Gerona is a quaint old city, picturesquely placed on the banks of the rapid river Ona, and on the steep sides of the hills that bound it. It seems asleep: there are no vehicles passing through the silent streets, the few people that are to be seen have apparently nothing to do, even the market-place is desolate. More than fourteen thousand people live here, but there are no manufactures nor trade. Gerona has a history, however, and contains one of the most remarkable cathedrals in Spain. We will rest at the hotel, with its pretty name ” Fonda de la Estrella” and read a little history. The place is said to have been founded in the tenth century, but there are few traces of Gothic or Moorish occupation. The kings of Aragon dwelt here and were called Marquises of Gerona; and because the town was a royal residence it had to pay the penalty of greatness, and was often besieged and ruined in the early centuries. In 1285 it was besieged by the French King Philip the Rash, but the inhabitants made a brave resistance and only surrendered to starvation. There is an inscription over one of the gates, the Puerta de la Carcel, which says that the French took it, not “per forsa mes per fam,” not by force, but by famine. There was another great siege just eighty-two years ago, when thirty-five thousand French troops under Verier, St. Cyr, and Augereau besieged the place for seven months and five days. It was an heroic struggle on the part of the inhabitants, who remembered their ancestry, and fought with desperation and endured with fortitude. Fifteen thousand of the besiegers were slain and nine thousand of the Spaniards died from wounds or starvation. The French had forty batteries, and the town had only a few old guns and scanty ammunition, and the guns were served and loaded by the women. They held out well; but hatred and vengeance and even despair cannot match the odds of well-recruited armies and plenty of powder and ball, so Gerona had to yield, and that was its death struggle. The people live there now because they were born in the place and cannot get away, and strangers come to see the Cathedral; and as we are rested we will go and see it too.
The Cathedral is approached by a wide and handsome flight of steps. It has a plain front, ornamented with a circular rose-window, and with statues of Faith, I3ope, and Charity. It was intended to raise two towers, but only one was built. The first building was very ancient, and the Moors used it for a mosque. When they were driven out, the building was restored to its original use, but it had become ruinous, and in the eleventh century a new building was consecrated on the ruins of the old one. This too, was pulled down, except the cloisters and belfry, and in 1316 the Chapter began to rebuild. The Cathedral at Gerona is the successor of several that preceded it, and is certainly old enough and grand enough to be treated with respect. Enrique of Narbonne was the first architect; he died, and Jacob de Favarlis was appointed at a salary of three hundred dollars a quarter and an agreement to come six times a year and inspect the work. Then came Bartolome Argenta, who built the choir, and then Pedro de San Juan, and then William Boffy, and Rollin Vautier, and Pedro Cypress. These did not suffice; for in 1416, when the plan which was carried out, and which makes the Cathedral so remarkable, was proposed by Boffy, a junta of fourteen architects was called in, and answered the questions of the Chapter upon their oaths.
Boffy proposed to build a nave of the same width as the choir, a single nave without aisles. The architects were asked ” in the name of God our Lord and the Virgin our Lady Saint Mary,” first, -if the work of one nave commenced of old could be continued with the certainty of remaining secure and without risk? ”
Second, if not, “whether the work of three naves, continued on, would be congruous, sufficient, and such as would deserve to be prosecuted?”
Third, “what form or continuation of the said works will be the most compatible and the best proportioned to the chevet (or head) of the said church which is already begun, made and finished?”
The architects and masters took the oath, and gave their answers to each of the questions. I have read them all, and they are exceedingly interesting. Al most all agree that the great nave can be built. Some think the “three naves” will be “congruous,” and some think they will be “incongruous.” But there is a substantial agreement that the plan of the architect is trustworthy and can be carried out, that it will stand ” earthquakes and violent winds,” and be harmonious and beautiful. This narrative is good reading, in an age like the present, when immense structures are constantly being erected for the occupation of hundreds and thousands of human beings without a particle of consideration whether they will resist earthquakes and violent winds, whether the fire will not reduce them in a few minutes to a heap of ruins, or their flimsy construction render it unsafe to store them with goods or to occupy them with machinery. There is hardly a building in our broad land which for solidity, beauty, and quality of endurance can compare with this erection of Guillermo Boffy in the little town of Gerona, in the fifteenth century.
His grand scheme was the erection of the widest pointed vault in Christendom. The clear width of the nave is seventy-three feet, and its height is admirably proportioned to this vast dimension. Street says that if the nave had been longer by a single bay, no interior in Europe could have surpassed it in effect. There are four bays with chapels opening into each and filling up the space between the enor mous buttresses. At the east end of the nave three arches open into the choir and its aisles, and above these are three circular windows. That the immense span of this nave may be appreciated, I will give the size of a few similar well-known structures: Gerona is 73 feet wide; York Cathedral is 52; Canterbury, 43; Westminster Abbey, 38; Cologne, 44; Notre Dame in Paris, 48; Toulouse, 63; Perpignan, 60. These figures indicate the magnificence of the scheme of the architect and its success. It was proposed by some architects to make the Gerona Cathedral a model in some respects for the future Protestant Episcopal Cathedral which is to adorn New York island; and if we are to have a building that will outlast the ages, and unite beauty and grandeur in its composition, there is no better place than Spain to look for a model. Such buildings are illy adapted to modern American ecclesiastical uses, but they are splendid monuments of religious devotion and piety -which, however mistaken in our judgment, were sincere, generous, and ennobling. In the altar end of the church is a curiously carved and pinnacled retablo covered with silver plates, illustrating scenes in the life of our Lord and of the saints; the baldacchino, or canopy, is of wood covered with silver, and is sup ported by four shafts of marble. There is a curious arrangement behind the altar, a white marble seat for the bishop, raised to the level of the altar. Here he sat till the offering was presented, and to this he returned to give the benediction. On the north wall is a wooden wheel hung with silver bells which are jingled melodiously by an acolyte at the elevation of the Host. There is also a doorway which is ingeniously arranged as a monument, and there is much elegant stained glass.
The inhabitants take no care to preserve either the church or its contents, though they gather in great numbers to worship at its festivals; but the massive and wonderful building is well worth seeing, and is perhaps a good introduction to the larger and more elaborate structures which abound throughout Spain.