Miscellaneous Studies: A Series of Essays
by Walter Horatio Pater

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Notre-Dame d’Amiens

[109] THE greatest and purest of Gothic churches, Notre-Dame d’Amiens, illustrates, by its fine qualities, a characteristic secular movement of the beginning of the thirteenth century. Philosophic writers of French history have explained how, in that and in the two preceding centuries, a great number of the more important towns in eastern and northern France rose against the feudal establishment, and developed severally the local and municipal life of the commune. To guarantee their independence therein they obtained charters from their formal superiors. The Charter of Amiens served as the model for many other communes. Notre-Dame d’Amiens is the church of a commune. In that century of Saint Francis, of Saint Louis, they were still religious. But over against monastic interests, as identified with a central authority–king, emperor, or pope–they pushed forward the local, and, so to call it, secular authority of their [110] bishops, the flower of the “secular clergy" in all its mundane astuteness, ready enough to make their way as the natural Protectors of such townships. The people of Amiens, for instance, under a powerful episcopal patron, invested their civic pride in a vast cathedral, outrivalling neighbours, as being in effect their parochial church, and promoted there the new, revolutionary, Gothic manner, at the expense of the derivative and traditional, Roman or Romanesque, style, the imperial style, of the great monastic churches. Nay, those grand and beautiful people’s churches of the thirteenth century, churches pre-eminently of “Our Lady,” concurred also with certain novel humanistic movements of religion itself at that period, above all with the expansion of what is reassuring and popular in the worship of Mary, as a tender and accessible, though almost irresistible, intercessor with her severe and awful Son.

Hence the splendour, the space, the novelty, of the great French cathedrals in the first Pointed style, monuments for the most part of the artistic genius of laymen, significant pre-eminently of that Queen of Gothic churches at Amiens. In most cases those early Pointed churches are entangled, here or there, by the constructions of the old round-arched style, the heavy, Norman or other, Romanesque chapel or aisle, side by side, though in strong contrast with, the soaring new Gothic of nave or transept. But of that older [111] manner of the round arch, the plein-cintre, Amiens has nowhere, or almost nowhere, a trace. The Pointed style, fully pronounced, but in all the purity of its first period, found here its completest expression. And while those venerable, Romanesque, profoundly characteristic, monastic churches, the gregarious product of long centuries, are for the most part anonymous, as if to illustrate from the first a certain personal tendency which came in with the Gothic manner, we know the name of the architect under whom, in the year A.D. 1220, the building of the church of Amiens began–a layman, Robert de Luzarches.

Light and space–floods of light, space for a vast congregation, for all the people of Amiens, for their movements, with something like the height and width of heaven itself enclosed above them to breathe in;–you see at a glance that this is what the ingenuity of the Pointed method of building has here secured. For breadth, for the easy flow of a processional torrent, there is nothing like the “ambulatory,” the aisle of the choir and transepts. And the entire area is on one level. There are here no flights of steps upward, as at Canterbury, no descending to dark crypts, as in so many Italian churches–a few low, broad steps to gain the choir, two or three to the high altar. To a large extent the old pavement remains, though almost worn-out by the footsteps of centuries. Priceless, though not composed of precious material, it gains its effect [112] by ingenuity and variety in the patterning, zig-zags, chequers, mazes, prevailing respectively, in white and grey, in great square, alternate spaces– the original floor of a medieval church for once untouched. The massive square bases of the pillars of a Romanesque church, harshly angular, obstruct, sometimes cruelly, the standing, the movements, of a multitude of persons. To carry such a multitude conveniently round them is the matter-of-fact motive of the gradual chiselling away, the softening of the angles, the graceful compassing, of the Gothic base, till in our own Perpendicular period it all but disappears. You may study that tendency appropriately in the one church of Amiens; for such in effect Notre-Dame has always been. That circumstance is illustrated by the great font, the oldest thing here, an oblong trough, perhaps an ancient saintly coffin, with four quaint prophetic figures at the angles, carved from a single block of stone. To it, as to the baptistery of an Italian town, not so long since all the babes of Amiens used to come for christening.

Strange as it may seem, in this “queen” of Gothic churches, l’eglise ogivale par excellence, there is nothing of mystery in the vision, which yet surprises, over and over again, the eye of the visitor who enters at the western doorway. From the flagstone at one’s foot to the distant keystone of the chevet, noblest of its species– [113] reminding you of how many largely graceful things, sails of a ship in the wind, and the like!–at one view the whole is visible, intelligible;–the integrity of the first design; how later additions affixed themselves thereto; how the rich ornament gathered upon it; the increasing richness of the choir; its glazed triforium; the realms of light which expand in the chapels beyond; the astonishing boldness of the vault, the astonishing lightness of what keeps it above one; the unity, yet the variety of perspective. There is no mystery here, and indeed no repose. Like the age which projected it, like the impulsive communal movement which was here its motive, the Pointed style at Amiens is full of excitement. Go, for repose, to classic work, with the simple vertical law of pressure downwards, or to its Lombard, Rhenish, or Norman derivatives. Here, rather, you are conscious restlessly of that sustained equilibrium of oblique pressure on all sides, which is the essence of the hazardous Gothic construction, a construction of which the “flying buttress” is the most significant feature. Across the clear glass of the great windows of the triforium you see it, feel it, at its Atlas-work audaciously. “A pleasant thing it is to behold the sun” those first Gothic builders would seem to have said to themselves; and at Amiens, for instance, the walls have disappeared; the entire building is composed of its windows. Those who built it [114] might have had for their one and only purpose to enclose as large a space as possible with the given material.

No; the peculiar Gothic buttress, with its double, triple, fourfold flights, while it makes such marvels possible, securing light and space and graceful effect, relieving the pillars within of their massiveness, is not a restful architectural feature. Consolidation of matter naturally on the move, security for settlement in a very complex system of construction–that is avowedly a part of the Gothic situation, the Gothic problem. With the genius which contended, though not always quite successfully, with this difficult problem, came also novel aesthetic effect, a whole volume of delightful aesthetic effects. For the mere melody of Greek architecture, for the sense as it were of music in the opposition of successive sounds, you got harmony, the richer music generated by opposition of sounds in one and the same moment; and were gainers. And then, in contrast with the classic manner, and the Romanesque survivals from it, the vast complexity of the Gothic style seemed, as if consciously, to correspond to the richness, the expressiveness, the thousandfold influence of the Catholic religion, in the thirteenth century still in natural movement in every direction. The later Gothic of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries tended to conceal, as it now took for granted, the structural use of the buttress, for [115] example; seemed to turn it into a mere occasion for ornament, not always pleasantly:–while the ornament was out of place, the structure failed. Such falsity is far enough away from what at Amiens is really of the thirteenth century. In this pre-eminently “secular" church, the execution, in all the defiance of its method, is direct, frank, clearly apparent, with the result not only of reassuring the intelligence, but of keeping one’s curiosity also continually on the alert, as we linger in these restless aisles.

The integrity of the edifice, together with its volume of light, has indeed been diminished by the addition of a range of chapels, beyond the proper limits of the aisles, north and south. Not a part of the original design, these chapels were formed for private uses in the fourteenth century, by the device of walling in and vaulting the open spaces between the great buttresses of the nave. Under the broad but subdued sunshine which falls through range upon range of windows, reflected from white wall and roof and gallery, soothing to the eye, while it allows you to see the delicate carved work in all its refinement of touch, it is only as an after-thought, an artificial after-thought, that you regret the lost stained glass, or the vanished mural colour, if such to any large extent there ever were. The best stained glass is often that stained by weather, by centuries of weather, [116] and we may well be grateful for the amazing cheerfulness of the interior of Amiens, as we actually find it. Windows of the richest remain, indeed, in the apsidal chapels; and the rose-windows of the transepts are known, from the prevailing tones of their stained glass, as Fire and Water, the western rose symbolising in like manner Earth and Air, as respectively green and blue. But there is no reason to suppose that the interior was ever so darkened as to prevent one’s seeing, really and clearly, the dainty ornament, which from the first abounded here; the floriated architectural detail; the broad band of flowers and foliage, thick and deep and purely sculptured, above the arches of nave and choir and transepts, and wreathing itself continuously round the embedded piers which support the roof; with the woodwork, the illuminated metal, the magnificent tombs, the jewellers’ work in the chapels. One precious, early thirteenth-century window of grisaille remains, exquisite in itself, interesting as evidence of the sort of decoration which originally filled the larger number of the windows. Grisaille, with its lace-work of transparent grey, set here and there with a ruby, a sapphire, a gemmed medallion, interrupts the clear light on things hardly more than the plain glass, of which indeed such windows are mainly composed. The finely designed frames of iron for the support of the glass, in the windows from which even [117] this decoration is gone, still remain, to the delight of those who are knowing in the matter.

Very ancient light, this seems, at any rate, as if it had been lying imprisoned thus for long centuries; were in fact the light over which the great vault originally closed, now become almost substance of thought, one might fancy,–a mental object or medium. We are reminded that after all we must of necessity look on the great churches of the Middle Age with other eyes than those who built or first worshipped in them; that there is something verily worth having, and a just equivalent for something else lost, in the mere effect of time, and that the salt of all aesthetic study is in the question,–What, precisely what, is this to me? You and I, perhaps, should not care much for the mural colouring of a medieval church, could we see it as it was; might think it crude, and in the way. What little remains of it at Amiens has parted, indeed, in the course of ages, with its shrillness and its coarse grain. And in this matter certainly, in view of Gothic polychrome, our difference from the people of the thirteenth century is radical. We have, as it was very unlikely they should have, a curiosity, a very pleasurable curiosity, in the mere working of the stone they built with, and in the minute facts of their construction, which their colouring, and the layer of plaster it involved, disguised or hid. We may think that in architecture stone is the most beautiful [118] of all things. Modern hands have replaced the colour on some of the tombs here–the effigies, the tabernacles above–skilfully as may be, and have but deprived them of their dignity. Medieval colouring, in fact, must have improved steadily, as it decayed, almost till there came to be no question of colour at all. In architecture, close as it is to men’s lives and their history, the visible result of time is a large factor in the realised aesthetic value, and what a true architect will in due measure always trust to. A false restoration only frustrates the proper ripening of his work.

If we may credit our modern eyes, then, those old, very secular builders aimed at, they achieved, an immense cheerfulness in their great church, with a purpose which still pursued them into their minuter decoration. The conventional vegetation of the Romanesque, its blendings of human or animal with vegetable form, in cornice or capital, have given way here, in the first Pointed style, to a pleasanter, because more natural, mode of fancy; to veritable forms of vegetable life, flower or leaf, from meadow and woodside, though still indeed with a certain survival of the grotesque in a confusion of the leaf with the flower, which the subsequent Decorated period will wholly purge away in its perfect garden-borders. It was not with monastic artists and artisans that the sheds and workshops around Amiens Cathedral were filled, [119] as it rose from its foundations through fifty years; and those lay schools of art, with their communistic sentiment, to which in the thirteenth century the great episcopal builders must needs resort, would in the natural course of things tend towards naturalism. The subordinate arts also were no longer at the monastic stage, borrowing inspiration exclusively from the experiences of the cloister, but belonged to guilds of laymen–smiths, painters, sculptors. The great confederation of the “city,” the commune, subdivided itself into confederations of citizens. In the natural objects of the first Pointed style there is the freshness as of nature itself, seen and felt for the first time; as if, in contrast, those older cloistral workmen had but fed their imagination in an embarrassed, imprisoned, and really decadent manner, or mere reminiscence of, or prescriptions about, things visible.

Congruous again with the popularity of the builders of Amiens, of their motives, is the wealth, the freedom and abundance, of popular, almost secular, teaching, here afforded, in the carving especially, within and without; an open Bible, in place of later legend, as at monastic Vezelay,–the Bible treated as a book about men and women, and other persons equally real, but blent with lessons, with the liveliest observations, on the lives of men as they were then and now, what they do, and how they do it, or did it then, and on the doings of nature [120] which so greatly influence what man does; together with certain impressive metaphysical and moral ideas, a sort of popular scholastic philosophy, or as if it were the virtues and vices Aristotle defines, or the characters of Theophrastus, translated into stone. Above all, it is to be observed that as a result of this spirit, this “free” spirit, in it, art has at last become personal. The artist, as such, appears at Amiens, as elsewhere, in the thirteenth century; and, by making his personal way of conception and execution prevail there, renders his own work vivid and organic, and apt to catch the interest of other people. He is no longer a Byzantine, but a Greek–an unconscious Greek. Proof of this is in the famous Beau-Dieu of Amiens, as they call that benign, almost classically proportioned figure, on the central pillar of the great west doorway; though in fact neither that, nor anything else on the west front of Amiens, is quite the best work here. For that we must look rather to the sculpture of the portal of the south transept, called, from a certain image there, Portail de la Vierge doree, gilded at the expense of some unknown devout person at the beginning of the last century. A presentation of the mystic, the delicately miraculous, story of Saint Honore, eighth Bishop of Amiens, and his companions, with its voices, its intuitions, and celestial intimations, it has evoked a correspondent method of work at once [121] naive and nicely expressive. The rose, or roue, above it, carries on the outer rim seventeen personages, ascending and descending–another piece of popular philosophy–the wheel of fortune, or of human life.

And they were great brass-founders, surely, who at that early day modelled and cast the tombs of the Bishops Evrard and Geoffrey, vast plates of massive black bronze in half-relief, like abstract thoughts of those grand old prelatic persons. The tomb of Evrard, who laid the foundations (qui fundamenta hujus basilicae locavit), is not quite as it was. Formerly it was sunk in the pavement, while the tomb of Bishop Geoffrey opposite (it was he closed in the mighty vault of the nave: hanc basilicam culmen usque perduxit), itself vaulted-over the space of the grave beneath. The supreme excellence of those original workmen, the journeymen of Robert de Luzarches and his successor, would seem indeed to have inspired others, who have been at their best here, down to the days of Louis the Fourteenth. It prompted, we may think, a high level of execution, through many revolutions of taste in such matters; in the marvellous furniture of the choir, for instance, like a whole wood, say a thicket of old hawthorn, with its curved topmost branches spared, slowly transformed by the labour of a whole family of artists, during fourteen years, into the stalls, in number one hundred and ten, with nearly four [122] thousand figures. Yet they are but on a level with the Flamboyant carved and coloured enclosures of the choir, with the histories of John the Baptist, whose face-bones are here preserved, and of Saint Firmin–popular saint, who protects the houses of Amiens from fire. Even the screens of forged iron around the sanctuary, work of the seventeenth century, appear actually to soar, in their way, in concert with the airy Gothic structure; to let the daylight pass as it will; to have come, they too, from smiths, odd as it may seem at just that time, with some touch of inspiration in them. In the beginning of the fifteenth century they had reared against a certain bald space of wall, between the great portal and the western “rose,” an organ, a lofty, many-chambered, veritable house of church- music, rich in azure and gold, finished above at a later day, not incongruously, in the quaint, pretty manner of Henri-Deux. And those who are interested in the curiosities of ritual, of the old provincial Gallican “uses,” will be surprised to find one where they might least have expected it. The reserved Eucharist still hangs suspended in a pyx, formed like a dove, in the midst of that lamentable “glory” of the eighteenth century in the central bay of the sanctuary, all the poor, gaudy, gilt rays converging towards it. There are days in the year in which the great church is still literally filled with reverent worshippers, and if you come late to service you push the [123] doors in vain against the closely serried shoulders of the good people of Amiens, one and all in black for church-holiday attire. Then, one and all, they intone the Tantum ergo (did it ever sound so in the Middle Ages?) as the Eucharist, after a long procession, rises once more into its resting-place.

If the Greeks, as at least one of them says, really believed there could be no true beauty without bigness, that thought certainly is most specious in regard to architecture; and the thirteenth-century church of Amiens is one of the three or four largest buildings in the world, out of all proportion to any Greek building, both in that and in the multitude of its external sculpture. The chapels of the nave are embellished without by a double range of single figures, or groups, commemorative of the persons, the mysteries, to which they are respectively dedicated–the gigantic form of Christopher, the Mystery of the Annunciation.

The builders of the church seem to have projected no very noticeable towers; though it is conventional to regret their absence, especially with visitors from England, where indeed cathedral and other towers are apt to be good, and really make their mark. Robert de Luzarches and his successors aimed rather at the domical outline, with its central point at the centre of the church, in the spire or fleche. The existing spire is a wonderful mass of carpentry [124] of the beginning of the sixteenth century, at which time the lead that carefully wraps every part of it was heavily gilt. The great western towers are lost in the west front, the grandest, perhaps the earliest, example of its species–three profound, sculptured portals; a double gallery above, the upper gallery carrying colossal images of twenty-two kings of the House of Judah, ancestors of Our Lady; then the great rose; above it the ringers’ gallery, half masking the gable of the nave, and uniting at their top-most storeys the twin, but not exactly equal or similar, towers, oddly oblong in plan, as if never intended to carry pyramids or spires. They overlook an immense distance in those flat, peat-digging, black and green regions, with rather cheerless rivers, and are the centre of an architectural region wider still–of a group to which Soissons, far beyond the woods of Compiegne, belongs, with St. Quentin, and, towards the west, a too ambitious rival, Beauvais, which has stood however–what we now see of it–for six centuries.

It is a spare, rather sad world at most times that Notre-Dame d’Amiens thus broods over; a country with little else to be proud of; the sort of world, in fact, which makes the range of conceptions embodied in these cliffs of quarried and carved stone all the more welcome as a hopeful complement to the meagreness of most people’s present existence, and its apparent ending in a [125] sparely built coffin under the flinty soil, and grey, driving sea-winds. In Notre- Dame, therefore, and her sisters, there is not only a common method of construction, a single definable type, different from that of other French latitudes, but a correspondent common sentiment also; something which speaks, amid an immense achievement just here of what is beautiful and great, of the necessity of an immense effort in the natural course of things, of what you may see quaintly designed in one of those hieroglyphic carvings–radix de terra sitienti: “a root out of a dry ground.”

109. *Published in the Nineteenth Century, March 1894, and now reprinted by the kind permission of the proprietors.


Charles L. Shadwell’s Preface  •  A Chronology of Pater’s Works, 1866-1895  •  Prosper Merimee  •  Raphael  •  Pascal  •  Art Notes in North Italy  •  Notre-Dame d’Amiens  •  Vezelay  •  Apollo in Picardy  •  The Child in the House  •  Emerald Uthwart  •  Diaphaneite

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Miscellaneous Studies: A Series of Essays
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