WHEN the children of Shem said one to another at Babel,— “Go to, let us build us a city and a tower whose top shall reach unto heaven,” they typified a remarkable trait of the human mind,— a desire for a tangible and material exponent of itself in its most heroic moods. In the earlier ages of the world, when humanity, as it were, was becoming conscious of itself and its godlike energies, it seems as if this desire could find no nobler expression than in towers. The same spirit of enterprise which in our own day stretches forth inquiring hands into unexplored realms of physical and intellectual being, and acknowledges in the spoils of such search its noblest and proudest attainments, in more primeval times appears to have been content with the actual and visible invasion of high building into that sky which to them was the great type of the unknown and mysterious.
The birth of these structures was not of the practical necessities of life, but of that fond desire of the soul which has ever haunted mankind with intimations of immortality. Towers thus became the boldest imaginable symbols of energy and power. And when, in the course of time, they became exigencies of society, and familiarized by the idea of usefulness, even then they could not but be recognized as expressions of the more heroic elements of human nature.
Founded in superabundant massiveness, and built in prodigality of strength, the tower seems to defy the elements and to outlive tradition. Old age restores it to more than its primeval significance; and when humbler erections have passed away and crumbled in ruins, it appears once more to rise above the customary uses of men, and to become a companion for tempests and clouds. Dismantled, deserted, and bearing,
This history of many a winter’s storm,
And obscure record of the path of fire,”
Nature lays claim to it, and with moss and ivy and eld, with weeds and flowers, she takes it to her bosom.
From human thoughts and purposes,”
we at length associate it with no achievements of man, and its masonry becomes venerable to us, as shaped by mysterious beings, — Ghouls or Titans, — no fellowworkers of ours.
Let us for a while forget the tedious realisms around us, and eat of the dreamy Lotos. Let us look eastward over the wide waters, and behold, along the horizon, the “ dim rich cities” printing themselves against the morning. Let us listen to their mellow chimes that come faintly to us, and bless those deep-toned utterances so full of the tenderness of ancient days and the melody of gray traditions. Let us bless them; for, like lyres of Amphion, at their sound arose the bell-bearing tower, which made cities beautiful and their people happy. O St. Chrysostom ! there were other golden mouths than thine that preached by the Bosphorus, and their pulpits were the airy chambers of the first Christian towers. Where the muezzin every hour from the lofty minaret now calls the faithful Mahometan to prayer, were first heard those matin and vesper chimes which since then throughout Catholic Europe have accompanied the rising and the setting of the sun. Thus the Christian tower immediately becomes associated with the tenderest and most poetical ideas of monastic and pastoral religion. It seemed emulous from the beginning to be the first to catch the beams of morning, and, like the statue of Memnon, to respond to the golden touch by sounds of music. Then the fervid heart of Italy took fire, and from her bosom uprose over all her cities the beautiful campanile. Still and solemn, it stood on the plains of Lombardy, like a sentinel on the outskirts of our faith, whispering to the vast of space that all was well. Over the lagunes of Venice the weary toil of two centuries piled up the tower of St. Mark. Ravenna, with barbaric pride, built her round-cinctured towers to the glory of the Exarchate. Rome followed with her square campaniles, whose arcaded chambers looked down on a hundred cloisters. Then there were La Ghirlandina at Modena, II Torazzo at Cremona, Torre della Mangia at Siena, the Garisenda at Bologna, the Leaning Tower at Pisa. Everywhere they sought the skies with emulous heights, and ere long they arose in such number as to give a distinctive aspect to the Christian city, and to warn the traveller from afar that he approached walls within which religion was a pride and a power. Who has not admired the Giotto Campanile, called “ the Beautiful,” at Florence ? And who has not wondered at the splendor of her citizens, whose command was, “ to construct an edifice whose magnificence should be beyond the conception even of the cognoscenti, and whose height and quality of workmanship should surpass all that has been built in any style, in Greece or Rome, even at the most florid period of their power ! ”
But the spiritualization and glory of the tower are yet wanting. There is a very human expression about it, as it stands in the midst of those glimmering lands, with its haughty summit commanding far-distant plains,—
Dips down to sea and sands,” —
a very human expression of scornful pride and imperious dominion. We shall see how it outgrew its mere humanities and became an expression of immortal aspirations, a symbol of our relationship with ethereal existences.
These Italian campaniles had either flat summits, or were crowned with a low, unimportant roof. But as they approached the North of Lombardy, and found their way into Germany, France, and Britain, these roofs, through the necessities of climate, became steeper and sharper. Many of the little gray mountainchapels in the South of Switzerland still lift up these pointed towers amid the hamlets of the valley, having gathered in the hardy flocks at eventide for seven or eight centuries. The same early modifications may yet be seen on the banks of the Rhine, where the conical, stork-haunted caps of the round towers are so picturesquely associated with that legendary scenery. Those dear, time-worn, rugged, red-tiled roofs, with their peaks coming in just where they are needed,—what could the artist do without them ? Then the same necessities made the early French and Norman builders push up into the air those gaunt, quaint old camelbacks, with spindles or pinnacles astride. You cannot but love them for their strangeness and the surprise they make against the quiet sky. In Britain, too, you might have beheld this tendency, where the lordly curfew quenched the lights in castle and cot from beneath a very extinguisher of a roof. Now, as, in the natural growth of the human mind, the heart became more and more impregnated with the beauty of holiness, and the prayers of men ascended with somewhat of purer aspiration to heaven, so did they build their tower-roofs higher and higher into the air, till at length the spire was born. In one of those quaint antique towers of Normandy, Coutances, it was first fully developed; and it is curious to see how in this instance its roof-origin was still remembered: for it has tall, gabled garret-windows rising from its base, connected by rude cross-bars to the slope of the spire; and it has a kind of scaly mail, Ruskin says, which is nothing more than the copying in stone of the common wooden shingles of the house-roof. Now the proud Italian architects, disdainful though they were of the arts of the rude Northern builders, could not but admit the expressiveness of the pointed roof; so they placed a form of it on some of their campaniles, as on those of Venice and Cremona, in both these instances making it a third of the -whole height. But the spire, though an effective, was as yet an unambitious structure,— scarcely more than an exaltation or an apotheosis of the roof. For a long time it continued to be merely a supplementary addition in wood to the solid masonry of the tower, and in the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries was often added to substructures of the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth.
Surely it is very dull in us, out of our present enlightenment, to continue to distinguish the mediæval times as the Dark Ages, as if they were glimmering and ghostly, and men groped about in them blindly, living in a sort of dusky romance of feudality. Did you ever study De la Roche's incarnation of Mediæval Art in his Hemicycle,— that long saintly robe with its still and serious folds, that fair dreamy face, those upturned eyes, “ the homes of silent prayer,” the contemplative repose ? It is truly an exquisite idealization ; yet there is something wanting. I believe the piety of those days was rather a passion than a sentiment. Their “ beauty of holiness ” was rather an active emotional impulse than a passive spiritualization, and was incomplete without a material expression, a tangible demonstration of itself. Like the fabled Narcissus, it yearned for its own image. Hence the joy and luxury of the ecclesiastical buildings of that period. They were the very blossoming of the tree of knowledge. This was, indeed, an unenlightened, perhaps a superstitious principle of worship ; but it was enthusiastic, self-sacrificing, and chivalrous. It, indeed, sent the stylite to his pillar, the hermit to the wilderness, the ascetic to the scourge and hair-cloth shirt; but it also led the warrior to the Holy Land, the beggar to the castle-hearth, and the workman to the building of the House of God. It is no wonder that a religion born thus in childlike fervor, and seeking expression in outward signs, built upward. It is no wonder that out of the prosaic elements of the roof it made the spiritual essence of the spire. If we look through the whole range of architectural forms in classic or mediæval times, we shall find no one so indicative of any human emotion as this simple outline is of the highest of all emotions,— prayer. It is a significant fact, that the sentiment of aspiration is nowhere hinted at in Classic Art, and we look in vain for it in all pagan architectures. This is not surprising. The worshippers who built in those schools demonstrated there all the noblest ideas they were capable of,— intellectual beauty, dignity, power, truth, chastity, courage, and all the other virtues cherished in their theologies ; hut their personal relations with any higher sphere of existence, vague and undefined as they were, called for no expression in their temples, and obtained none.
The pyramidal form has ever possessed peculiar fascinations for men, and, from its simplicity, grandeur, and power, has been used in all ages with innumerable modifications in those structures whose object was to impress and overawe,— as in the pyramids of Egypt, the temples of India and Mexico, and in all the earliest funereal monuments. It involved a rude symbolism, which recommended itself to the barbarous childhood of nations. But it was not until the pyramid was sharpened and spiritualized into the spire that it gained its completest triumph over the secret emotions of men. The Egyptians made the nearest approach to it in the obelisk. That mysterious people felt very keenly the suggestiveness of the pyramidal form, and refined the language of its sentiment into some very beautiful expressions. Yet between the mausoleums of Gizeh and the hieroglyphic shafts of Luxor and Karnac there existed a modification, the intensity of whose meaning they were not prepared to understand. Neither their civilization nor their religion required such an exponent; so they exhausted themselves with their mountainous bulks of stone and their pictured monoliths.
We know not how the first view of a Christian spire would affect the mind of an alien ; but so far as our own experiences are concerned, though perhaps familiar only with the lowliest and most unpretending of its kind, we are conscious that it deeply impressed even the “ unsunned temper” of our childhood. The wisest among us may not be able to define precisely these impressions, or trace to their source the admiration and satisfaction it occasions, yet all are ready to acknowledge its beautiful fitness to adorn and glorify the Christian temple. But to the thoughtful mind how suggestive it is of pleasant imagery! It is “ the silent finger” that points to heaven; it is an upward aspiration of the soul; a prayer from the depths of a troubled heart; a suspirium de profundis; a hymn of thanksgiving ; a pure life, throwing off the worldly and approaching the ethereal ; a finite mind searching, till lost in the vastness of the unknown and unapproachable; a beautiful attempt; a voice of praise sent up from the earth, till, like the soaring lark, it “ becomes a sightless song.” Indeed, our unbidden thoughts, that wild-ivy of the mind, are trained upward by the spire, till it is hung round with the tenderest associations and recollections of all that is sweet and softening in our natures. Thus, when the painter has represented on his canvas some wild phase of scenery, where the gadding vine, the tangled underwood, the troubled brook, the black, frowning rock, the untamed savage growth of the forest,
impress us with awe, and a sad, homeless teeling, as if we were lost children, how eloquent is that last touch of his pencil that shows us a simple spire peeping over the tree-tops ! I How it comforts us ! How it brings us home again, and bestows an air
But even if we were not inclined to be sentimental on the subject, even if base utilities had crowded out from our hearts the blessed capacity of shedding rosy light on things about us, the coldest esteem could not but ripen into affection, when we reflected that the spire never adorned the shrine of a pagan god, never glorified the mosque of a false prophet, never, in purity, arose from any unconsecrated ground ; but when, at last, the Church of Christ felt the “ beauty of holiness,” then it developed out of that beauty and pointed the way to God. It exhaled from the growing perfection of the Church, as fragrance from an opening flower. It is, therefore, peculiarly holy. It is a monitor of especial grace. “ It marshals us the way that we are going,” like the visionary dagger of Macbeth ; but the knell that sounds beneath it summons only to heaven.
Practically, it is utterly useless ; and this is its honor and its unspeakable dignity. We cannot even climb it, as we could a tower; for it is nearly as unapproachable as the Oracle of God, save to the innocent birds, who love to flock and wheel about it in the sunshine, and build their nests in its “ coignes of vantage,” or, in the night-time, to the troops of stars which touch it in their journey through the skies. It is as beautifully idle as the lilies of the field; and yet its expressiveness touches us so nearly, the propriety of its sentiment is so striking, that, when the great test question of this living age is applied to it, and we are asked, What is its use ? what is it good for ? the heart is shocked at the impiety of the question, and the feelings revolt, as against an insult. Upon the arches of Canterbury Minster is carved,
NON . NOBIS . DOMING . NON . NOBIS . SED . NO . MINI . TVO . DA . GLOKIAM .
Nothing can be simpler than the composition of the pure spire. The æthetics of its development and growth are characteristically natural and apparent. They are like the history of a flower from bud to bloom under a warm sun. Let us become botanists of Art for a while, and analyze those flowers of worship, as they opened “ in that first garden of their simpleness.” Considering the growth of the spire from the tower-roof, it might naturally be supposed that the earliest forms would be square or round, in plan. But no sooner had the roof passed into this new sphere of existence, than the tine intelligence of the builders perceived that it needed refinement. They saw that in a square spire there was so coarse a distinction between the tapering mass of light and the tapering mass of shadow, that the delicacy and lightness necessary to express the sentiment they desired to convey did not exist in the new feature;— in a round spire, on the other hand, they found that this distinction of light and shade was too little marked ; it was vapid and effeminate, and quite without that delicious crispiness of effect which they at once obtained by cutting off the corners of the square spire, and reducing it to an octagon. With very rare exceptions, as in the southwest spire of Chartres Cathedral, this form was always used. Now it will be seen that a difficulty arises in the beginning, how to unite the octagon of the spire with the square of the tower. There are four triangular spaces at the summit of the tower left uncovered by the superstructure ; and how best to treat these, simple as the task may seem, constitutes what may be called the touchstone of architectural genius in spire-building. There are several general ways of effecting this, each of them subject to such modifications, in individual instances, as to give them an ever-varying character.
Perhaps the earliest method was simply to occupy those triangular Spaces with pyramidal masses of masonry, sloping back against the adjacent faces of the tower,— an expedient which Nature herself might have suggested in the first snow-storm. Then they boldly cut the Gordian knot by shaving off the corners of the tower at the top, thus creating there an octagonal platform, to which the spire would exactly correspond. Still oftener they chamfered the spire upwards from the corners of the tower: in other words, they placed, as it were, a square spire on their tower, occupying the whole of its summit, and then obtained the necessary octangularity by shaving off the angles of the spire from the apex to a certain point near the base, where the cutting was continued obliquely to the corners of the tower. The latest method was to build pinnacles on the triangular territory. In such cases the spire usually stood wholly within the outer boundaries, and parapets assisted to conceal the first springing of the spire.
The first of these methods is usually considered the most perfect and beautiful, on account of its simplicity and candor. This is called the broach; and it is the only form thus far spoken of wherein the tapering surfaces rise directly from the tower-cornice, without mutilating the tower or violating the pure outlines of the spire. The heavenward aspiration, as it were, ascends without effort from the solidity of the tower. It seems to typify a certain fitness and adaptability to heavenly things even in the gross and earthly nature of man. One cannot fail to admire its unaffected dignity, its harmonious balance, its graceful proportions.
It would be impossible within the limits of this article to give any idea of the wonderful diversity of treatment these simple generic forms received at the hands of the early builders. The changes of combination, proportion, and ornamentation were endless. For the mediæval spirit was eminently earnest in its labor, and would not be content with copying an old shape merely because it was a good shape. It would not be satisfied with the cold repetition of a written litany of architectural forms; but its ardent piety, its thoughtful zeal, the life of its love, demanded an ever-varying expression in these visible prayers. Emerson himself might find nought to censure there, in the way of undue conformities and consistencies. Its language was written with the infinite alphabet of Nature.
We are speaking now especially of England; and we, her children, may well be proud that these divine enthusiasms of antiquity, which we thought so quaint, so rare, so far away from us, nowhere else found fairer demonstrations. The English spires bear especial witness to the zeal and aspiration of their builders. They belted them with bands of ornament, cut at first in imitation of tiles, and afterwards beautifully panelled with foliations. Moulded ribs began to run up the angles of the spires, and, when they met at the summit, would exultingly curl themselves together in the most precious cruciforms. Quaint spire-lights began to appear. Sometimes curious dormers would project from alternate sides; and the very ribs, as if, in this spring-time of Art, they felt, quickening along their lengths, the mysterious movements of a new life, sprouted out here and there with knots of leafage, timidly at first, and then with all the wealth and profusion of the harvest. The same impulse wreathed the crowning cross with a thousand midsummer fancies, till the circle of Eternity, or the triangle of Trinity, which often mingled with its arms, scarcely knew itself. The pinnacles, too, blossomed into crockets and bud-like finials, and began to gather more thickly about the roots of the spire, and from them often leaped flying-buttresses against it. During this time the spire itself was growing more and more acute, its lines becoming more and more eloquent. After the fourteenth century, the tower began to be crowned with intricate panelled tracery of parapets and battlements, from behind which the spire, an entirely separate structure, shot up into the sky. In this, the period of the perpendicular style, pinnacles, purfled to the last degree, crowded about the base of the spire, reminding one of the admiring throng gathered about the base of some old picture of the Ascension. But there is another English form which perhaps conveys this sentiment even more impressively: We refer to that whose prototype exists in the steeple of the Church of St. Nicholas at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. This, however, has four turrets, one on each angle, from which, with great lightness, leap towards each other four grand flying-buttresses, which join hands over an empty void and bold in the air a lantern and spirolet of great elegance. This is a very bold piece of construction. It has been imitated at St. Giles’s, Edinburgh, at Linlithgow, in the college tower of Aberdeen, and it is especially made known to the world by Sir Christopher Wren’s famous use of it in the steeple of St. Dunstan’s-in-the-East, London.
The most famous spires of England and Normandy are St. Peter’s at Caen, a very early specimen, St. Michael’s at Coventry, Louth, that of the parochial church of Boston in Lincolnshire, that of Chichester Cathedral, the three that rise from the famous Lichfield Cathedral, and finally and especially the magnificent spire over the cross of Salisbury. In the judgment of most English connoisseurs, this is the finest in the world. It was probably erected during the reign of Edward III., a very florid period for architecture. It is the highest in England, its summit rising four hundred and four feet from the pavement of the church beneath. It is one of the earliest erected in stone, and is remarkable for skilful construction, the masonry in no part being more than seven inches thick. This spire is belted with three broad bands of panelled tracery, and there are eight pinnacles at its base, two on each corner of the tower. The ribs are fretted throughout the whole height with elegant crockets, thus imparting to the sky-line an appearance similar to the gusty spray on the borders of a rain-cloud. An admirer has said of it, “ It seems as though it had drawn down the very angels to work over its grand and feeling simplicity the gems and embroidery of Paradise itself ! England once boasted the loftiest spire in the world, that of old St. Paul’s, London, whose summit, five hundred and twenty feet from the ground, seemed to sail among the highest clouds ; but the great fire of 1666 destroyed it, and Sir Christopher's stately metropolitan dome now rises in its place.
One could believe in the “ merrie ” days of Old England, were her abundant spires their only evidence. The ardent zeal that kindled so many thousand answering beacons throughout the length and breadth of the land is the best proof of that concord of souls which is true happiness. We know that the decision of the Council of Clermont about the Crusades was believed to have been instantly known through Christendom, and that the great cry, God willeth it! which shook the council-roof, was echoed from hill to hill, and at once struck awe and astonishment to the hearts of remotest lands. So in the birthplaces of our Pilgrim fathers, over these cherished spots,
The chalice of the grapes of God,”
arose the “star y-pointing” spire, like a voice of adoration ; and then another would be raised in unison in some neighboring village, where they could see and communicate with each other in their silent language ; and yet another close by among the hills; and presently, in full view from its summit, twenty more, perhaps,— till the good tidings were known through the whole country, and from hamlet to hamlet, over the streams and treetops, was thus echoed the great Te Deum of the land. For it was said among the people, in that antique spirit of worship, as Milton exhorted the birds in his Hymn of Thanksgiving,—
That singing up to heaven’s gate ascend,
Bear on your wings and in your notes His praise ! ”
It is a beautiful proof of the spirit of sacrifice which actuated the Masonic builder of the Middle Ages, that his fairest and most precious works were not confined to the great metropolitan churches and cathedrals, where they could be seen of men, but were frequently found in quiet and secluded villages, nestled among pastoral solitudes, far away from the gaze and admiration of the world. Though the spire of Salisbury was, perhaps, an epic in Masonic poetry, vet in humble hamlets of England, beyond her most distant hills, and amid many an unnamed “ sunny spot of greenery,” were idyls sung no less exquisite than this. Many a village-spire, of conception no less beautiful, arose above the tree-tops among the most untrodden ways. All day long its shadow lingers in the quiet churchyard, and points among the humble graves, as if, over this dial of human life, it loved to preach silent homilies on “ the passing away,” even to the simplest poor. It must be inexpressibly touching to meet with these beautiful forms in the lonely wilderness, where the ivy alone, as it throws its loving arms around them, appears to recognize their grace and all their tender significance. It is like the chance discovery of a good deed done in the darkness, or like a pure life spent in the sweet and serious retirement of a little hamlet, pointing the way to heaven for its scanty flock of cottagers.
It was the custom in those days, during the celebration of Mass, at the moment when the Host was raised, to ring a peculiar bell in the tower, in order that those not gathered beneath the consecrated roof might be made aware far and wide of the awful ceremony, and be reminded to offer up their devotion in unison. And we remember what Izaak Walton said of quaint George Herbert, — how “ some of the meaner sort of his parish did so love and reverence Mr. Herbert, that they would let their plough rest when his saints'-bell rung to prayer, that they might also offer their devotion to God with him, and would then return back contented to their plough.” Now it seems to us that the spire is a perpetual elevation of the Host, a never-ending lifting-up of the Symbol of Redemption, a consecrating presence to field and cottage, hillside and highway, ever ready to bless the accidental glance of wayfarer or laborer, and to make in the desert of his daily life a momentary oasis of sweet and hallowed thought. Its peaceful influence extends over the whole landscape and pierces to its remotest corners.
Where’er they rise, the sylvan waste retires,
And aëry harvests crown the fertile lea.”
It may be thought that St. Peter’s cock, which so often answers the sunbeams from the spindly spire, and kindles and glitters there like a star, is rather empty of emblematic significance and soullanguage. But what saith old Bishop Durandus ? — “ The cock at the summit of the, church is a type of the preacher. For the cock, ever watchful, even in the depth of night, giveth notice how the hours pass, waketh the sleepers, predicteth the approach of day, — but first exciteth himself to crow by striking his sides with his wings. There is a mystery conveyed in each of these particulars : the night is the world; the sleepers are the children of this world, who are asleep in their sins ; the cock is the preacher who preacheth boldly, and exciteth the sleepers to east away the works of darkness, exclaiming, Woe to them that sleep ! Awake, thou that sleepest! and then foretell the approach of day, when they speak of the Day of Judgment and the glory that shall be revealed, and, like prudent messengers, before they teach others, arouse themselves from the sleep of sin by mortifying their bodies; and as the weathercock faces the wind, they turn themselves boldly to meet the rebellious by threats and arguments.”
But it was on the Continent, especially in France, the Low Countries, and Germany, that the Gothic flower opened in fullest perfection ; and it is here that we find the loftiest and most luxurious spireforms. They were always the last part of the church completed, the finishingtouch, the last that was needed to perfection. The progress of the building of a cathedral thus embodied a beautiful symbolism. In most cases, the choir, or east end, the holiest part of the church, was the first erected, in order to sanctify and protect the high altar ; and then, as the treasures of the church flowed in, after the expiration of years or centuries, the builders, tutored by a legendary science, and harmonized by a wonderful feeling of brotherhood, in the same spirit, perfected the designs of their predecessors, by leading out westward the long naves and attendant aisles, completing northward and southward the transepts, adding a chapel here and a porch there, glorifying the western front with the touches of divine genius ; and when at last every niche was occupied with its statue of angel, saint, or pious benefactor, and the holy choir, with its apsis,had been readorned with the accumulated art of centuries, and glowed with the iris-light from painted windows,— when the mural monuments of bishops, warriors, and kings had thickened beneath the consecrated roof, and the whole structure had been hallowed by the prayers and chantings of generations, — then, at last, over the ancient tower arose the lofty spire; as if an angelic messenger had spread his wings at its base and mounted upward to heaven, shouting out the glad tidings of the completion of the House of God, and, as he arose, the voice grew fainter and fainter, till at length it melted into the sky !
The finest spires of Europe were erected as late as the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, upon towers prepared for their reception, usually, in much earlier times. This confidence of the old builders in the final completion of their structures is remarkable. They drew without stint on the piety of after ages,—a resource which has not un frequently proved too feeble to realize their generous expectations. There are few cities in Europe which do not bear sad marks of this misplaced confidence. This is especially witnessed in the unfinished steeples. And, indeed, when we find that not only one, but two, three, four, or even fivespires were sometimes required to flame upward from the same building, as in Caen Cathedral, we do not wonder that the kindling spark is often wanting. If would seem as if another fire must come down from heaven, as of old it did upon the first offering of Moses and Aaron, to inflame these censors, rich in frankincense and naphtha.
Now let us see what were the distinguishing attributes of the Continental spires, We know not why it was, but in the gray old towns of Belgium and the Low Countries there existed such exuberance of imagination, such an unbounded luxuriousness of conception, as created more images of Gothic quaintness and intricacy than elsewhere can be seen. If any architecture ever expressed the average of human thought, that of these towns is especially eloquent in its indications that their inhabitants were very happy and contented. Look at a print of any old Belgian town or street, and you will at once see our meaning. What a joyous upspringing of pinnacles and pointed roofs and spires! of no more earthly use, indeed, than so much pleasant laughter. There is no tower without its spire, no turret or gable without its pinnacle, no oriel without its pointed roof, no dormer without some such playful leaping up into the air. Every salient point attacks the sky with its long iron spindle, wrought with strange device and bearing a hospitable cup where the bird makes his nest; and every spindle sings and shrieks with a shifting vane,—so that the wind never sweeps idly over a Belgian town. This innocent and happy people did not frown through the ages from grim battlements, and awe posterity with stern and massive walls. But they loved old childlike associations and fireside tales. They loved to build curious fountains in commemoration of pleasant legends. They loved, too, the huge, delicious-toned bells of their minster-towers, and the sweet changes of melodious, never-ceasing chimes. They carved their Lares and Penates on their house-fronts very curiously, with sun-dials and hatchments, sacred texts and legends of hospitality. The narrow streets of Ghent, Louvain, Liege, Mechlin, Antwerp, Y pres, Bruges are thus full of household memories and saintly traditions. So it is not strange that a people whose daily hours were counted out with the music of belfries were fond of fretting their towers with workmanship so precious and delicate that it has been called “ the petrifaction of music.”
But before we proceed to tell in how florid a manner the Low Countries interpreted the simpler forms of spires, we shall describe genetically in what manner not only they, but all the other European kingdoms, were indebted to the old Rhineland towns for some of these forms. When the bell-tower, in about the seventh or eighth century, began to be used in Germany, it at once received certain very important modifications on the earlier Italian campanile. The upper terminations of these latter were horizontal, on account of their flat roofs. Now in more northern climates, where the snow falls, these fiat roofs would be unsafe and inconvenient. So we find that the first church-towers that arose in such Rhenish places as Oberwesel, Gelnhausen, Bacharach, Coblentz, Cologne, Bingen, “sweet Bingen on the Rhine,” no longer ended in these horizontal lines, but arose in pointed shapes. Indeed, the Germans, who were great rivals of the Italians in those days, not only in matters pertaining to architecture, but to literature also, in the same independent spirit which induced them alone, of all civilized peoples, to retain through all time the cramped, angular letters of monkish transcribers, in preference to the fair and square Roman forms, took particular pride in avoiding horizontal lines entirely at the tops of their towers, as they did at the tops of their letters. Wherever they so occur, they are insignificant,— rather ornamental than constructive. Not so with the English ; they kept the square tops to their towers, and contented themselves with the pointed superstructure. Let us see how Teutonic stubbornness arranged the matter. Each separate face of their towers, whether these towers were square or octangular, ended above in a gable; and from these gables, in various ways, arose the octangular pointed roof or spire. This circumstance, more than any other, tended to give a peculiar character to German Gothic. The simplest type of the gabled spire was magnificently used in the spire of St. Peter’s at Hamburg. This was the finest in North Germany; it was four hundred and sixteen feet high, and, if still standing, would be the third in height in the world. But it was destroyed by the great fire of 1842. Many a traveller can bear witness to the sweet melody of the chimes that used to sound beneath it every half-hour.
In later times, between the Germans and the French, was invented the lantern, — a feature so often and so superbly used, not only on the Continent, but more lately in England, that we must needs glance at it. This consisted in a tall, perpendicular, octangular structure, placed upon the tower, quite light and open, and pierced with long windows. Here they used to swing the bells, and the place was called the lantern or louvre ; thence the octangular spire arose easily and naturally. Now, notwithstanding this device, those troublesome triangular spaces still remained unoccupied at the top of the square tower. The manner in which this difficulty was remedied was exceedingly ingenious and beautiful. It was by building on them very delicate pinnacles or turrets, peopled, perhaps, as at Freiburg, with a silent and serene concourse of saints in rich niches, or inclosing, as at Strasburg, spiral open-work stairs. These structures accompanied the tall lantern through its whole height; thus rendering the entire group a memory, as it were, of the square tower below, while, at the same time, it beautifully foreshadowed the octangular character of the sky-seeking spire above,— a significant symbolism.
Now, when the Belgians and their neighbors received the spire thus from the fatherland, they at once began to express in it the joy of their worship by all the embroidery and tender imagery and grotesque conceits it was capable of receiving. They varied as many changes on it as they did on their bells. They concealed the first springing of their spires behind clustering pinnacles, flying-buttresses, canopied niches with gigantic statues, galleries with battlements and parapets pierced and mantled in lacework of flamboyant tracery, pointed gables alive with crockets and finials, and long, quaint dormers,— all with a bewildering intricacy of enrichment. And they inherited from the Germans a love for the gargoyle, which haunted the springing of the spire at the corners with visions of very hideous diablerie. It may well be believed that these florid builders did not suffer the spire to arise serious and serene from the midst of this delicious tangle of architecture. They tricked it out with all the frostwork of Gothic genius. Not only did they use in its decoration spire-lights, crockets, ribs and cinctures, bands of gablets, and masses of reticulated relief, but, with wonderful skill, they pierced each face from base to apex in foliated patterns of great richness, so that the whole spire became a web of delicate, open-work, through which the light was sprinkled in beautiful shapes, varying with every movement of the beholder. Their plainer spires of wood they were fond of covering with glazed tiles of various tints arranged in quaint taste. And they would vary the outline by making it curve inward, giving a fine sweep thus from the base to an apex of great slenderness. Sometimes they would give it, with exaggerated refinement, the entasis of the Greek column. There are instances of this last treatment both in France and England.
But it was not only in exuberance of enrichment and quaintness of form that these enthusiastic workmen uttered their inspirations. They built their spires to a most amazing height. Indeed, the loftiest steeples in the world arose in level tracts of country, where they could be seen at immense distances, as not only in Belgium and thereabout, but on the flat margins of the upper and lower Rhine, as at Strasburg and Cologne. In those countries, and about the North of Franee, there was a generous rivalry as to which city should lift up highest the cross of God. But as soon as the sacred passion for spire-building was corrupted by this new element of human emulation, some strange things happened. The people of Beauvais, for instance, desiring to beat the people of Amiens, set to work, we are told, to build a tower on their cathedral as high as they possibly could. The same thing had been done once before on the plains of Shinar. One foresees the result, of course; “ it fell, for it was founded upon the sand, and great was the fall thereof.” And so with the good people of Louvain. They built three spires to their cathedral, of which the central one reached the unparalleled height of five hundred and thirty-three feet, according to Hope, and the side-towers four hundred and thirty feet. This tremendous group, however, fell, or, threatening destruction, was taken down, in 1604. We remember what the Wanderer said So finely in the “ Excursion ”: —
That ’tis a thing impossible to frame
Conceptions equal to the soul’s desire;
And the most difficult of tasks to keep
Heights which the soul is competent to gain.”
But we find that ecclesiastical edifices were not the only ones which were adorned with this high building ; for town-halls were not infrequently distinguished by immensely lofty spires, as at Brussels. It is curious to see, however, how easily the less exalted impulses which erected them may be discovered. They do not soar, they climb up panting into the sky, like the famous passage up through Chaos, in Milton, “ with difficulty and labor hard.” They have not the light, airy gliding upward of the religious spire, whose feeling George Herbert had in his mind, when he sang of prayer : —
My blessed Lord, art thou! how suddenly
May our requests thine ease invade! ”
Not so; but it is all human rivalry, a succession of diminishing towers, steps piled one above another, where the mind every now and then may stop to breathe, and then fight its way onward again ; — not an Ascension, like that from Bethany; rather the toil of a very human, though very laudable ambition.
Unfinished spires were in Europe very common legacies from generation to generation. Descendants were called upon to embody the great conceptions of their forefathers. But the ancestral spirit too often failed in the land, the wing of aspiration was broken, the crane rotted in its place, the great conceptions were forgotten, or lived only as vague and dreamy inheritances ; and the half-completed spires stood like Sphinxes, and none knew their riddles! They arc very melancholy memorials. Like the broken columns over the graves of the departed, fallen short of their natural uses, they seem only the funeral monuments of a race that is dead. The empty air is stilled over them in expectation, and the imagination makes vain pictures, and fills out their crescent of splendid purposes. They have been called “ broken promises to God.” Too often, perhaps, they were rather monuments of the feebleness of those who would scale heaven with anything but adoration upon their Ups. There were Ulm, indeed, and Cologne, and Mechlin, as artistic intentions, eminently grand and beautiful; and in the early part of the sixteenth century Belgium was famous for designs of open-work spires, which, if erected, would have surpassed in height and richness all hitherto existing. But it is worthy of note that at this period the purity of the Church had become. so sullied with priestcraft and the plenitude of Papal power, that it no longer possessed within its violated bosom those sacred impulses of piety which whilom sent up the simple spire, like a pure messenger, to whisper the aspirations of men to the stars“ Gay religions, full of pomp and gold,” could neither feel nor utter the grave tenderness of the early inspirations. And so, when the German monk affixed his ninety-five theses to the door of Wittenberg Church, the spire had ceased to be an utterance of prayerful aspiration. It had lost its peculiar significance as an involuntary expression of worship, and had become liable to all the accidents and contingencies that attend the efforts of a merely human ambition. The whole story is an architectural version of the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican who went down to the temple to pray.
Of the finished spires, the loftiest in the world are, first, that of Strasburg Minster, 474 feet; second, that of St. Stephens at Vienna, 469 feet; third, that of Notre Dame at Antwerp, 466 feet; then that of Salisbury, 404 feet; Freiburg in the Breisgau, 380 1/2 feet; and then follow the distinguished heights of Landshut, Utrecht, Rouen, Chartres, Bruiiels, Soissons, and others. The, highes spire in our own country is that of Trinity Church, New York, 284 feet. We do not “ sweep the cobwebs from the sky ” so effectually as when men built according to the scale of spiritual exaltation rather than that of practical feet and inches, — after the stature of the soul, rather than that of the man.
The architects of the revival of classic architecture, with the learned language of the five orders, with pediments and attics, consoles and urns, labored to express the childlike sentiment of the spire. But even the great Sir Christopher Wren, with his sixty steeple-towers, and all his followers to this day, have not succeeded in a translation so unnatural. Spirituality and the artless grace of inspiration are wanting to the spires of the Renaissance, and so they struggle up painfully into the sky. And it is very rare to find those who have gone back even to Gothic models building a spire which touches our affections, or claims affinity with any of our nobler emotions; so sensitive is this unique structure to the approach of any element foreign to the early conditions of its existence.
As for the great Strasburg example, that Jungfrau of all spires, German traditions have very properly babbled many strange stories about the erection of it. These constitute an episode so characteristic in the history of spire-building, that this essay would be incomplete, were they not briefly told here.
In the legendary days of yore, nothing was more common than to meet that personage known as the Devil walking up and down the earth, in innocent guise, but ripe for all sorts of mischief, especially where the people were building up mighty monuments to the glory of the good God. Very naturally, the sacred spire was a special object of his aversion ; and, for some reason or other, that of Strasburg was honored with peculiar marks of his hatred. Two ancient churches, which stood on the site of the present minster, had been successively destroyed by fire ; and although, in the one case, this had been kindled by the torch of an invading army, and in the other by a thunderbolt, yet the infernal agency, in both cases, nobody ever thought of doubting. So it was the effort of Bishop Werner to combat: these evil influences; and he accordingly inflamed the pride and indignation of the people to such a degree, that throughout the land all concerted to defeat the wicked designs of the Adversary. In two centuries and a half the whole cathedral was completed, save the tower, the corner-stone of which was forthwith laid with great pomp by Bishop Conrad of Lichtenberg, on the 25th of May, 1277. Doubtless the Arch-Fiend laid many cunning schemes to entrap the illustrious architect, Erwin of Steinbach ; but, unlike his brother in the craft at Cologne, he came out unscathed ; so we must believe that throughout the whole work he was actuated by the most unselfish spirit of devotion, infernal machinations to the contrary notwithstanding. Now it must be confessed that the Enemy had a hard time of it, since we read that the good Bishop Conrad fought against him with all the powers of the Church, and granted absolution for all sins, past, pressent, and future, for forty thousand years, to whatever person should contribute to the building of the spire by money, material, or labor. Owing to the scarcity of parchment, these grants of absolution were made out on asses’ skins; and it will be seen, that, in the great struggle, these instruments retained in a very eminent degree that quality of stubborn resistance which had cost them in their original state many a beating from the driver’s staff. The greatest enthusiasm was kindled among rich and poor; year after year, thousands of pilgrims flocked hither from all Germany to offer their aid, without reward or recompense, to the building of the tower; and out of the farthest boundaries, even from Austria, came wagons loaded with building-materials, the gratuitous offerings of the pious. Rich legacies were left to the work, and many a cloister devoted a fourth part of its yearly revenues to the same object. So much for asses’ skins!
Meanwhile the Devil was not idle. In the night-winds he and his legions would shriek and yell and rattle among the scaffolding and cranes in vain. In the latter part of the thirteenth century, he shook the structure with a frightful earthquake, which terrified all Alsatia, and, although whole streets were thrown down in Strasburg, yet the foundations of the Wunderbau, as the Germans love to call it, were not loosened, and no stone was moved from its place. A few years afterward, in 1289, he once more made use of his favorite element, and laid in ashes the market-place of Strasburg all around the minster. More fortunate than its great compeers, St. Paul’s of London, and St. Peter’s of Hamburg, it miraculously experienced but trifling damage.
Well, the great Erwin died at last, when he had built the tower as high as the roof-ridge of the nave. His son succeeded him, finished the tower to the platform, when he, too, was gathered to his fathers in 1339. John Hültz followed as master; and finally his nephew, Hültz II., in 1439, finished the grand pyramid, fixed the colossal cross in its place, and crowned the whole with a gigantic statue of the Virgin. Thus, from the laying of the foundation-stone till all was completed, were one hundred and sixty years ; yet throughout this time the work was never discontinued, and five successive generations labored upon its walls.
But the wrath of the Arch-Enemy, as may well be believed, waxed greater as this prodigious structure gradually developed itself in all its lordliness and strength, and was not at all appeased at its triumphant completion. Ever since then he has visited its stately height with especial marks of his malice. The most furious tempests have raged about it, and more than sixty times has it been struck by lightning, and five times have earthquakes shaken its foundations. But in vain. “ The Golden Legend ” tells us how Lucifer and the Powers of the Air stormed about the spire, and how he cried, —
O ye spirits!
From its station drag the ponderous
Cross of iron that to mock us
Is uplifted high in air! ”
and how the voices replied,—
For around it
All the Saints and Guardian Angels
Throng in legions to protect it;
They defeat us everywhere! ”
At one point, however, the evil spirits were successful; the colossal statue of the Virgin, which crowned the dizzy summit, and was familiar with the secrets of the upper air, and which, like its dread Enemy,
In shape and gesture proudly eminent,
Stood like a tower,"—
after having for fifty years borne the insults of these airy powers, till it had lost all its original brightness, and its face
was taken down, and the present cross put in its place. And there it stands to this day, high up in the silence of midair, where the voices of the city below are rendered small and thin by the distance,— four hundred and seventy-four feet above the heads of the populace, who, in their littleness, crawl about and traffic at its base. This amazing summit, "moulded in colossal calm,” in its unapproachable grandeur, seems to forget the city from which it rises, and to hold communion only with that vast circle of “ crowded farms and lessening towers ” which it surveys. It is a worthy companionship ; on the one hand, the great Vosgian chain, the closed gates of France, — on the other, afar off, the hills of the Black Forest, and, more near, Father Rhine, winding his silver thread among the villages and vineyards of Germany.
There is (or was) an enormous key suspended just beneath the cross of Strasburg Cathedral, its use, and why it was placed there, having passed away from the memory of man. If it were not to open the gates of heaven for those who built this ladder of light and those who worship in its shadow, it remains a riddle and a blank. Let us accept the interpretation, and, made mild-eyed by the lens of tender memories, we shall behold in every spire a means of grace and a hope of glory.