A unique experience is one’s first contemplation of the “gay little city of Nevers” from the Pont du Loire, with the none too large Cathedral of St. Cyr and St. Juliette crowning, as it were, the apex of a series of steep rises from the Loire, which, even at this distance from the sea, still retains its ample breadth. Said Arthur Young in his plain and bald phraseology, ” Nevers makes a fine appearance.” Here, on the very threshold of the southland, it is something of a shock to be brought at once into intimate association with Italian influences and types of architecture; for, be it recalled, Nevers has been truly ” an Italian stronghold in the midst of France,” with little to remind one, but its speech, that it is merely a provincial French market-town. Nevers was the seat of the Italian Dukes and Counts of Neivre, who built the ducal palace, the ci-devant chateau, now the Palace of Justice. Here, later, dwelt the nephew of the great Mazarin, who said his king “had a heart more French than his speech.” Through his efforts the Nivernais was incorporated with the French crown in 1669.
This fine turreted, towered, and decorated building, with its sculpture attributed to Goujon, is today, in appearance at least, what it was in the past, – the typical urban domestic establishment of grand proportions and splendid appointments; though it may hardly be said to vie with such masterpieces as Chambord, Chenonceau, or Blois. Nor, for that matter, is the town itself entitled to rank, as to its events of historical importance or the fame or personality of its bishops or counts, with either Chartres or Le Mans, both of which it somewhat approaches in point of size.
Aside from its many and varied charms, which have been duly set forth by most writers on the French provinces who have had anything whatever to say about it, Nevers should be doubly endeared to all makers of guidebooks and students of ecclesiastical architecture, from the fact that the Abbe Bourasse, Honorary Canon of Nevers, here wrote and dedicated to his bishop, Mgr. Dufetre, a work treating of the French cathedrals which will ever rank as one of the most delightfully written and useful books of its class. This fact perhaps is hardly to be reckoned as of historical moment, but pertinent to the plan of the present work nevertheless.
Nowhere, not even in Provence or Acquitaine, are to be noted more significant tendencies toward a southern influence in the matter of civil and ecclesiastical building. True, many of the minor structures have today descended unto base uses, and many of their perfections and beauties are therefore sunk below the surface. For instance, where a palace has become a warehouse, or a church been turned into a stable, or been given over to the uses of a wine factor.
Before even considering the cathedral itself, – dedicated to the hero of the legendary tale concerning St. Cyrus, who, depicted as a naked child riding astride a wild boar, was able to turn the infuriated beast from a certain King Charles (further designation not given) and preserve him from danger,-it is well to know that most authorities agree in giving habitation here to one of the most perfect Romanesque churches in all northern Europe, that of St. Etienne, built in 1063-96, and consecrated in the latter year by Ivor, Bishop of Chartres. Of the century contemporary with this fine work, as yet hardly spoiled by any offensive restorations, are two columns, in the easterly portion of the Cathedral of St. Cyr, which bear the date of 1024. From this foundation the lover of churches will rear for himself an exceedingly interesting and uncommon type.
Not of the first rank, St. Cyr has the power to hold one’s attention far more closely and interestingly than many of greater worth and magnitude; and its environment, from every point of view, composes itself into a picture which it would be hard to duplicate. The grouping of the chevet of the choir with the low roofs of the town lying at its base, and the gardens of the ducal chateau in the immediate foreground, forms an unusually varied combination of the picturesque.
The wealth of Nevers in architectural monuments would be notable in a town many times its size. The Port de Paris, a not especially attractive Renaissance gateway, guards the northerly, and the Port du Croux the westerly, end of the town. This latter groups nobly with the west end and tower of the cathedral, and is of itself a monument of the first rank, being so designated by the Commission des Monumentes Historiques. A feudal defence, square, broad-based, turreted, flanked with circular watch-towers, and still further strengthened by a barbican which once held a portcullis, this wonderfully effective barrier more than suggests the mediaeval stronghold. Two other towers of the ancient enceinte still remain, the Tour Gougin, and the Tour St. Eloi.
Intimate acquaintance with the cathedral shows a blending, not offensive, but in no slight manner, of the Romanesque, early and late Gothic, and finally Renaissance styles. Nevertheless there is an apparent cohesiveness often lacking in a larger work, or in one built within a shorter period of time. One distinctly northern feature there is; namely, the singular effect given by the double apse of the nave and choir, reminiscent mainly of the Rhine builders, that of the eastern end being much the older. The half-obliterated frescoes of the domed vaulting of the western apse indicate that it was completed after the pure Italian manner at a considerably later time than the opposite end. It is hardly a beautiful or even a necessary feature to either the exterior or interior of a great church, and, fortunately, is unusual in France, though common enough in Germany, notably at Mainz, Worms, and Treves. The most remarkable interior effect, aside from this western apse, is that of the lofty Gothic arches, springing high above the Romanesque arches of the nave, and naturally of a much later date. Certainly this must be, so far as the respective proportions of each are concerned, an entirely unique feature. Notable evidences are to be seen of frescoes, probably the work of some Italian hand, both on the screen and in the domed apse. They have apparently been whitewashed over many times, but remorse, if tardily, has evidently come lately, and such restoration or renovation as has been possible, has been undertaken.
A dainty and diminutive spiral stairway, suggestive of having been modelled on the lines of the grand spirals at Chambord or Blois, and half enclosed in the surrounding wall, leads to the Chapter Room above. The eastern apse, and the crypt beneath, are the earliest parts readily to be observed and are probably the remains of the Romanesque structure built by Hugh II. early in the eleventh century, after the common type of the Auvergnat and Angevine churches.
Perhaps the best workmanship to be noted is that of the thirteenth-century chapels surrounding the choir. Reclus, a French authority, has declared that the ornamental foliage here is not only really admirable as to itself, but is the ” perfection of imitation,” and extends this commendation also to the work on the pillars and capitals of the north doorway by which the church is usually entered.
The interior generally is brilliant and pleasing, though good glass is mostly wanting, and the uninterrupted flood of light detracts measurably from the warmth and geniality suggested by the memory of Bourges, Chartres, or Auxerre. The rose window over the western apse is pitifully weak and quite lacking in effectiveness.
A canopied baldacchino rises above the altar and, being of stone treated in a graceful Gothic manner, is an ornament much more in good taste than the hideous mahogany or oaken serpentine atrocities which are often erected.
It is impossible to come into close contact with the exterior of this cathedral except by approaching it from the eastern end. West front there is none. As one has said, ” It possesses merely a western end.” The western tower, of two non-contemporary orders of Gothic (fourteenth and fifteenth centuries), whether viewed from near or far, is far more pleasing than any other general exterior feature. The chevet of the choir extends, as it were, well into the nave, there being no transepts. This is evidently a local custom, recalling the neighbouring cathedrals at Bourges and Auxerre.
The sculptured decoration of the later portion is exceedingly well disposed, and of such magnitude and numbers as to lack that poverty in the ensemble often apparent in a more pretentious work.
The Church of St. Etienne in Nevers, so thoroughly Roman in inception of design and execution of detail, indicates more vividly than any other example that might possibly be taken, the shortness of time in which the Gothic development actually took place.
With Notre Dame at Paris full in mind, it is well to recall that these accepted perfect examples of two contrasting types are scarce a hundred and fifty miles apart, and, in point of time, but sixty years. What an exemplification this surely is of the transition which came to the art of church building in the twelfth century; what extraordinary rapidity of conception and development, and how narrow were the confines of the true Gothic spirit, indigenous only to the royal domain, which alone produced the churches which fully merit the concisely expressed definition of Gothic:
“A manner of building maintained (sustained) by a system of thrust and counter thrust.”