Under Baldwin of Hainault, Artois, including St. Omer, was ceded to the kingdom of France as late as the mid-seventeenth century. Few minor churches are possessed of the galaxy of charms and attractions of the ci-devant Cathedral of Notre Dame at St. Omer. Hardly in the accepted forms of good taste are the Byzantine slabs of marble stuck upon the walls here and there, as in a museum; the Renaissance screens; the overpowering organ case; the votive offerings and tablets without number; and the alleged wonderful astronomical clock, with its colossal wooden figures of the sixteenth century, – all of which go to compose a heterogeneous mass more interesting as to occasional detail than as a thorough expression of saintly temperament.
The decorative scheme is carried still further by the large number of paintings with which the church is hung; a tribute none too common in France, and more usually associated with the Flemish churches of nearly every rank. A reflection of their preeminence in this respect is naturally enough visible in French Flanders.
” The Descent from the Cross,” attributed to Rubens, appears likely enough to be a genuine master, but it has been so roughly restored by overpainting, that it is today of impaired value.
St. Omer, among all the group of northeast France, presents a true Gothic example in its great Basilique de Notre Dame, and it is a pity that its further development was along lines which indicate a trend, at least, toward debasement. This is plainly to be noted in the tracery of the lower and clerestory windows of nave and aisles.
Its enormous tower covers nearly the entire western end of nave and aisles, in much the same way as those of some of the fortified churches of the south. Its Gothic is of the true perpendicular style, however, and, with the general grand proportions of the building, gives that immensity and massiveness which is associated only with a church of the first rank. The arcs-boutant of the nave are hardly deserving of mention as such, though they are manifestly sturdy props which perform their functions in perhaps as efficacious a manner as many more graceful and delicate specimens elsewhere. There is just a suggestion of a central tower, which, as is often the case in France, has dwindled to a mere cupola, if it had ever previously grown to a greater height. The transepts are of imposing dimensions, that on the south having an enormous rose of perhaps thirty-five feet in diameter, with an elaborately carved portal below, which contains a ” Last judgment ” in the tympanum. The choir, chevet, and chapels, while existent to a visible and very beautiful degree, are somewhat overshadowed by the great size of the transepts. There is this to be said, however: that the choir, a restoration of our own day, presents, as to style, the type of Gothic purity at its height. It has five radiating chapels, not including that of Notre Dame des Miracles, which adjoins the south transept and contains innumerable votive tablets. For the rest, except for the fact that the interior partakes of a mere collection of curios and relics, it is in general no less imposing in its proportions than the exterior. The clerestory windows, however, are of ill proportions for so grand a structure, being short and squat; and here, as elsewhere throughout the building, is to be found only modern glass.
The great bell of the western tower weighs 8,500 kilos.
Chief among the notable accessories and reliques is the monolithic tomb of St. Erkembode, bishop of the one-time see of Therouanne, period 725-37. The sarcophagus itself, dating from the same century, was brought here from the original site. The tomb of St. Omer was restored in the thirteenth century and shows a remarkable sculptured group of Christ, the Virgin, and St. John, called the ” Great God of Therouanne.” It was saved from the ruin of the church at Therouanne, which was destroyed with the greater part of the town in i533 by Charles V., in revenge for the ” loss of three bishoprics,” as history states. At this time the sees of St. Omer and Boulogne were founded.
The near-by Palace of justice, built by Mansart in 1680 and enlarged for its present use in 1840, was the former Episcopal Palace.
St. Omer has also two other grand churches, St. Sepulchre, of the fourteenth century, and the ruins of St. Bertin ( 1326-1520), which, before the Revolution, with St. Ouen at Rouen, and the collegiate church at San Quentin, was reckoned as one of the most beautiful Gothic abbeys in France. Today it is a magnificent ruin, its huge tower (built in 1431) and portions of the nave and crossing being all that remain. It was considered the finest church in the Low Countries, and for size, purity, and uniformity of style it ranked with the best of its contemporaries.