The magnificently impressive Cathedral of Notre Dame is perhaps less intimately associated with Bayeux in the average mind than is the wonderful story-telling tapestry which is domiciled in the same city. As for this treasure of the past, it is a subject so vast, and of such great significance, in both history and art, that it has many times been made the subject of weighty consideration. A well-known English amateur, the Honourable E. J. Lowell, has stated that popular tradition has credited it as the handiwork of Matilda, Queen of William the Conqueror, who worked it to commemorate his glorious achievements. If this be really so, the queen was probably assisted largely by the ladies of her court, as the extensive work, measuring some hundred and sixty odd feet, could hardly have been accomplished single-handed. Professor Freeman assigns it to a similiar period, but worked, as he thinks, by English workmen, for Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, the Conqueror’s halfbrother.
A previous acquaintance with the great cathedrals of the Isle of France will tend somewhat to nullify the effect which is produced by Notre Dame de Bayeux, although, in point of size and general arrangements, at least, it fulfils its functions perhaps more acceptably than many a more renowned edifice. Its situation, on the side of a steep slope, produces a curious effect, first, with respect to the choir chevet, which is thus shown as rather gaunt and bare in its lower elongated stages, though undeniably a fine work in itself; secondly, in the general interior view where, from the western entrance, one comes upon the nave pavement a dozen or more steps below the portal, and again meets with the same ef fect further on at the transept crossing. There would appear to have been no other way but this of placing above ground what might otherwise have been the crypt; adding immeasurably to the fine appearance of the interior, the nave and choir appearing to lengthen out interminably by reason of the western elevation from which they are viewed.
A portion of the western towers, and the crypt which is beneath the choir, are thought to date from as early as the eleventh century, having been built by Odo, the half-brother of William the Norman. The splendidly proportioned Norman nave, with its decorated spandrels and archivolts, a worthy decorative embellishment developed before the days of coloured glass, possesses that bright and fresh appearance which is usually associated with a recent work, whereas, as a matter of fact, it can hardly be, in its five circular arches at least, later than the late eleventh or early twelfth century. If it were true that modern restorative processes commonly disfigured no more than this, it is a pity that the dust and cobwebs, and a little of the grime of ages, were not more often removed. Here is the very excess of dog-tooth, arabesque, and grotesque carving, never found in connection with a building which is constructively decorative. Here also is an ornate frieze of no great depth and possessing none of the beauties of the two other distinct elements. As there is no triforium in the nave proper, this decoration is, of course, intended merely as a relief to a bareness which, on account of the generous height, would otherwise exist.
In the choir, the triforium, which is omitted in the nave, springs into being in beautiful and ornate form. The lower arches, with the supports, the attributed work of an English architect, are of the usual Gothic form, in contradistinction to the rounded heads of those of the nave. The clerestory, though delicate and graceful, is somewhat curtailed from the dimensions of that of the west end of the church.
The transepts are unusually bright and cheerful, with a series of windows more beautifully designed than those of either the choir or nave. The choir stalls are of oak, carved in the best manner of the Renaissance.
The charming tower group of this cathedral is as effective, perhaps, as any among all the northern churches. The central belfry, albeit of a base, though pretentious, rococo design, follows no accepted style, but adds imposingly to the general outline. (Its height is over three hundred feet.) In this tower, as in the window tracery, the fleur-de-lys, always a sign of the decadent in Gothic style, is to be seen. The western towers, with their spires, follow the truest pyramidal form, and, though carrying both pointed and round-arched openings, are in every way representative of the best work of their period. The northwesterly tower has an elongated turret, extending from the lower ranges, which, when seen from a distance over the roof of the nave, appears as a protuberance not unlike a dove-cote. This contains the spiral staircase up which visitors are earnestly implored, by the caretaker, to wend their way and participate in the view from the heights above. This view, though undeniably wider in range than are most elevated view-points, is hardly of interest to one who seeks the beauties of the structure itself. There are three porches on the west facade, all fairly well filled with foliaged ornament and bas-reliefs. They are of the thirteenth century, and of a thoroughly florid order.
Included in the “tresor” are two gifts from St. Louis, the chasuble of St. Regnobert, and an ivory and enamel casket.