Miscellaneous Studies: A Series of Essays
by Walter Horatio Pater

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[126] As you discern the long unbroken line of its roof, low-pitched for France, above the cottages and willow-shaded streams of the place, you might think the abbey church of Pontigny, the largest Cistercian church now remaining, only a great farm-building. On a nearer view there is something unpretending, something pleasantly English, in the plain grey walls, pierced with long “lancet” windows, as if they overlooked the lowlands of Essex, or the meadows of Kent or Berkshire, the sort of country from which came those saintly exiles of our race who made the cloisters of Pontigny famous, and one of whom, Saint Edmund of Abingdon, Saint-Edme, still lies enshrined here. The country which the sons of Saint Bernard choose for their abode is in fact but a patch of scanty pasture-land in the midst of a heady wine-district. Like its majestic Cluniac rivals, the church has its western portico, elegant in structure but of comparatively humble [127] proportions, under a plain roof of tiles, pent-wise. Within, a heavy coat of white-wash seems befitting to the simple forms of the “Transition,” or quite earliest “Pointed," style, to its remarkable continence of spirit, its uniformity, and cleanness of build. The long prospect of nave and choir ends, however, with a sort of graceful smallness, in a chevet of seven closely packed, narrow bays. It is like a nun’s church, or like a nun’s coif.

The church of Pontigny, representative generally of the churches of the Cistercian order, including some of the loveliest early English ones, was in truth significant of a reaction, a reaction against monasticism itself, as it had come to be in the order of Cluny, the genius of which found its proper expression in the imperious, but half-barbaric, splendours of the richest form of the Romanesque, the monastic style pre-eminently, as we may still see it at La Charite- sur-Loire, at Saint-Benoit, above all, on the hill of Vezelay. Saint Bernard, who had lent his immense influence to the order of Citeaux by way of a monastic reform, though he had a genius for hymns and was in other ways an eminent religious poet, and though he gave new life to the expiring romance of the crusades, was, as regards the visible world, much of a Puritan. Was it he who, wrapt in thought upon the world unseen, walked along the shores of Lake Leman without observing it?–the eternal snows he might have taken for the walls of the New Jerusalem; the blue waves he [128] might have fancied its pavement of sapphire. In the churches, the worship, of his new order he required simplicity, and even severity, being fortunate in finding so winsome an exponent of that principle as the early Gothic of Pontigny, or of the first Cistercian church, now destroyed, at Citeaux itself. Strangely enough, while Bernard’s own temper of mind was a survival from the past (we see this in his contest with Abelard), hierarchic, reactionary, suspicious of novelty, the architectural style of his preference was largely of secular origin. It had a large share in that inventive and innovating genius, that expansion of the natural human soul, to which the art, the literature, the religious movements of the thirteenth century in France, as in Italy, where it ends with Dante, bear witness.

In particular, Bernard had protested against the sculpture, rich and fantastic, but gloomy, it might be indecent, developed more abundantly than anywhere else in the churches of Burgundy, and especially in those of the Cluniac order. “What is the use,” he asks, “of those grotesque monsters in painting and sculpture?” and almost certainly he had in mind the marvellous carved work at Vezelay, whither doubtless he came often–for example on Good Friday, 1146, to preach, as we know, the second crusade in the presence of Louis the Seventh. He too might have wept at the sight of the doomed multitude (one in ten, it is said, returned from the Holy [129] Land), as its enthusiasm, under the charm of his fiery eloquence, rose to the height of his purpose. Even the aisles of Vezelay were not sufficient for the multitude of his hearers, and he preached to them in the open air, from a rock still pointed out on the hillside. Armies indeed have been encamped many times on the slopes and meadows of the valley of the Cure, now to all seeming so impregnably tranquil. The Cluniac order even then had already declined from its first intention; and that decline became especially visible in the Abbey of Vezelay itself not long after Bernard’s day. Its majestic immoveable church was complete by the middle of the twelfth century. And there it still stands in spite of many a threat, while the conventual buildings around it have disappeared; and the institution it represented–secularised at its own request at the Reformation– had dwindled almost to nothing at all, till in the last century the last Abbot built himself, in place of the old Gothic lodging below those solemn walls, a sort of Chateau Gaillard, a dainty abode in the manner of Louis Quinze–swept away that too at the Revolution–where the great oaks now flourish, with the rooks and squirrels.

Yet the order of Cluny, in its time, in that dark period of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, had deserved well of those to whom religion, and art, and social order are precious. The Cluniacs had in fact represented monasticism in the most [130] legitimate form of its activity; and, if the church of Vezelay was not quite the grandest of their churches, it is certainly the grandest of them which remains. It is also typical in character. As Notre-Dame d’Amiens is pre-eminently the church of the city, of a commune, so the Madeleine of Vezelay is typically the church of a monastery.

The monastic style proper, then, in its peculiar power and influence, was Romanesque, and with the Cluniac order; and here perhaps better than anywhere else we may understand what it really came to, what was its effect on the spirits, the imagination.

As at Pontigny, the Cistercians, for the most part, built their churches in lowly valleys, according to the intention of their founder. The representative church of the Cluniacs, on the other hand, lies amid the closely piled houses of the little town, which it protected and could punish, on a steep hill-top, like a long massive chest there, heavy above you, as you climb slowly the winding road, the old unchanged pathway of Saint Bernard. In days gone by it threatened the surrounding neighbourhood with four boldly built towers; had then also a spire at the crossing; and must have been at that time like a more magnificent version of the buildings which still crown the hill of Laon. Externally, the proportions, the squareness, of the nave (west and east, the vast narthex or porch, and the [131] Gothic choir, rise above its roof-line), remind one of another great Romanesque church at home–of the nave of Winchester, out of which Wykeham carved his richly panelled Perpendicular interior.

At Vezelay however, the Romanesque, the Romanesque of Burgundy, alike in the first conception of the whole structure, and in the actual locking together of its big stones, its masses of almost unbroken masonry, its inertia, figures as of more imperial character, and nearer to the Romans of old, than its feebler kindred in England or Normandy. We seem to have before us here a Romanesque architecture, studied, not from Roman basilicas or Roman temples, but from the arenas, the colossal gateways, the triumphal arches, of the people of empire, such as remain even now, not in the South of France only. The simple “flying,” or rather leaning and almost couchant, buttresses, quadrants of a circle, might be parts of a Roman aqueduct. In contrast to the lightsome Gothic manner of the last quarter of the twelfth century (as we shall presently find it here too, like an escape for the eye, for the temper, out of some grim underworld into genial daylight), the Cluniac church might seem a still active instrument of the iron tyranny of Rome, of its tyranny over the animal spirits. As the ghost of ancient Rome still lingers “over the grave thereof,” in the papacy, the hierarchy, so is it with the material structures [132] also, the Cluniac and other Romanesque churches, which most emphatically express the hierarchical, the papal system. There is something about this church of Vezelay, in the long-sustained patience of which it tells, that brings to mind the labour of slaves, whose occasional Fescennine licence and fresh memories of a barbaric life also find expression, now and again, in the strange sculpture of the place. Yet here for once, around a great French church, there is the kindly repose of English “precincts,” and the country which this monastic acropolis overlooks southwards is a very pleasant one, as we emerge from the shadows of– yes! of that peculiarly sad place–a country all the pleasanter by reason of the toil upon it, performed, or exacted from others, by the monks, through long centuries; Le Morvan, with its distant blue hills and broken foreground, the vineyards, the patches of woodland, the roads winding into their cool shadows; though in truth the fortress- like outline of the monastic church and the sombre hue of its material lend themselves most readily to the effects of a stormy sky.

By a door, which in the great days opened from a magnificent cloister, you enter what might seem itself but the ambulatory of a cloister, superbly vaulted and long and regular, and built of huge stones of a metallic colour. It is the southern aisle of the nave, a nave of ten bays, the grandest Romanesque interior in France, [133] perhaps in the world. In its mortified light the very soul of monasticism, Roman and half-military, as the completest outcome of a religion of threats, seems to descend upon one. Monasticism is indeed the product of many various tendencies of the religious soul, one or another of which may very properly connect itself with the Pointed style, as we saw in those lightsome aisles of Pontigny, so expressive of the purity, the lowly sweetness, of the soul of Bernard. But it is here at Vezelay, in this iron place, that monasticism in its central, its historically most significant purpose, presents itself as most completely at home. There is no triforium. The monotonous cloistral length of wall above the long- drawn series of stately round arches, is unbroken save by a plain small window in each bay, placed as high as possible just below the cornice, as a mere after-thought, you might fancy. Those windows were probably unglazed, and closed only with wooden shutters as occasion required. Furnished with the stained glass of the period, they would have left the place almost in darkness, giving doubtless full effect to the monkish candle-light in any case needful here. An almost perfect cradle-roof, tunnel-like from end to end of the long central aisle, adds by its simplicity of form to the magnificent unity of effect. The bearing-arches, which span it from bay to bay, being parti-coloured, with voussures of alternate white and a kind of grey or green, [134] being also somewhat flat at the keystone, and literally eccentric, have, at least for English eyes, something of a Saracenic or other Oriental character. Again, it is as if the architects–the engineers–who worked here, had seen things undreamt of by other Romanesque builders, the builders in England and Normandy.

Here then, scarcely relieving the almost savage character of the work, abundant on tympanum and doorway without, above all on the immense capitals of the nave within, is the sculpture which offended Bernard. A sumptuous band of it, a carved guipure of singular boldness, passes continuously round the arches, and along the cornices from bay to bay, and with the large bossy tendency of the ornament throughout may be regarded as typical of Burgundian richness. Of sculptured capitals, to like, or to dislike with Saint Bernard, there are nearly a hundred, unwearied in variety, unique in the energy of their conception, full of wild promise in their coarse execution, cruel, you might say, in the realisation of human form and features. Irresistibly they rivet attention.

The subjects are for the most part Scriptural, chosen apparently as being apt for strongly satiric treatment, the suicide of Judas, the fall of Goliath. The legend of Saint Benedict, naturally at home in a Benedictine church, presented the sculptor with a series of forcible grotesques ready-made. Some monkish story, [135] half moral, half facetious, perhaps a little coarse, like that of Sainte Eugenie, from time to time makes variety; or an example of the punishment of the wicked by men or by devils, who play a large, and to themselves thoroughly enjoyable and merry, part here. The sculptor would seem to have witnessed the punishment of the blasphemer; how adroitly the executioner planted knee on the culprit’s bosom, as he lay on the ground, and out came the sinful tongue, to meet the iron pincers. The minds of those who worked thus seem to have been almost insanely preoccupied just then with the human countenance, but by no means exclusively in its pleasantness or dignity. Bold, crude, original, their work indicates delight in the power of reproducing fact, curiosity in it, but little or no sense of beauty. The humanity therefore here presented, as in the Cluniac sculpture generally, is wholly unconventional. M. Viollet-le-Duc thinks he can trace in it individual types still actually existing in the peasantry of Le Morvan. Man and morality, however, disappearing at intervals, the acanthine capitals have a kind of later Venetian beauty about them, as the Venetian birds also, the conventional peacocks, or birds wholly of fantasy, amid the long fantastic foliage. There are still however no true flowers of the field here. There is pity, it must be confessed, on the other hand, and the delicacy, the beauty, which that always brings [136] with it, where Jephtha peeps at the dead daughter’s face, lifting timidly the great leaves that cover it; in the hanging body of Absalom; in the child carried away by the eagle, his long frock twisted in the wind as he goes. The parents run out in dismay, and the devil grins, not because it is the punishment of the child or of them; but because he is the author of all mischief everywhere, as the monkish carver conceived–so far wholesomely.

We must remember that any sculpture less emphatic would have been ineffective, because practically invisible, in this sombre place. But at the west end there is an escape for the eye, for the soul, towards the unhindered, natural, afternoon sun; not however into the outer and open air, but through an arcade of three bold round arches, high above the great closed western doors, into a somewhat broader and loftier place than this, a reservoir of light, a veritable camera lucida. The light is that which lies below the vault and within the tribunes of the famous narthex (as they say), the vast fore-church or vestibule, into which the nave is prolonged. A remarkable feature of many Cluniac churches, the great western porch, on a scale which is approached in England only at Peterborough, is found also in some of the churches of the Cistercians. It is characteristic, in fact, rather of Burgundy than of either of those religious orders especially.

[137] At Pontigny itself, for instance, there is a good one; and a very early one at Paray-le-Monial. Saint-Pere-sous-Vezelay, daughter of the great church, in the vale below, has a late Gothic example; Semur also, with fantastic lodges above it. The cathedral of Autun, a secular church in rivalry of the “religious,” presents, by way of such western porch or vestibule, two entire bays of the nave, unglazed, with the vast western arch open to the air; the west front, with its rich portals, being thrown back into the depths of the great fore-church thus produced.

The narthex of Vezelay, the largest of these singular structures, is glazed, and closed towards the west by what is now the facade. It is itself in fact a great church, a nave of three magnificent bays, and of three aisles, with a spacious triforium. With their fantastic sculpture, sheltered thus from accident and weather, in all its original freshness, the great portals of the primitive facade serve now for doorways, as a second, solemn, door of entrance, to the church proper within. The very structure of the place, and its relation to the main edifice, indicate that it was for use on occasion, when, at certain great feasts, that of the Magdalen especially, to whom the church of Vezelay is dedicated, the monastery was swollen with pilgrims, too poor, too numerous, to be lodged in the town, come hither to worship before the [138] relics of the friend of Jesus, enshrined in a low-vaulted crypt, the floor of which is the natural rocky surface of the hill-top. It may be that the pilgrims were permitted to lie for the night, not only on the pavement, but (if so favoured) in the high and dry chamber formed by the spacious triforium over the north aisle, awaiting an early Mass. The primitive west front, then, had become but a wall of partition; and above its central portal, where the round arched west windows had been, ran now a kind of broad, arcaded tribune, in full view of the entire length of the church. In the midst of it stood an altar; and here perhaps, the priest who officiated being visible to the whole assembled multitude east and west, the early Mass was said.

The great vestibule was finished about forty years after the completion of the nave, towards the middle of the twelfth century. And here, in the great pier-arches, and in the eastern bay of the vault, still with the large masonry, the large, flat, unmoulded surfaces, and amid the fantastic carvings of the Romanesque building about it, the Pointed style, determined yet discreet, makes itself felt–makes itself felt by appearing, if not for the first time, yet for the first time in the organic or systematic development of French architecture. Not in the unambitious facade of Saint-Denis, nor in the austere aisles of Sens, but at Vezelay, in this grandiose fabric, so worthy of the event, Viollet-le-Duc would [139] fain see the birthplace of the Pointed style. Here at last, with no sense of contrast, but by way of veritable “transition,” and as if by its own matured strength, the round arch breaks into the double curve, les arcs brises, with a wonderful access of grace. And the imaginative effect is forthwith enlarged. Beyond, far beyond, what is actually presented to the eye in that peculiar curvature, its mysterious grace, and by the stateliness, the elevation of the ogival method of vaulting, the imagination is stirred to present one with what belongs properly to it alone. The masonry, though large, is nicely fitted; a large light is admitted through the now fully pronounced Gothic windows towards the west. At Amiens we found the Gothic spirit, reigning there exclusively, to be a restless one. At Vezelay, where it breathes for the first time amid the heavy masses of the old imperial style, it breathes the very genius of monastic repose. And then, whereas at Amiens, and still more at Beauvais, at Saint- Quentin, you wonder how these monuments of the past can have endured so long, in strictly monastic Vezelay you have a sense of freshness, such as, in spite of their ruin, we perceive in the buildings of Greece. We enjoy here not so much, as at Amiens, the sentiment of antiquity, but that of eternal duration.

But let me place you once more where we stood for a while, on entering by the doorway [140] in the midst of the long southern aisle. Cross the aisle, and gather now in one view the perspective of the whole. Away on the left hand the eye is drawn upward to the tranquil light of the vaults of the fore-church, seeming doubtless the more spacious because partly concealed from us by the wall of partition below. But on the right hand, towards the east, as if with the set purpose of a striking architectural contrast, an instruction as to the place of this or that manner in the architectural series, the long, tunnel-like, military work of the Romanesque nave opens wide into the exhilarating daylight of choir and transepts, in the sort of Gothic Bernard would have welcomed, with a vault rising now high above the roof-line of the body of the church, sicut lilium excelsum. The simple flowers, the flora, of the early Pointed style, which could never have looked at home as an element in the half- savage decoration of the nave, seem to be growing here upon the sheaves of slender, reedy pillars, as if naturally in the carved stone. Even here indeed, Roman, or Romanesque, taste still lingers proudly in the monolith columns of the chevet. Externally, we may note with what dexterity the Gothic choir has been inserted into its place, below and within the great buttresses of the earlier Romanesque one.

Visitors to the great church of Assisi have sometimes found a kind of parable in the threefold [141] ascent from the dark crypt where the body of Saint Francis lies, through the gloomy “lower” church, into the height and breadth, the physical and symbolic “illumination,” of the church above. At Vezelay that kind of contrast suggests itself in one view; the hopeful, but transitory, glory upon which one enters; the long, darksome, central avenue; the “open vision” into which it conducts us. As a symbol of resurrection, its choir is a fitting diadem to the church of the Magdalen, whose remains the monks meant it to cover.

And yet, after all, notwithstanding this assertion of the superiority (are we so to call it?) of the new Gothic way, perhaps by the very force of contrast, the Madeleine of Vezelay is still pre-eminently a Romanesque, and thereby the typically monastic, church. In spite of restoration even, as we linger here, the impression of the monastic Middle Age, of a very exclusive monasticism, that has verily turned its back upon common life, jealously closed inward upon itself, is a singularly weighty one; the more so because, as the peasant said when asked the way to an old sanctuary that had fallen to the occupation of farm-labourers, and was now deserted even by them: Maintenant il n’y a personne la.

126. *Published in the Nineteenth Century, June 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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