Like many another town of western Normandy, like Falise, Domfront, St. Lo, Granville, Avranches, and Mont St. Michel itself, Coutances rises high above the surrounding plain and stands dominant in the landscape for miles on either hand. Of perhaps more magnitude, as to area, than any of the other examples, the city has the added attribute of three towered ecclesiastical edifices, which rise nobly in varying stages far over the neighbouring roof-tops of the town itself and the tree-clad slopes which embank it.
The oldest of the Norman Gothic cathedrals, and that which partakes the most of local character, is Notre Dame de Coutances. Certain French archaeologists have said that the main body of the church is actually that of the eleventh century. It is more likely, however, that none of the building at present in view is earlier than the thirteenth century, the epoch during which contemporaneous Gothic first grew to its maturity. In any event, such building and construction was going on from 1208 to 1233 as would indicate that it was the entire present edifice which was being planned at that time. In this case it is quite possible that the rebuilding was going on slowly, foot by foot, in a manner which not only encompassed and absorbed the older building, but in reality eradicated every vestige of it. Says a French writer of enthusiasm, ” The Cathedral of Coutances, as it now stands, is one of the most noble and grand religious edifices in France, with all the qualities of a monument of the first order, of perfect dimension, beauty of plan, unity of workmanship, and distinction of form.” Any one of these attributes, were it literally so, might well turn a commonplace structure into an unapproachable masterpiece. In a measure, all of his eulogy is quite true, and the pity is that more do not know of its fascination and charm.
The facade of the Cathedral of Notre Dame is of the indigenous Norman-Gothic type. The fine towers, in addition to combining the symmetrical elements of Gothic, have, each, as well, a flanking towerlet, attached to their outer sides, enclosing a spiral stairway. These extend to quite the full height of the tower proper; and, though by no means a wholly attractive feature, are not as offensive as might at first be supposed. It is doubtful, in fact, if the general strength and impressiveness of the entire structure would not be impaired were the arrangements otherwise.
The present ogival structure is built on the remains of a Romanesque church erected by a famous Bishop of Coutances, Geoffrey de Montbray, with funds supplied by Guillaume Bras-de-Fer, Odon, Roger, Onfroy, and Robert, sons of Tancrede-de-Hauteville, the Norman conquerors of Sicily and Calabria, whose names have been given fabled prominence in more than one epic poem. The early structure was consecrated in 1056, in the presence of William, then Duke of Normandy, a few years before he became the Conqueror. Supposedly none of this former church remains; in fact, what fragments, if any, exist, are doubtless covered in the present foundations.
Mainly, the present structure is thirteenthcentury work, with a lady-chapel of the fourteenth century.
An unusual, and exceedingly beautiful, effect is given by the Gothic window mullions, between the chapels, in reality a series of geometrical window-frames, without glass. No florid ornament either inside or out is to be found to offend against accepted ideals. In short, ” the whole is of a piece complete.” The parapets of triforium and clerestory, with foliaged carvings, are about the only ornate decorations to be seen.
The central tower, of great proportions, but incomplete as to the addition of a spire, is a marvel of strength and power. Its interior, elaborately decorated, forms a lantern at the crossing. Here, as at Bayeux, the choir is raised a few steps above its aisles, giving a certain impressiveness beyond what might otherwise exist.
The interior, generally, is admirable. Clustered columns, as they are commonly called, – in reality they are clustered pillars, if word derivations are to be considered, – separate both nave and choir from the aisles; and, in case of the choir, a series of elongated circular pillars are coupled, one behind the other, an unquestionably unique arrangement.
The transepts are practically non-existent, as the widening does not extend beyond the extent of the nave chapels. This leaves the ground-plan, at least, a mere parallelogram with a rounded eastern end.
Notre Dame de Coutances is one of the few really great Gothic churches not possessing an example of those French masterworks, the rose window.
Again referring to the fine tower group, it is probably true that, were the huge central tower properly spired, the ensemble would rival Laon in regard to its impressive situation and elaborate pinnacles.
St. Pierre, of the fifteenth century, and St. Nicolas, of the fourteenth, complete the trinity of fine churches which Coutances possesses. The latter contains the unusual arrangement in a Continental church of pews in place of chairs, although formerly, it is said, this feature was not uncommon in Normandy.
The somewhat considerable remains of a Roman acqueduct, near by, are sufficiently remarkable to warrant passing consideration, even by the “mere lover of churches.”