of life, whether dependent on religion, chivalry, trade or love, had their marked form. The task of art was to adorn all these concepts with charm and color. –JOHAN HUIZINGA, “The waning of the Middle Ages”
“It is reassuring,” said a young Frenchman I met over diner. “It has been there more than 600 years. It was repaired after WW II. When all the old quarter of Coutances was destroyed, the cathedral remained standing. It is not just history, it is continuity.” His words were like an echo of Ruskin: “It is well to have, not only what men have thought and felt but what their hands have handled, and their strength wrought, and their eyes beheld all the days of their life.”
There had been motives other than faith for the erection of cathedrals like Coutances. There were motives of competition with neighboring churches and for comfort in the place of worship, and pride and power entered into it. Nevertheless, the underlying motive was belief in and praise for God. Larger and larger churches were demanded. They rose, and often they fell. Stone collapsed under the weight of new and more daring architecture, earthquakes tore at the walls and fire melted the lead from the roofs and scorched the saints into a second martyrdom. The devil was usually only one clawmark behind the builders, with a whole horde of destructive fiends at his heels. Between 1170 and 1270-with some leeway-France, like the new Jerusalem, decked herself out in bridal clothes; more than 300 churches and 80 cathedrals. Normandy, land of rain-drenched fields where the apple harvest lies in piles before the cottage doors, raised the austere miracle at Coutances. On the coast, the marvel of Saint-Michel was climbing upwards on its granite islet, shimmering between wet sand and sky with the rough, salty pastures of the mainland spread in front of it like a tufted carpet. The gentle, obstinate abbot of St. Denise on the outskirts of Paris had built a Gothic monument, which set all France talking. The pious dragged stones for it from Pontoise in the North. The ignorant said that the blue windows came from ground sapphires. Barons and bishops had torn the rings from their fingers and thrown them into the mortar when the first stone of the choir was laid. “Vanity of vanities,” cried St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Such churches were an incitement to human pride; the very beauty of them might lure the simpleminded from contemplation of God. The “vanities” continued to rise, books of stone and air and color where those who could not read could see before their eyes the stories and moral lessons of their Christian faith. No two were the same.
“All of us who fear the wrath of the Judge fly to the Judge’s mother,” wrote Pierre Abelard. The great cathedrals of Rheims, Chartres, Amiens, and Paris were dedicated to Notre-Dame. Some say that there is a particular time of the day for seeing each of them. Rheims is at its most spectacular in the evening when the restored west window distills the sunset into rose and amethyst. Chartes needs ample light to swell the rich colors of the glass. But Amiens, the supreme achievement of Picardy, stone dreamchild of the North, needs to be seen under a typically northern sky, best of all in winter when you can approach it from the South, over the mournful, denuded plain of the Somme, the land robbed of trees, rook crowding in the cold empty skies above the ploughed fields. The Somme this land of mists and ghosts. The giant harvesters which tear at the autumn crops of sugar beets and maize unearth shrapnel from the soil. Roses still grow in Pircardy, clinging dark and ragged to the stem well into October. I drove through one small village after another; not old villages of the sort that still exist in the Oise, but villages rebuilt after WW I and rebuilt with a touching loyalty to all their old remembered faults. The new roads curve maddeningly-because the old road did the same thing. Bone-white chalk among the soil and on the hills a white mirage of chalk-white crosses. The road to Amiens lies through the graveyard of the Somme.
“The Parthenon of Gothic,” is the phrase most often applied to the cathedral church. Viollet-le-Duc who restored it gave it the title. One great cathedral cannot be compared to another.
Coutances had been gracious and austere.
The choir at Beauvais with light running up the stupendous arches to the upper vaults of the choir are like a stone forest.