The Cathedral at Evreux is another of those edifices which gives one its best impression when first seen upon entering the city. Charmingly, possibly romantically, situated, it lies in a shallow valley with all the picturesqueness of its varied style limned against the sky in truly impressionistic fashion. This impression, when viewed from the slight eminence by which the railway enters the town, is a vista of rambling roofs and a long, sloping street running gently down to the very foot of the structure, which, set about and interspersed with verdure, as it is in the spring and summer months, warrants one in counting his introduction to this charmingly attractive, though non-consistent, type of church, as one of the events which will live in memory for years.
If towering spires and pinnacles were a sine qua non for a great and imposing architectural style, this church would at once rank as one of the most delightful examples extant; for these very features, albeit they are mostly of what we have come to accept as a debased form of art, are nevertheless possessed of a grandeur and magnificence which in many worthy examples are entirely lacking. The pair of western towers, of Romanesque foundation, were developed, not in what one knows as Gothic, but of the manifest and offensive pseudo-classic order. They are capped, however, with something more akin to Moorish or an Eastern termination than Italian. The spire which surmounts the central crossing is, without question, a reminiscence of much that has been accepted as good Gothic form in the great central-towered English churches. Up to a certain point this can hardly be denied; but this rather weak, effeminate spire, which forms such an unusual attribute of a French cathedral, more than qualifies its right to a place in the first rank of spires. As for the rest of the exterior, it is a melange of nearly every known architectural style. Undeniably fine in parts, like ” the curate’s egg,” if a time-worn simile may be permitted, it forms an ensemble which would preclude its ever being accorded unqualified praise from even the most liberalminded and optimistic enthusiast.
By far the most coherent view to be had near by is that from the gardens of the Archbishop’s Palace immediately to the rearward of the choir. Here the clipped trees, the warm coloured wall, along which the vines are trained, and what was once a canal, or moat, in the foreground, combine to present a singularly artistic and pleasing composition.
The north transept, of Bishop le Veneur, is of the superlative degree of its era (early sixteenth century), bordering upon the profusion of splayed ornament which so soon after turned to dross, but standing, as it does, of itself, clearly defined. The gulf was finally crossed when, less than a half-century later, the incongruous west front with its ill-mannered towers was built,-in itself a subject worth a deal of study from the artist who would picture graven stone, but contrasting unfavourably enough with the heights to which French ecclesiastical architecture had just previously soared. Here is offered the one unified Renaissance facade of a French cathedral, welded, as it were, in unworthy fashion, to a fabric with which it has nothing in common. The stone-mason here superseded the craftsman; and, with the termination of the reign of Francois I., and following with that of Henry IL, came the flowering rankness of a degenerate weed, leaving, as evidence of its contaminating influence in this one example alone, traces of nearly every classical order, from the simple Doric column to a hybrid which shall be unnamed.
The interior presents a general array of incongruities quite as remarkable as those of the exterior. The nave is very narrow; but the choir widens out perhaps a dozen feet on either side, adding immeasurably to an effect which is far more impressive than might otherwise be supposed.
The nave itself shows many varieties of building, ranging from the Gothic of the early twelfth to the late fifteenth centuries; the lower part and the easterly bays are Romanesque, or what perhaps has been popularly accepted as Norman, and date from 1125; the remainder and the triforium are of a century later.
The choir is of the decorated species of the early fourteenth century, with its arcaded triforium glazed, whereas in the nave it is without glass. The lady-chapel, of the time of Louis XI., shows that inevitable mark of degeneracy, the ” fleur-de-lys,” in the elaborated tracery of the window framing. The glass here is, however, excellent, in effect at any rate, with its gorgeous figures of knights, angels, and peers of France, drawn with a masterly skill which is often lacking in even more precious glass.
The chapel screens, some twenty in all, are wondrously turned and carved of wood. This leads one to venture the thought that the similar decorative embellishments of the Renaissance chateaux of the Loire country were slowly creeping northward, and leaving their impress upon the work of the ecclesiastical builder and decorator. Certainly, the numerous fine examples of the art of the woodcarver, to be seen in this cathedral, bespeak much for the decorative quality of wood, when used considerately in conjunction with stone.
There are two rose windows, of the petal species, unquestionably fine as to framing, but leaving little space for the effect of the glass, which they hold only in small proportion.
The “treasury,” alone, is enclosed with iron bars, and a grille of graceful late flowing ironwork forms the screen of the choir. Altogether the Cathedral at Evreux will be remembered quite as much for its wonderful array of wooden and iron grilles as for any other of the specific details among its mass of general attributes.