FRENCH AND ENGLISH CHURCHES.
ALTHOUGH the mediæval churches of France and England were built by men of the same faith, and for the same Catholic ritual ; although England was long under a distinctly French domination, and a large part of France was for one or two hundred years occupied by and ruled over by Englishmen ; yet national traits asserted themselves, as they usually do, and English and French churches differ as much as if an ocean parted them instead of the narrow flashing "silver streak.”In a few exceptional instances we find a church that seems misplaced. Westminster Abbey, with its apsidal east end and encircling eastern chapels, is built upon a French plan. Norwich, Peterborough, Lichfield, and Canterbury have circular endings, and the choir of the latter, built by a Frenchman, recalls in its Corinthianesque shafts and capitals, as well as in other details, the cathedral in the ancient French town of Sens, from whence its builder came to Canterbury. On the other hand, Laon is one of the few French cathedrals that have that square eastern termination which is so nearly universal in England. These are, however, exceptions, and in general we find on one side of the Channel both cathedral and parish church of an undemonstrative, long, low, picturesque, and domestic style, and on the other side of the water they are self - asserting, aspiring, stately, and majestic. The English buildings blend with the rural landscape, while the churches of France are of a grander type, and rise from stone-paved streets and from amid the burghers’ houses.
And yet, though lowness and length are such marked characteristics of the English cathedral, by a strange contradiction there is nothing about these English churches carried to a greater degree of perfection, or which brings them greater glory, than their clustered towers and their groups of heaven-soaring spires. At Caen and Coutances and Bayeux and Saint-Ouen we see the Frenchman attempting a central lantern over the crossing of nave and transept; but the Englishman, with his unerring instinct for a pleasing group and a picturesque arrangement, seized upon the idea of combining three towers on one church as his own, and at most of the English cathedrals we find, besides the western towers, either a central spire, or the preparation for one in the shape of an incomplete tower. This ambitious tendency frequently ended in disaster, and many a cathedral such as Lincoln has boasted of lofty spires which do not exist to-day. Doubtless the western towers of the great French cathedrals, and perhaps even single western spires on those majestic temples, taken by themselves, are more grand and stately structures than similar features in England. In such a comparison Fngland makes a poor showing. At Rouen, at Bordeaux, at Laon, the Frenchman was most ambitious, and started to raise towers at the west end and at both transepts ; but all are incomplete, and no French church possesses a single central spire to vie with that of Salisbury or of Norwich; and surely none can offer a group of three spires to compare with those of Lichfield ; nor can many foreign examples compete, as graceful and beautiful compositions, with the three uncrowned towers of Canterbury, or with their sisters at Lincoln or at Wells.
But of all the features that mark and identify the English church, its square eastern ending would seem to be the most universal and the most self-evident. In France, the choir of a church has a circular end, and the aisle encircles that, and is roofed, in consequence, with much involved and irregular vaulting ; while beyond the aisle is the chevet, or surrounding range of chapels. Throughout England, however, a church, whether small or great, has a square ending. Many may think this simple, quiet termination should be preferred to the intricate vaulting and tangled perspective of the French chevet, with its flanking chapels ; but the French method is the more ambitious, involves vastly greater constructive skill, and produces by far the most magnificent effects.
But nowhere are the contrasts between French and English churches more striking than in their relative proportions, and in the different relations that height bears to breadth in these structures. For instance, as we ramble about the old Somersetshire city of Wells, we pass beneath a vaulted gate-house and enter the precincts of the cathedral. Before us, rich with carving and shafts and areading, and with those many statues that are unrivaled in similar English work, rises the western front of the great church. Great, do we say ? Well, greatness is relative. This whole front at Wells is thirty-one feet wider than that at Amiens, but is only one half as high ; and the nave at Wells is but twice as high as it is wide, while that of Amiens is three times its own width. This vast difference, both in actual height and in the relation of height to width, is further emphasized by the scale of subordinate details. At ells the church is entered through three small doors that are insignificant features in the rich facade. A man can span those opposite the aisles, and they do not rise much above Ins head. In France, you would find, instead of these humble entrances, grand steps of approach, and large triumphal arches lined with rank above rank of sculpture.
From a distance we see the towers and lanterns of Wells rise above rounded masses of green foliage, and when we reach its walls we find them springing from emerald lawns and embowered in arching trees, the home of cawing rooks and soaring pigeons. There is nothing in France that can be named with the picturesque grouping of these English buildings, or with their setting of close and cloister, of brilliant garden and clipped green lawn and fine old trees. The Frenchman never formed such harmonious features of church and scenery as one sees at Salisbury and Lincoln ; never massed spires in such gracious compositions as we find at Lichfield and Lincoln. Here at Wells the three time-worn towers rise high above us, and compose picturesquely with the chapter house and its quaint approaches, with the great octagon of the lady chapel, and with the backing of tall trees. From above us the music of the chimes vibrates and dies away : —
Be thou our guide,
That by thy power
No foot may slide.”
So from hour to hour chant the bells over the peaceful beauty of the bishop’s gardens and terraces, and the ancient ivyclad palace. Ah, what an abode is this of the bishop’s ! It is the finest example of a thirteenth-century house existing in England; and truly it seems a lordly habitation for a priest of One who had not where to lay his head. We are reminded of the New England country minister who visited his more favored brother, and between the services was shown the latter’s house, his fields and farm, his cattle and his books, and whose wondering comment on the show of luxury was, “ All this, and heaven too ! ” The decency and order which bring to such perfection the lawns and paths and trees of the close prevail also within the church. We are shown by the verger through aisle and chapel, peopled only by the effigies of those who lie below, and we feel indignant that a building raised as a house of prayer should be treated so nearly as a museum of mediæval art. We think of the Westminster verger who roughly disturbed the devout Catholic as he knelt to pray, saying, “ H’if this sort of thing goes h’on, we shall soon ’ave people praying h’all h’over the h’abbey.” However, there comes an hour when verger and visitor cease their rounds. At first, as we but dimly catch in the distant hum of priestly voice sonorous Old Testament sentences or familiar words from the Gospels, we feel how vain is the attempt to gratify in these vast and echoing buildings a Puritan interest in sermon and book. But as the fading sunlight shines through the western window, and casts its colored glories on sculptured tomb and carved boss and gray stone wall, the organ notes pulsate through the stony fabric, and
The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.”
The great solemn place is filled with the thrilling sweetness of boyish voices, and we heartily join in their long, tuneful “Amen.” It rings and resounds down the empty nave. It echoes back again from distant chapel and from the far-receding vaults. Spellbound, we see new beauty around us, and feel that if the Englishman was not the engineer, the sculptor, or in many ways the designer that we find the Frenchman, he yet more truly felt the unaffected simple “ beauty of holiness,” and imprisoned it in pier and vault, in storied tomb and glowing glass, in sculptured front and lofty spire.
While the English cathedrals are low and wide and long, as compared with those of France ; while their entrance porches are comparatively insignificant, and their eastern ends, if handsome, are still far less intricate and ambitious than those of their French neighbors, yet if we cease to consider general masses, and study only broad effects and detail, we find the Englishman well holding his own with the designers across the Channel.
All through the earlier Gothic periods the Frenchman clung to simple cylindrical shafts, and Corinthianesque or Byzantine capitals, and square abaci and bases, all of which were inherited from Romanesque days ; nay, even from classic times. These dignified shafts and this formal carving are found at the cathedrals of Paris and of Sens, of Noyon and of Laon. We cannot fail to admire them, or to regret them when they give place to the true Gothic clustered pier, and to the crocketed capitals of the later and more properly Gothic carvers, but we recognize them as inheritances which the Frenchman has turned to service. We see that they are not fully developed adjuncts of the aspiring upward-tending style. In England, however, the Byzantine or Anglo-Norman type of base and capital and shaft was promptly discarded with the round-arched style, of which it was an integral part. Thereafter the Gothic clustered pier was the usual English form, and, so far as mouldings and carvings are concerned, each successive phase of English Gothic art matured in a leisurely and complete manner, full of national individuality.
Indeed, French mouldings are always most simple, and throughout the Gothic periods their range of variation was small. Until the downward course was well marked, a square stone with large circular beads cut on the arrises was, for instance, the nearly universal vault, rib, and arch moulding of France. But as the chisel displaced the axe in the shaping of stone, England became incomparably rich in mouldings. As in no other country, their large, broad masses succeed each other on arch and vault rib, on label and jamb, often interspersed with foliation or tooth ornament, and often depending only on the light and shadow of their carefully composed waves and hollows and fillets and projections. So expert did the Englishman become that in Early English work even the capitals and bases are round and formed wholly of moulded annular work, — a fashion peculiarly English, and never adopted to any extent in France. Even on an important cathedral like Salisbury sculpture is wholly absent, and mouldings on arch, base, and capital form the main enrichment.
Except during this Early English period of moulded capitals, however, foliage was used throughout the Middle Ages in both France and England for decoration. For long the ancient classic Corinthian capital furnished the motif for French Gothic carving, and when its details gradually freed themselves from this noble restraint, and supported the square abaci on vigorous leaf-decorated crockets, they struck perhaps the highest note that Gothic foliage carving ever reached. With later periods came a closer imitation of natural forms, and in France a thin and straggling style of both carving and moulding. In England, that recasting of Romanesque forms which was common in France never greatly prevailed. The English carvers, without imitating nature, yet from first to last seized upon its spirit, and through all the periods of English Gothic carved foliage is full of energy, elegance, and vigor, and in its graceful curves and the masses of its trefoil leafage has all the essence of plant life. Although the English figure sculpture never made any approach to the almost classic figures of Chartres and Amiens, yet its foliage was, as a rule, more free and flowing, better massed and less naturalistic, than any but the earliest and finest of French work.
Again, French vaulting, except where the exigencies of the chevet complicated it, was as simple as the mouldings of the arches that inclosed it. But in England a simple scheme of vault ribs was by degrees enriched with subdividing ribs, and the intersections of these ribs were decorated with carved bosses, while the vault surfaces were covered with fanlike tracery, until the design of these elaborate ceilings became, in England far more than in any other country, an important and splendid part of the decorative and constructive scheme.
It would seem, then, that in many details, in his carving, in his vaulting, in his mouldings, the Englishman caught the Gothic spirit at least equally with the Frenchman. Still, as we study the great English church, we find that the clerestory windows rarely occupy the entire space from pier to pier ; that the flying buttresses are neither essential nor very frequent; that the vaults are largely supported by thick walls and shallow buttresses, and often spring from a wall instead of from strongly marked piers ; and we shall probably come to agree with Professor Moore that such a church is, in a way, merely the earlier Romanesque structure with pointed-arch details. It is in no sense the same organism as the huge French skeleton. In that, with clear mechanical skill, the slender piers that carry the vaults are firmly marked inside and outside; the entire space between the piers is occupied by a traceried window, and the thrust of the vault ribs is carried in a visible manner from the wellmarked piers, over aisle and chapel, to the great outer buttress, which in turn is loaded to security by lofty masses of pinnacle.
The close and accurate study of these Gothic churches is of surprisingly recent date. It is not so very long since men thought them barbarous, uncouth, and not worthy of serious study. Such were the days when whitewash and lack of care wrought more destruction than Puritan and Roundhead, or than Father Time himself. Sir Walter Scott was among the earliest to sing the praises of the Gothic minster. His idea seems to have been that the lines of these lofty arches were modeled upon forest forms.
‘Twist poplars straight the osier wand
In many a freakish knot had twined,
Then framed a spell, when the work was done,
And changed the willow wreaths to stone.”
To Sir Walter Scott succeeded Dr. Whewell, Mr. Willis, Mr. Paley, and others. The origin of Gothic art is found by one in natural forms ; by another, in an appreciation for the aspiring forms of the pointed arch, introduced by Crusaders who had become familiar with it in Sicily and the East; and by yet another in a development from Roman art. Mr. Freeman, in 1849, defines the one grand principle of Gothic art as “ an upward tendency of the whole building and of its minutest details ; in a word, the vertical principle, which, when fully carried out, renders a Gothic cathedral one harmonious whole.” In 1860 and 1870, Sir Gilbert Scott and M. Viollet-le-Duc were attributing the origin and introduction of Gothic to structural necessities, to the difficulty of vaulting irregular spaces, and to facility of construction. Recently, a Harvard professor has, in his scholarly work, thrown a new and clear light on this subject. He admits that all these influences may have been at work in the development of Gothic building; he agrees with M. Viollet-le-Duc that its actual origin was in France, and that it was due to constructive needs ; but he points out that a brilliantly conceived framework of pier and vault, of buttress and pinnacle, was thus gradually perfected; that this constructive combination contained the most essential spirit of Gothic art; and that, furthermore, in France alone is to be found the perfect result of these fundamental principles. Professor Moore shows us that while England and other countries may boast of national features or peculiar beauties, of the Gothic spirit manifested in certain details, yet in France alone do we find the whole structure of a cathedral one fully organized and visible framework, which the wealth of applied ornament only serves to emphasize.
But let us gain a closer view of a French church, and, as is the wont of travelers, hasten from our inn to the cathedral. From a distance we see it o’ertopping the steep-roofed town. Its walls consist of piers alternating with huge traceried windows. This slender masonry is steadied by the arches of the countless flying buttresses. They cross the low aisles in giant leaps, and carry the thrust of the vaulted stone ceilings to the surrounding buttresses, which, firmly weighted by the lofty crocketed pinnacles, stand like a row of guardian sentinels around the building. At the east end these splendid scaffoldings radiate around the circular apsis and span the chapels which skirt it. Far above them and over the crossing of nave and transept, the lofty fièche. that “ transparent fretwork which seems to bend to the west wind,” decked with pinnacles and statues, its silverwhite lead brightened by faded color and gold, shoots into the blue, and bears its cross three hundred and sixty feet nearer to heaven’s vault than the gazer on the pavement below.
The bishop’s palace is hard by, a dignified but ascetic-looking abode, and the dwellings of the old town climb upon and cling to the sides of the church. There is no green lawn, no quiet close, no cosy dwelling for the priests, joined to this great serious structure, but from the stone-paved place, where white - capped bonnes and red - trousered soldiers now gossip and chatter, broad steps lead to the platform before the three cavernous portals of the cathedral.
And how gloriously peopled are these triumphal arches ! With native skill joined evidently to an observation of the antique, the naïve sculptors have crowded the stonework with representations of the virtues, the signs of the zodiac, the handicrafts, and the employments of the seasons. Here we find Adam and Eve, the wise and foolish virgins, the Magi, the Apostles, while in the centre is portrayed the Last Judgment and Christ bearing the Gospels. Above all this, ranks of angels and seraphim fill the retreating arches, so that at every door these glorious celestial choirs meet over your head as you enter the church. Above the crocketed gables and serried pinnacles of these porches stand the statues of Judah’s kings, and over them story upon story of arcades rise around the great rose window to the pointed gable, and to the tops of the two towers that await spires which will never crown them. Crockets and leafage, statue and bas-relief, gargoyle and pinnacle, are scattered over this gorgeous facade in sufficient abundance to furnish two or three such fronts as that of the Somersetshire cathedral, and all is in key with the great doorways and the majestic scaffold of buttresses. All is simple, masculine, confident. Everywhere you recognize technical skill and brilliant execution. There is nothing tentative or simply picturesque.
It is Sunday, and the vast nave is thronged with ardent worshipers, bowed in solemn adoration before the mysteries of the mass. Around the entrances and in secluded aisles there is stir and movement. People come and go with utter absence of self-consciousness. The citydressed son escorts his country-clad parents. Little children patter about the doorways in their clattering wooden shoes, and offer each other holy water with their finger-tips. All is clone with healthy, unaffected simplicity and directness. On other days than Sunday it is much the same. Just as humble dwellings cluster against the walls of these great French churches, so distinctions of poverty and wealth have no place in this meetingground for all classes. Riches and poverty no longer count. The tawdry shrine, the ignorance that prompts it, the begging at the doors, are but incidents of the scene. The serious and vital subjects are those portrayed in the carvings of the doorways. Life and death, hell and heaven, the last judgment, virtue and vice, — these are the great themes as they were when the cathedral was built. To the intense French mind the grand and the majestic appealed more than the picturesque, and hence the splendor of these lofty naves and arches, of these high pointed gables and these serried ranks of stately sculpture.
The Gothic architecture of France had its birth amid struggles for civil liberty. Human ambitions and civic pride, perhaps, quite as much as religious feeling, inspired the builders, as king and bishop and people thus asserted themselves against the power of monk or of abbey, and city vied with city in raising each a loftier and more glorious shrine than the other. But no such feelings stirred the Englishman. He seems to have had the single wish to make his temples worthy and beautiful. It may be partly for this reason that the distinguishing and precious qualities of English work are found in quiet beauty of detail and in picturesqueness of general composition ; while those of the French are the results of consummate constructive skill, joined to majestic, ambitious, brilliant, and spirited work in the arts of design.
Thus far we have been speaking mainly of cathedral churches, but before we close this comparison let us for a moment leave the cathedrals, and consider the smaller churches. In them we find that those in the French villages and the lesser ones in the French towns are not rural but urban in character, and that, in a smaller way, they imitate and copy the methods and the detail of the neighboring great city churches. The roundarched semi-Byzantine churches of Auvergne, the Romanesque churches of Provence, the domed churches of the Périgord, and the Gothic churches of the Isle of France all imitate the methods and the detail found in neighboring cities, and nowhere is one sensible of attempts to link the architecture to the scenery. In all these churches stone vaulting prevails. Even when the stone vaults do not exist, the structure is generally prepared for them. Gothic architecture, as we have seen, meant to the Frenchman a complete system of vaulting ribs and arched vault surfaces, of flying buttress and pinnacle-loaded pier, and this is found with more or less completeness throughout even the smaller French churches. If one of them fails in these monumental characteristics, it is because of poverty or through decay.
In England, however, the rural church fits the country, and not the city, and it called out the best of the poetry and feeling that there was in her mediæval designers. In place of stone vaults we find rich oak ceilings with carved trusses and beams. As there are no vaults to prop up, the flying buttress scarcely appears, and the simple buttress only strengthens the walls or resists the sway of the clanging bells. But how graceful are the spires that crown the villages of Northamptonshire, how stately the towers, capped with lacelike parapets and bracketed pinnacles, that terminate the churches of Somersetshire; and everywhere all over England are found those innumerable short, stumpy towers, with battlemented tops and buttressed corners, which blend so charmingly with the yews of the churchyard, with the oaks and beeches of the parks, and with the undulating meadows and waving cornfields of a rustic landscape. If the English cathedral seems to be adapted with difficulty to the uses of Protestant worship, the same cannot be said of the parish church. Around this centres, if not exactly the life of the neighborhood, at least its sentiment and its affections, while in death the squire and his family lie beneath its monuments, and the rude forefathers of the village sleep in its shadow. The little country church has much the same qualities as the old English country house, and the two are the unique architectural possessions of England, equaled nowhere else in variety of design, in the concord between structure and site, and in gracious outline and grouping. So numerous and conspicuous are they that the traveler finds it hard to believe they do not occupy the whole field. With surprise we meet the vigorous, rudevoiced, self - asserting Salvation Army preaching at the village crosses, and discover that dissent flourishes, and remember that disestablishment is not an impossibility.
In by far the larger part of the English churches the detail one now sees is late and of the Perpendicular period. While the Early English and Decorated periods had national peculiarities, they were cousins of similar work across the Channel, but Perpendicular Gothic was a distinctly English growth. At Winchester it is vastly impressive ; in the small churches it is frequent and picturesque. But while Gothic thus spent its last forces in England upon somewhat mechanical and unimaginative lines, France gave rein to fantasy, and with overflowing license covered her latest buildings with Flamboyant detail.
A beautiful product is this Flamboyant work, whether it appears in the flowing bars of window tracery and the flaming rays of the great roses, or whether it covers with its dainty tabernacle work the deep recesses of porches, or whether it rises in stone pinnacle or oak canopy to a forest network of buttress and crocket and finial that rivals the intricacies of woodland branches. You feel that the work of the thirteenth century satisfies reason and better deserves the student’s attention, but still your eyes delight in this fairylike construction and these fanciful creations. If you try to sketch this work, you respect still more the poetic genius that invented it and the art that carried it to perfection. Before the lacelike portals of St. Maclou and the intricate convolutions of the “crown of Normandy"and the wonderful gables of the Courts of Justice in Rouen, you recognize that the farthest bound has been reached, —that the end has come. But only a philosopher could bring himself to say that Gothic architecture thus met its fate in a sad decline. The artist feels rather that in its latest hours, when its work was done, it yielded itself wholly to romantic fancy ; that, with a fairy touch, it spent itself upon flaring crocket and interwoven moulding, upon tangled snarls of miniature buttress and complicated pinnacle, upon a sylvan growth of window tracery and panel work ; and that in this brilliant, fiery burst of flaming beauty the end of mediæval architecture was indeed glorious.
Robert Swain Peabody.