Notre Dame and the Advent of Gothic Architecture
SEVEN centuries the towers of Notre Dame have risen over the island city of Paris. The ages have gnawed their solemn stones, and filled their scars with the dust, and tinted their old walls with the gray of all antique things. Raised by a humanity that is immortal, the rude movements of revolutions, the tooth and rigor of the winds and rains, all the unchronicled violences of time, have not altered the grandeur of their essential forms. Square, firm, majestic, they stand to-day over modern Paris as they stood yesterday over the pointed roofs and narrow streets of the ancient city. They make us know the grand spirit and ancient vigor of a people who had none of the things that are the boast of the modern man. They are the work of a people who were united and almost democratic without the newspaper and the railway, — a people who were poets and artists without critics, skilled workmen without printed encyclopædias, religious without tract societies and sectarian journals.
The grand cathedrals were simultaneously begun in the rich cities of France in what was called at the time the royal domain. During the twelfth century the people exhibited an extraordinary political movement for consolidation, and of emancipation from local powers. They ranged themselves under the large ideas of religion and monarchy. Led by the bishops, stimulated by the monks, instructed by the architects, they erected the cathedrals as visible types of something more mighty than barons, lords, and counts. They created in a grand effort of enthusiasm religious monuments and national edifices. It was from the union of all the forces of France of the twelfth century that the cathedrals were projected. No human work was ever more grandly nourished or more boldly conceived.
To-day we have marvellous agents for the rapid and sure communication of peoples and of thoughts ; then they made great sanctuaries for each stricken soul, and visible proois of the power of religious faith.
In the cathedrals that raised their grave and sculptured walls over the castles of dukes and barons to humble them, over the houses of the poor to console them, all the facts, dreams, and superstitions of their lite in the Dark Ages were embodied. The cathedral stones held the memorials of the awful years of suffering and gross superstition that had afflicted populations after the dissolution of Roman order. The grotesque forms that seem to start out of the very walls, and speak to the mind, are not capricious and idle inventions. The very name they bear memorializes an old mediæval superstition, for during the Middle Ages the dragons of Rouen and Metz were called gargouilles. Gargouille Is the French architectural term to-day.
It was in that night of ignorance, in those years in which society was plunged into almost historical oblivion, that those disordered and debased ideas of natural life had full play. The monkish workers in stone shared the superstition of the people, and they carved with gusto the typical vices and beasts, from which faith in religion alone could protect or deliver man. Later the more beautiful forms of the sinless flower and perfect leaf, which we find in the pure and noble Gothic, took the place of the beast and the dragon. The graceful vine, stone-carved, twined tenderly in the arches, or climbed the column, and the flower-petal unfolded in the capital, or under the gallery, or upon the altar. The monk had been delivered by art, the people had found an issue in the vigor of work and in the unity of faith.
The forms which like a petrified population look over Paris from the walls and towers of Notre Dame are surprisingly vigorous and sincere in character. They show an uncommon knowledge of natural structure and a rare invention. Suppose you go with me to the summit of the towers of Notre Dame. Victor Hugo and Théophile Gautier have gone before us, like students and poets. To go to the summit you enter the north tower through a little door, and ascend three hundred and eighty-nine steps, dimly lighted, worn down into little hollows, made visible by long, thin cuts in the wall, such as would serve for an arrow or a sunbeam. At length you reach the light gallery, supported by slender coluras ; about two hundred more steps in perfect darkness take you to the summit of the tower. You are pedestalled by centuries of human labor ; you are surrounded by dragons, cranes, dogs, and apes. Dogs of a ferocious aspect; apes with the breasts of women and the powerful hands of men ; a bear, an elephant, a goat; great muscular devils, with backs like dragons, and the face terminating in a snout or a beak, ears like swine, and horns like bulls, — a strange-looking bird, half parrot, half eagle, with a cloth thrown over the head, like an old woman ! They are posed on the balustrade of the gallery, and at each angle of the towers ; at other places they serve as water-spouts, and are called gargoyles. All these forms and faces are carved in the boldest and largest sculpturesque style ; the anatomy is well based on nature ; all the leading forms truly and expressively rendered, though entirely foreign to the Phidian idea of form. These figures, about the size of a man, posed at each corner of the gallery, or looking down upon Paris or afar off over the humid Seine, show dark against the sky, and are enormous in character ; in each an amazing muscular energy has been expressed, — never so much ferocious force and so much variety of invention. The grotesque of the bright Greek mind is child’s play next to these intensely horrible figures. Some of them just touch the horrible, indecent, and obscene. All hold the horrible or stimulate the curiosity of the mind. On the towers, over the fatalest and gayest city of the world, your sentinels are monsters. You question which be the most terrible, these frank, gross demons about you, carved by the old Gallic stone-cutters, or the fair, smiling city, so vast and heterogeneous, below you. The radiant aspect of the city is deceptive, like the fabled smile of the Sphinx. At the Morgue every morning you will find a fresh victim who has failed under the task it imposed upon his life.
It is difficult to resist the thoughts that reach you at such a height. The city, which changes like the vesture of a man, far below you ; the cathedral, which remains essentially the same through all the centuries, about you. Underneath, our great humanity dwelling in poor, little, suffering, foolish men ; yet their hands were enough to raise such a monument! From their brain these inventions, from their hands these forms !
Strange exaltation and strange humiliation for us ! We have been in our unity great enough to create the longenduring ; and in our individual lives we are mocked by the grandeur we have made, and which is the memorial of our past existence. An awe of our ancestors steals over us ; the ancient time takes awful proportions ; we forget the actual Paris, with its costly and monotonous barracks, the new opera-house, the new wing of the Tuileries ! With the deformed Quasimodo of Victor Hugo, we can neither feel alone nor occupy ourselves with the actual city. The old sculptors had left him the saintly figures and the grotesque dreams and dreads of their imagination. Kings, bishops, martyrs, saints! Around the ogival portals, the Last Judgment and its crowd of holy and serene souls, its mob of convulsed and damned beings. These were his friends when he entered the cathedral. When he went up to strike the sweet and awful bells of the great south tower, he went up to demons and dragons who were not less his friends, for he was familiar with them. What a world in stone ! What a society ! We have no such impressive and varied types. Until we stand before a cathedral of the twelfth or thirteenth century, we do not even know them !
The exact and learned Viollet-Leduc has objected to the characterization that defines Gothic architecture as an expression of the suffering of the Middle Ages. I think he alludes especially to one of Taine’s lectures at the École des Beaux Arts. It seems to me that neither of the writers has neatly defined the relation of his generalization to the particular facts of the subject. It is true, as Viollet-Leduc says, the cathedrals are the proof of the force and invention of the old Gallic spirit; it is not less true that they embody suffering. The force and invention is in the constructive art; the suffering is expressed in the picturesque and convulsed forms with which the constructive art adorned itself.
And from what a society this constructive art grew! from what a society these forms were evolved!—at the moment when light was quickening the intelligence, and the instinct of brotherhood was moving the hearts of populations, fresh from the long marches and common sentiment of the Crusades, warm from that union for a sacred idea, bringing back from the Orient souvenirs of an older and more opulent life. In that burning land of color and light they had seen vast and impressive forms, Pagan temples, rich and beautiful. The impressionable mind and fervid heart of the Frank was amazed and delighted by the superb spectacle of Constantinople. After his pilgrimages through the wilderness and over the mountains, he looked upon the proudest and most dazzling city of the Orient. His recollections of France, a dark and cloudy land compared with the East, had nothing equal to what he saw at that moment. His native city, Paris or Orleans or Rheims or Troyes, was dark and poor with heavy Roman forms or more primitive types of building. His own land had nothing to equal the Greek and Oriental temples and gardens and circuses and mosques ; the groves, where the rose, the sycamore, the cypress, mingled their forms and colors; a splendid union of the rich and barbaric of the East with the simple and pure types of Greece. His religion, his faith, his God, his priesthood, in the lowlands of his country, were represented by a grave, gloomy, formal style of edifice. He bad left his cities, having the feudal character of grim castles and grave monasteries, to find cities full of temples and mosques, decorated with color and adorned with gold. He came from the East with ideas and inspirations. He could not import the color or the atmosphere of the Orient, but he had received his impulse; his mind had been started out of tradition, out of monotony, out of the oppression of habit. He was prepared to create.
Notwithstanding the admirably reasoned pages in which Renan proves the Gothic to have developed naturally from the Roman style, we cannot resist the old conviction, that the experience of the East urged it into its development, and accelerated its departure fronp the Norman-Roman.
The experience of the Crusades had put into action the whole mind of the epoch, and initiated the people into a democratic, a social life. The isolated and brutal existence of the feudal lord had been invaded ; the serf, in becoming a soldier and a tradesman, had become a brother and a democrat, and was fitted to work on a grand scale. Thought had dawned with action. Travel had taught and liberated the monastic workers.
To emulate the splendor of the cities he had seen, to memorialize his faith, to enshrine his religion in forms grander than all the pretensions of temporal power about him, he begun to build upon the ruins of Pagan temples, and to enlarge the old basilicas which held his altar. He began to graft upon grave Roman forms a new type.
He could not have the luminous Orient for a background to his spires and pinnacles ; he could not have the delicate minaret that defined itself always against a deep-toned and clear sky. Under his humid and gray clouds he must make the form more salient and the decoration less delicate. He must not depend upon the fine accentuation of form, and the clear note of color, about a portal, which the Oriental could oppose to a broad flat surface for the sun to make dazzling with light. He must use shadows as the Oriental availed himself of sunshine. So he cut his portals deeper; he made his decoration more vigorous and scattered ; he multiplied forms ; he avoided flat surfaces, — which the Greek, the Persian, and the Moor always availed themselves of, and with which they produced such fine effects.
The Gothic architect pursued the opposite aim. He made stones blossom into leaves and flowers, and crowded niches and arches with images of the animal life he recollected or imagined. Therefore you see the Asiatic elephant and hippopotamus, when you expect only purely Occidental forms and Christian symbols.
Soon his cathedral became his idolatry, his artistic means ; and, before the fourteenth century, the priest had only the altar : the rest belonged to the people and to the artist.
The workmen who had been trained under the protection of abbeys were at hand to design and execute. The heraldic draughtsmen and the illuminators of sacred writings were learned and skilful ; the Crusades had increased the demand for their art, and enlarged their knowledge. Each nobleman had to carry upon his shield and breast the picture-symbol of his origin, his exploits, his loyalty ; each trade imposed its sign of being upon each workman. These needs gave a peculiar and powerful impulse to the arts of design and color, and forced them into full action ; just as to-day the needs of exchange of thought and illustration of knowledge enlist every form of printed expression.
Thus was prepared the means for those marvellous cathedrals which, in the short space of fifty years, reached their full perfection; thus was produced an art that was superbly illustrated through three succeeding centuries, and then perished. “Developed with an incredible rapidity,” writes Viollet-Leduc, “it [the Gothic] arrived at its apogee fifty years after its first essays.”
“ The cathedral was the grand popular monument of the Middle Ages. It was not only the place of prayer, and the abode of God, but the centre of intellectual movement, the storehouse of all art-traditions and all human knowledge. What we place in the cabinets of museums our fathers intrusted to the treasury of churches; what we seek in books they went and read in living characters upon the chiselling of gates or the paintings of windows. This is why, by the very side of religious and moral allegories, we find in such number upon the walls of our cathedrals those calendars, those botanical and zoölogical illustrations, those details about trades, those warnings about hygiene, which composed an encyclopædia for the use and within the reach of all. At Rheims, St. Denis, Sainte Chapelle, they kept stuffed crocodiles, ostriches’ eggs, cameos, and antique vases, relics of martyrs and saints, to draw the people within the place of worship.” So writes a devout Catholic.
Victor Hugo is superb when he signals the correspondence between the cathedral and the mind of the Middle Age. He not only discovers that the cathedral is the encyclopædia, it is also the stone-bible, the majestic and visible poem, the grand publication, of the time. Each stone is a leaf of the mighty volume, each cathedral a different and enlarged edition. The sculptor of the period, like the writer for the press today, had the liberty of expression,— perhaps more liberty than is granted by a million-voiced Public Opinion to the writer in America. Then the bishop was the publisher ; the people, subscribers ; the architect, the sculptor, the painter, the jeweller and mason, fellow-workers. The sculptor gave full play to his hand, and the designer license to his pencil. In windows, upon facades, in capitals, on galleries, upon towers, they rudely sketched or exquisitely elaborated their ideas. The walls became the utterance of their emancipation. They proclaimed liberty. They revealed that the most formal of arts, the most severe science of form, architecture, could appropriate a new beauty, and express a new life, in giving itself to the people and the artist. And how the mediæval sculptor rioted in his new-found liberty! He chiselled the stone edifice as though it were a casket of silver or a box of ivory for his mistress. “ Sometimes,” writes Victor Hugo, “he made a portal or a facade present a symbolic sense absolutely foreign to the worship, and foreign to the church.”
But let us go back to our text, — Notre Dame. Before the Cathedral of Strasburg we have the most ecstatic, wondering admiration ; by its color, its form, its high and delicate spire, it is the most beautiful; before Notre Dame de Paris, we are conscious of the greater dignity and majesty. It is scarred, broken, monumental, enduring. Time and history have written their records upon it. The force and genius of the twelfth century confront us and abase us by the silent and expressive grandeur of the cathedral. It is a mask of time ; back of it the people, the workmen, the lords, the kings, the bishops, the saints, the martyrs of France. You appreciate why it is said that not one of the French cathedrals possesses a more monumental and majestic facade than Notre Dame de Paris. Others may be more beautiful, but none more grand. It has the circular arch of the Roman, the simple colonnettes and capitals of the Norman, the pointed arch of the pure Gothic, and by its solidity recalls its Roman origin. Its three great ogival portals bold and deep, its large rosace flanked by two windows, its high and light gallery supported by fine colonnettes, its two massive and dark towers, make a facade that, divided into five great parts, “develops to the eye without trouble innumerable details in the midst of a powerful and tranquil grandeur of general effect.” Its portals, its rosace, and its gallery are the announcement of the richness of the full and perfect Gothic that burst into that marvellous flower of architecture, the west facade of the cathedral of Rheims, — the most splendid conception of its century, writes Viollet-Leduc; the most complete type of the Gothic, writes Guilhabaud.
The truly historical epoch of Notre Dame begins in the twelfth century. Anterior to that time incomplete traditions merely suggest the aspect of the cradle of the grand edifice which has been connected with all the epochs of the history, and associated with the most august names, of France. Like most of the cathedrals, it covers ground once dedicated to Pagan gods, which fact should touch the imagination.
The founder of Notre Dame, Maurice de Sully, “was of an obscure birth, and superior to his age. He resolved to build upon a new plan the old basilica, which had formerly served the Christian population of the island. The first stone of Notre Dame was laid in 1163 or 1165, by Pope Alexander III..... From the fourteenth to the fifteenth century the cathedral appears to have retained intact its first physiognomy. But a series of changes and mutilations have succeeded, without interruption, to our day. Piety, Which pretends to regenerate the Church by modern embellishments, was not less fatal than the barbarism that later fell upon it. The labors undertaken in the seventeenth century to consolidate the edifice, robbed it by turn of its mouldings, its stone vegetation, and its gargoyles. During the reign of Louis XV. a uniform paving, in large marble squares, replaced the old funeral tablets which covered the soil of the church, and showed the effigies of a crowd of illustrious persons. When the storm of the first revolution burst, some men, and among them Citizen Chaumette, prevailed upon the Commune to spare the figures of the kings in the portal. He claimed, in the name of arts and philosophy, some tolerance for the effigies.”
The restorations now being made, though under the direct supervision of a generation of artists who have been formed under Vioilet-Leduc and upon the study of “ the old national art of France,” are probably more satisfying to them than to those who are uninterested students of the ancient carvings and architecture. They are learned, they are exact; but they are not workers of the Middle Ages. The best that Viollet-Leduc can do is to imitate the old forms, — which is no better than an effort to imitate a picture of one of the early Christian painters. The restorations of St. Denis give it a very unimpressive character. The pieces placed in the crumbling stones of Notre Dame, and the decorations of the chapels, are an intelligent failure. Better to let Time do his work. The new leaf placed in the old parchment sheet, the restored illumination, the new glass in the old window, make a discord, and are foreign to the ancient matter. No stained glass rivals the old; none equals its intensity, its harmony, its sweet melody of color ; no carving (imitated or not) is so naive, so quaint, as that of the mediæval sculptor.
As an example of reverential restoration, consider the group in full relief in the left portal of Notre Dame. The whole is a copy of the ancient stone. But why does it not look like the original ? Not because it is of new, fresh stone, but because the Parisian sculptor of the nineteenth century, though evidently closely following the old sculptor’s work, makes his Eve more beautiful, less quaint, less awkward, than the work of the mediæval sculptor. The figure, in spite of the original, takes a voluptuous form, a suave outline, a seductive character, that marks it as the Parisian type of to-day. It is a false passage interpolated in the old text.
At all times the pretensions of formal, obvious knowledge are enormous ; but a little wisdom is always discriminating, and does not replace the work of the past with imitations or copies. The wise artist does not attempt to make Sphinxes like the Eygptian, nor Venuses like the Venetian, nor Saints like the early Christian. Only the pedant has the pretension and the fatuity to think he can revive a lost art, and resist his age with bookish inspirations. Fresh trom his studies and outside of the actual tendencies of his epoch, he only becomes a corrupter of the ancient art, and is blind to the vital work done by his more simple and more vigorous fellow-men. Hogarth creates from contemporary life ; likewise Reynolds. Poor Barry seeks after the heroic and antique, and represents a regiment of modern soldiers naked like Greeks and Trojans, and is ridiculous. The bad architect puts a Greek temple in a gloomy climate, and dreams of using color in England as in Venice or Constantinople.
But again let us return to our text, — to Notre Dame, that majestic monument sombre with the tints and stains of centuries. To what uses it has been put ! In the twelfth century, before its high altar, the Count of Toulouse came, barefooted and in his shirt, penitent, to be absolved by the Church and king. The King St. Louis walked barefooted under its high springing arches, carrying, it is said, the holy crown of thorns, which he bought from the Emperor of Constantinople. In the next century, Henry VI. of England was crowned at Notre Dame as king of France.
It is a long list, — the solemn and splendid ceremonies enacted in Notre Dame, — great days when the pomp of state and the consecrations of official religion were laid upon the royal heads of France. But the cathedral has evil days. The revolution comes and desecrates it in the name of Reason ! The Convention decrees that its name shall be altered, and on November 1o, 1793, abolishes the Catholic religion, and changes the name of Notre Dame into that of Temple of Reason! But the new name and the new worship were not destined to replace a long time the old. The day arrived, in 1795, when it was restored to the Catholic clergy.
In 1804 the first Napoleon was crowned Emperor of France, and Josephine Empress ; which occasion, writes the historian, was the most sumptuous and solemn of all the ceremonies that have taken place in the ancient edifice. In 1842, the funeral of the Duke of Orleans ; in 1853, the marriage of the present Emperor with Eugénie, Countess of Teba ; last, the christening of the Prince Imperial.
This is the rough outline of the public ceremonies that have been celebrated in Notre Dame de Paris, — of spectacles meant to dazzle the eye and impress the imagination of the people. But, after all, ceremonials, pomps, splendors, great and royal names, have been less than the solemn thoughts, the musicled reveries, the ardent movements of the soul of sincere worshippers, that have risen within it, amid the swinging of incense and the chant of boy-voices, up to the unseen God of all religious life.
In the summer twilight, among the grouped and lofty columns, in the dim aisles, under the high springing arches, poor, faint hearts have been consoled ; and as in forests, as on the shore of the sea, the human soul has had glimpses of something infinite, something consoling ; it has shaken off the load of social trivialties or social crimes, and been admonished and healed by the touch of influences emanating from things greater than its temporary sufferings and wrongs.
But the great day of Notre Dame and the religious form which it represents has gone. The time when it represented the highest word of religious life is past. I can dream those ancient days when the streets about it were narrow, dirty, thronged ; when the lords were brutal, and the people helpless serfs ; I can recall that ancient time when the priest was the teacher, the hope, the guide of the people; when he uttered the word nearest to democracy and equality ; when Catholicism repeated the most humane word that had been given to man. Then, in the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries, the priest was the friend of the people, and made the Church powerful to protect the weak. Then the windows of Notre Dame, in celestial and intense colors, made the interior like a beautiful prism charged with sacred meanings; the three great rosaces, mysterious and vivid, filtered and changed the common light of day, and flattered the eye with visions of heaven itself; then the virgins consecrated to Christ, barefooted, with pure hands and white robes, made a holy chorus, a saintly procession, moving around the nave in the lofty and remote galleries, — a procession ecstatic, naïve, remote! Then the ceremonies of the church were high, sincere, solemn, — for they had not been confronted by the inflexible face of science. To-day we are emancipated, and must put aside childish things. A simpler form of religious life, with a better word for man, has appealed to his mind. The day of the color, the image, the martyr, and the saint has passed away, no more to return. We have martyrs, but science and art celebrate them ; we have saints, but literature holds their memory.
We go to the grand cathedrals of the Middle Ages to-day. They retain music and the voice of bells to touch us. All the rest are nothing to the modern man. They are disfigured by tawdry looking chapels, and frivolous looking altars, and ignoble looking priests. But for the universal voice of the organ, the undying charm of music, they would be void and dreary; no better than Pagan temples and Egyptian monuments.
What actually remains of the sincere work of past ages must impress the modern man. When the great bells of cathedrals thunder over his head, he listens ; when he looks at the high towers, the lofty spires, the elegant mouldings, the quaint carvings, the fecund inventions, he thinks. When he goes within, he is touched and overawed. Strasburg, Rheims, Rouen, and Notre Dame are beautiful and majestic works that cannot be repeated, for they cannot be imitated. As soon expect to see the Pyramids, the art of Michael Angelo, or the heads of Da Vinci, in the prairies of the West. In spite of learned restorations, they shall crumble and be seen no more. The only enduring is our humanity, which goes through the centuries supplanting and inventing, always equal to its needs, always throwing its full force into some new production. The débris of its old march and its old work enable us to write history, — sometimes only an epitaph. Its old shell confronts the actual generation with things greater than itself. We interrogate the colossus of Memnon, the colonnades of Karnak, the ruins of Greek temples, the Gothic cathedrals, and we are humbled by what they say to us.
We pass upon the earth, accomplishing a few great works, — the greatest witness to our energy and our intelligence ; and they are the final utterance, the original expression, the inimitable production of their epoch.
To-day we do not build cathedrals, that is, sanctuaries for the people ; we build ships, that is, means for the commerce of peoples. The twelfth century gave us a church architecture: the nineteenth century has given us a naval architecture. To each creation all the forces of their respective epochs have contributed.
The last day I was at Notre Dame, — again impressed with its grandeur of form and its ancient color, recollecting the great bell, the largest in France, rung only on fête days and the obsequies of kings now silent in the grand towers, — I was standing under the deep-cut ogival portal, where the simple sculptor of the Middle Age had represented in full relief the drama of the Last Judgment, the serene, prim saints on one side, the crowded, precipitated sinners on the other,—with the one the angels, with the other the demons. The stones were old, broken, tinted, dear to an antiquarian and an artist. A noise of wings, a fluttering over my head, arrested my antiquarian observations, and I looked up. A brood of birds, with cries of love, in the sweet air of spring, were wavering a moment under the Gothic arch. They flew in and out of the stone vegetation, and perched an instant on the sculptured heads and robes. That brief lyric of life was sufficient to charm the mind, and dispel all the oppressiveness that seemed to emanate from the majestic old monument. Nature had reinstated herself in the place of art. One gush of bird-music, one jet of life, one hour of love, one moment of happiness, be it but that of sparrows that mate and build their nests, is better than all this antiquity and all this art ! The fluttering joy of the inconstant sparrows— those wee, noisy, swift-winged birds — about the towers, the niches, the portals of Notre Dame, was a fact of Nature. It was her voice, her life, that deliciously recalled me from the crumbling, dusty, gray, weather-stained stones to the perennial force and good of actual life !
But for you who have not had the privilege of looking upon the great monuments of Gothic architecture, it will not be well to leave you with my purely personal thought. No; you must meditate, you must consider, you must attempt to realize what was the work done by the Franks, the Gauls, the Normans, the Saxons of the Middle Ages, in that marvellous architecture which, based upon the Roman, reached the NormanRoman, and after the Crusades the pure Gothic. The new sap, the crossing of elements, the enlarged experience, produced a new and a national type. The Roman arch became pointed like a Norman helmet; the capitals burst into bloom ; the dome became a spire. The very stones were covered with the forms of a rich and beautiful vegetation. Then the spire o! Strasburg was carried to the clouds, and the cathedrals of Rouen and Rheims adorned themselves with delicate broideries of stone, and the towers of Notre Dame were bound together by a light gallery. Then in France was seen during three centuries the full development of an architecture neither Greek nor Roman nor Oriental. But a new idea, capable of unlimited expansion, subject to the law of liberty, and not to that of the arbitrary; corresponding with the mind of its epoch, expressive of its character ; corresponding especially with the Northern as distinguished from the Hellenic and the Roman mind ; corresponding with the old Gallic spirit that had been cradled in dark forests, amid shadows and the brief glory of sunset; cradled amid the high branching pines and bold armed oaks, which had given to it its primitive temple, vast, shadowy, and richly toned. In the cathedral we see the beautiful result of its necessities and its experience.
The natural forms dear or terrible to the childhood of a half-civilized race are recalled by the work itself; it is the foreign achievement and the experience of travel that excites its emulation and sets it to work on a grand scale and after an original plan. But back of all was the religious sentiment, potent to seek a new, but slow to abandon an old, form of its life. It required six centuries for the Roman style imposed on the Druidic form to reach the Gothic of the twelfth century.
It is true that the most studied research and the most conscientious thinking have repudiated the term “ Gothic ” applied to the marvellous architecture of the Middle Ages, — to what is, properly speaking, the old national French architecture. It is true that its so-called Oriental origin is questioned, and the pretensions of a Germanic origin absolutely abandoned. The facts prove that the first churches now called Gothic were built in France; that the borders of the Rhine were marked only by Roman constructions when the masterpieces of the Gothic were being elevated in the North of France ; that the Gothic churches in England, built in the twelfth century, were designed by French architects.
The first Gothic architect not French was Erwin of Steinbach, in the thirteenth century. In Germany, up to the fourteenth century, the Gothic style was called “the French style.”The latest and most conscientious writer upon the subject of the art of the Middle Ages tells us that the first essays of that architecture, which seems so frail, so audacious, so barbarous to the classical mind, were in what is called “l’lle de France, Vexin, Valois, Beauvaisis, a part of Champaigne, and all the basin of the Oise, — in the true France.”
It can no longer be contested that the Gothic is an art purely French. It was born with French nationality, it was the work of communities stimulated by the clergy and directed by laymen, and represents the great social and intellectual movement of the Middle Ages. In the largest expression, it was the creation of the old Gallic genius which, audacious, inventive, rapid, has left the most poetic and impressive embodiment of the religious sentiment of Christendom. It was the last effort to make a temple large enough for humanity. The story of the building of a cathedral reads like a fairy tale. The people come from the provinces environing that of a cathedral like volunteers of a war for liberty. As they had gone pell-mell to the Holy Land, so they went pell-mell to build the cathedrals. They are blessed by the bishop ; they go through the land recruiting their forces, chanting hymns, with floating banners ; they rally about the walls of a church or the quarry, and labor for no other pay than bread.
In the solemn nights of the twelfth century, what a spectacle in the French provinces ! By the light of torches the lofty walls of cathedrals rose as by day ; they were thronged with enthusiastic workmen in the night as in the dawn. What energy of enthusiasm! All classes, vassals and nobles, men of fraternities and communities, dragged the stones from the quarry. Each one gave himself to the work he understood best. The fervor, the fanaticism of building was so great, that the women threw under the foundation - stones gold and jewels, saying, “ Thy walls, O God, shall be of precious stones.” The monks’ learning and the peoples’ force made the cathedrals. The shafts rose, slender like reeds, and were bound in strength ; the spire swam in light ; the tall windows were webbed with semblances of branch and vine ; the arches were adorned by carved flowers ; the doors were flanked by sculptured figures. The whole made a living, expressive, elegant, aspiring form, distinct, admirable, and unlike all other great historic forms. We shall never behold a repetition of the great work of the Middle Ages. It is an accomplished fact, and the constructive and artistic genius of man seeks another embodiment.