The entrance to the Burgundian city of Auxerre is more or less confused if one would, at the first glance, attempt to recognize its cathedral from among the three fine churches which in true mediaeval fashion loom up over the river Yonne; not that the entrance is not pleasing: the reverse is actually the case, though one’s way into the town lies through newly made roads. However, upon contemplation of the pleasant prospect of town and river, he would be an uninspired person indeed who would not be able to pick out the Cathedral of St. Etienne, with its singular reddish brown roof, from among its less imposing neighbours. It is the central building of the three, and it rises majestically above all, enhanced by the fine grouping of its one lone tower.
As a type to admire, the cathedral, be it said, is not of a superlative quality; but as a thing of beauty in many of its details and because of its aforesaid commanding situation, it is one not to be ignored when the really fine gems of mediaeval treasures are catalogued. It is another of those types, so far as its choir is concerned, which rise to a loftiness of soaring height, which, in later days, degenerated, or were lost altogether in the fabric of the transepts and nave. The height of the choir is perhaps not so great as it really appear’s, when gauged by its sheer rise from the river level; but such is the suggestion, at least, which, after all, is what the eye and certain other of our senses admire, quite as much as a professed expert classification.
The western front is of unusual appearance in that the southern tower glances off into the angle of the gable in most curious fashion; not beautiful, nor as originally intended to remain, but so it is, and offers at least a comparison of how a lofty gable looks when it lacks towers of an appropriate height. At the right of this low tower of the facade, hidden behind a wall, is a thoroughly Pagan doorway, which might well pass unobserved, did one not actually stumble upon it unawares. It is a curious reminder of other days and other ways, and how it became an adjunct of this mediaeval church the local records fail to state. The three main portals of the facade, as that of the transept, are somewhat bare of ornament, though the main tympanum and the spring of the arch are fairly filled. These portals are of the late thirteenth century, and exhibit no traces of the debasement which subsequently entered into the upper ranges of the tower and lateral portals.
Both the transepts and the west front contain rose windows of good, though not remarkable design, and each is exceedingly generous in size. The interior, generally, does not give the effect of the great height suggested from the rear view of the choir overhanging the river front; but both nave and choir are of unusual width, and so also is the clerestory, which is lofty, and set with rare old glass of the most splendid and valuable quality, in the main the gift of Bishop de Villeneuve in 1220.
The choir terminates with the usual apse, which is further elongated by the far-reaching lady-chapel, which adjoins the main fabric in a graceful and unusual manner. The north tower was completed as late as the sixteenth century, and that of the south was left unfin ished, -as it is today. The gable and its portals are highly decorated with statues, niches, and crockets.
Around the aisles of nave and choir is a curiously suggested arcade with an overhanging balustrade ornamented with a series of indifferently sculptured heads. The bosses of many of the intersecting groins of the vaults are coloured with questionable effect. There are also many visible evidences of coloured wall decorations, which might perhaps as well have been left covered, inasmuch as they have suffered exceedingly in the attempted restoration; so much so, that it is impossible to say whether they ever approached acceptable perfection; possibly not, as they are supposed to date only from the period when much of this class of work was of none too good a quality.
The triforium of the nave is gracefully balustraded, and the choir stands apart from the nave, separated by an elaborate eighteenth century iron grille. The ambulatory of the choir sets three steps lower than the nave, though the platform is on the same level. The crypt beneath the choir, so often the only existing remains of an earlier church, is here grandly in evidence, and dates from the eleventh century at least.
There are a few interesting tombs of former Bishops of Auxerre and others of local celebrity.
On the whole the charm of Auxerre and its cathedral must be admitted to lie in its general surroundings and immediate environment, quite as much as because of any remarkably distinctive features of a superlative quality in the cathedral itself, though an undeniable wealth of picturesque detail exists.
The conventional guides speak of it as ” highly interesting,” and so it is, with its Romanesque remains, its ungainly facade, its three fine but weather-worn doorways, and its charming river view.
Beside the cathedral stands the old-time Episcopal Palace with its fine arcaded Romanesque gallery overlooking the river, where the prelates took their ” constitutionals,” safely guarded from wind and weather. Today this grand building represents the officialdom of the local Prefecture.
Two other noble ecclesiastical monuments are to be seen here, the Church of St. Germain, or rather, the fragment which was spared by the Huguenots, now being used as an adjunct to a hospital; and the Church of St. Pierre. The latter is the most appalling example of a Renaissance building which one is likely to meet with, and shows in its remarkable facade, in sheer perversion of misdirected labour, the grossness of pseudo-classicism, which quite entitles it to rank with that other equally abominable example in Paris, St. Eustache.
The portail of this remarkable church, locally so called, though in reality it is only a detached gateway, far from the church building itself, is a wonderful Italian suggestion, now mellowed and weathered and undeniably charming in colour in spite of its being so manifestly out of its environment.