In marked contrast to the sterner profiles of the Clunisian churches in and near the old abbey town is the Chapel of Brou at Bourg, about four hours ride to the southeast. The comparison is that of frost patterns to an iceberg or lace to tapestry. The Church of Brou yearly draws its delegations of artists despite the counter-attractions of the more magnificent cathedrals of France. There is reason for its continuing popularity although it is some-what difficult of access and surrounded by no great display of historical curiosities or natural monuments. Princess Margaret’s Church, as the chapel is commonly called, rep-resents a feminist movement in ecclesiastical building. A woman planned it; a woman built it; and its difference from the accepted modes of the period is evident even now despite the incongruous additions of rebuilders and improvers.
Its interior has the detailed complexities and the mass delicacies of Cluny needlework. Its vaults are high and fine and untraceable as the limbs of white birch-trees arching over a white road. It is a Valentine in Carrara marble.
Margaret of Austria, who built this chapel, was the daughter of Maximilian of Austria and Marie of Burgundy, and the granddaughter of Charles the Bold. Her early life was entangled, as were the lives of so many persons of noble birth at that time, in the political schemes of Louis XI.
Louis, having failed in his plan to betroth the dauphin and Marie of Burgundy, persisted in his manoeuvering to secure by matrimonial means his hold upon the confiscated estates of Charles the Bold. He succeeded in negotiating an engagement between Margaret and the prince. So that his plan might have all the benefit of personal supervision, he brought the girl to live at Amboise on the Loire.
In the eyes of France, Margaret was already queen when Louis upset his own scheme by dying at an inopportune moment. Charles VIII, who succeeded to the throne, decided that, although Margaret was a sweet girl and all of that, she knew a bit too much about him to make him a good wife. So he bade her an affectionate and touching farewell and married Anne of Brittany.
Margaret left the court at Amboise with a hatred for France that remained with her until the end of her days. In 1497 she married Juan, Prince of Castile, son of Ferdinand and Isabella. He died of fever shortly after the wedding.
Margaret was quite cast down about this. For so charming a young woman, her life had been singularly lacking in true romance. She took to poetry and composed one couplet that has preserved her name. It was an epitaph which unfortunately could not be used when it was required :
Cygist Margot, la Gentil Damoiselle, Q’u ha deux marys et encore est pucelle.
The effect of her blighted love remained with her until September 26, 15o 1, when she married Philibert le Beau, Duke of Savoy. It was this wedding that brought her to Bourg.
The town celebrated the marriage in a week of riotous ceremonial with a zest so like that attending any ordinary wedding that Margaret began to take heart. For a time it appeared that this marriage really was going to prove a permanent affair. But three years after the honeymoon the princess’s bad luck returned. Philibert went out hunting and got wet and chilled. He died of pneumonia with Margaret’s arms about him in the room in which he had been born twenty-four years before.
Margaret, whose love for him increased after his death, undertook the erection of the Church of Brou in his memory. She laid the corner-stone in 15o5 according to the wishes of Margaret of Bourbon, mother of the dead prince, guided the hand of the blind architect whose magic transformed her dream into a symphony of stone, and personally supervised the work of building year after year until the chiseled walls and spires were well risen.
During this period she refused offers of marriage from Francis I of France and Henry VII of England, continuing her vigil of love in Bourg and watching over the destinies of the Spanish Netherlands as regent.
Her remarkable career ended in 1530 at Malines. She was fifty years old then and, if contemporaneous portraits are to be credited, looked twenty-five. One morning in getting out of bed she stepped on the fragments of a cup and received a painful cut. Blood-poisoning followed, and her condition became so serious that the surgeons of her court administered opium and prepared to amputate the infected leg. But Margaret never awakened. She was buried at Malines. Her body remained there until two years later, when it was transported with great pomp and ceremony to the tomb in the Church of Brou beside that of her husband.
The three tombs of Margaret of Austria, the Duke Philibert, and his mother, Margaret of Bourbon, are the most remarkable features of a remarkable edifice. Dainty pleurants, a perfect expression of abstract grief in masterful sculpture, surround all three tombs. The marble caskets of Philibert and his wife present two strange effigies of the sleeping occupants. On top are the recumbent figures of Margaret and the duke in the full regalia of rank and office. On an open shelf below, the pair appear as God made them, leaving the world as they entered it.
One may read in this a typification of the burial service with which members of the reigning house of Austria once were escorted to the tomb :
The pall-bearers approach with the coffin; a voice from inside the vault calls out, “Who comes?”
A spokesman answers, “The emperor of Austria,” and reviews his lesser titles and honors. And the voice replies, “I know him mot.”
Once more the question is asked from within the tomb, and the spokesman for the cortege replies, “There comes for burial a poor sinner and a suppliant before the throne of God.” And the voice calls, “Let him pass.”
That Margaret of Austria should have added a motif of this mysticism to the others so numerous in the church seems only natural.
Beside the form of Philibert the knight stand four cherubs, who seem to be awaiting his awakening. Two of them hold his gauntlets, two his helmet. The effect of their vigil is startling. Were this armored knight to stir himself with a great cracking of stony armor and shove his stony fingers into the stone gloves held ready for him, it would not seem at all remarkable. It is with difficulty that one banishes an impulse to walk on tiptoe through this carven choir, lest he disturb the rest of the slumbering duke and the women who loved him.