The Cathedral of St. Etienne de Bourges partakes of the same honours which are accorded to the premier quartette of the Isle of France. Nearly contemporary with Paris and Laon, this cathedral steps into its rank with a grandeur and firmness that in a less stolid or more ornate edifice is often wanting. It retains certain of its Romanesque features, perhaps unduly pronounced; likewise it has certain attributes of Burgundian luxuriance; but withal it presents the highly developed Gothic tendency to a far greater degree than either. Although not far to the south of Paris, Bourges is thoroughly of another climatic environment, which not only shows itself in the changed conditions of life, but in the manner of building as well.
The great transeptless church of St. Etienne is another of those soaring monuments which rise skyward and hold the eye whenever one is in its vicinity. Standing on an eminence of not very great height, it dominates, from every point of view, the plain which surrounds the city and reminds one of Noyon or Laon in its comparative isolation. Not because its domicile is not a place of some magnitude, but rather because the neighbouring houses lie so huddled in a valley or plain, does the city give the impression of being of less size than it really is.
The view from the railway on entering the town is, as it has been called by some imaginative Frenchman, ” but the hors d’oeuvre of the architectural feast to follow,” and on drawing still closer, it composes grandly with the swift-flowing little river lined with the tall slim trees which are so distinguished a feature of a French landscape.
Like Beauvais, Amiens, and, in only a slightly lesser degree, Le Mans, the sheer fall of the nave and choir from ridge to ground startles one by its exaggeration of perpendicular lines. Though by no means of the great height of these other examples, its great size first impresses one as its distinguishing feature. It sits, too, on the edge of a beautiful wooded park which, in conjunction with the modern Episcopal Palace, forms an ensemble of stone and verdure not often to be seen as the environment of a French cathedral. The gardens are quite open to the public and are set forth with clipped hedges, trees, and monumental stone work of no mean order.
Bourges is another of those ancient foundations of mid-France where Romish influences died hard, and Gothic, as a perfected type, never, as it were, attained its majority. Here, the mixture of style is notable; pointed and rounded arches intermingled, apparently indiscriminately, with thoroughly Gothic supports, mullions, and piers. These, with the characteristically Renaissance north and south porches, with their carven doorways, all go to complete a series of typically fashioned details, each true to its own age. Such a combination of varying virtues should give the student, or the seeker after new sensations, something more to think about than a mere catalogue of consistent charms; for it cannot be denied that this church, standing aloof from any other single type, is a marvel of grandeur and impressiveness, whatever may be its failings when dessicated by the theorist or the archaeologist.
It is unlikely that Saracen or even Moorish influences were ever at work so far north as this; but there is an unquestionable tendency in much of the debased decoration of this church to more than suggest a similarity to both. It is, of course, not Gothic, as we know it, nor Byzantine, pur sang, and it is certainly not Italian, but something quite different. It is, perhaps, worthy of record that the inverted horseshoe arch more nearly approximates what is commonly considered the Moorish form; or, to give it a wider locale, Mediterranean, at least. The polygonal turrets which flank the towers and the chapels of the abside look, too, not unlike a sub-tropical feature, possibly Saracen. Such details are markedly noticeable here, and it is because of features such as these that one is minded to consider the church as something quite different from anything seen elsewhere.
To carry the argument still farther, if these details are to be considered in any sense Gothic, or any outgrowth thereof, it certainly augurs much for the possibility of this style having come originally from the East, or at least the Mediterranean countries. It has been claimed before now by English and French writers alike, that it may have developed from the arts of the Moors of Spain, or that it may have grown up from a primitive style in vogue in the Far East. The comment is given without further elaboration; but here, at least, we see some basis for the claim that Gothic is but a transplanted flower after all, and that it developed so boldly only from the seed’s having been blown hither from some other land, and finding a favourable soil in which to take root and flourish.
Without transepts, the long flank of the nave and choir is singularly beautiful, broken into at regular intervals by buttresses which, if not remarkable examples, are at least graceful, though so light that they have been visibly stayed by iron rods, as is frequently the case elsewhere, at Beauvais particularly, where the whole fabric appears to be hung together by wires.
The actual inception of the cathedral is attributed to Rudolphe de Turenne, fortysixth Archbishop of Bourges. Of his known work only the round-arched crypt remains, upon which foundation the present grand pile was reared.
The west front possesses a quintette of portals, deeply recessed, but of a decidedly mixed Gothic and Renaissance treatment as to decoration. Such a range of elaborated doorways is hardly to be found in such luxuriance elsewhere, though the fact that there are five in all, standing grandly in a row, is perhaps not unique of itself. They are profusely decorated with sculptured forms of angels, saints, and kings. The tympanum of the central portal contains a ” Last judgment,” remarkable alike for its magnitude and workmanship. Throughout, these portals vary in date of their construction, their treatment, and their excellencies, but in general they are homogeneous and convincing. In the gables of three are circular piercings which open into a sort of vestibule or porch; but these are entirely without glass. Another unique feature of this western front is a curious lofty double-storied structure, a chapel-like building, of whose functions most will remain in ignorance. It is connected with the main body of the church by a long tentacle-like ligature through which, says Henry James, ” the groaning of the organ or the pealing of bells must be transmitted with distressing clearness.”
The hybrid tower on the extreme left, with many round-arched windows and much florid ornament, is familiarly called the ” Tour de Beurre,” and, as its compeer at Rouen, was built from the contributions of those who were willing to forego themselves the luxury of butter. To the right is a much less imposing tower, but one that is much more true as to its style. It rises scarcely above the central gable, and helps to exaggerate the lack of uniformity of the facade, a condition much deplored by the true Gothic builder, though whether such varying detail does not after all make a more interesting, and perhaps as edifying a work for pleasurable contemplation, is an open question. There is, in any event, a marvellous power in this massive west front to confirm one’s opinion that it is a comprehensive and yet varied thing. Another curious feature of this front is a pair of overlying buttresses of no apparent purpose as to staying power, since the wall space which they flank is of no inordinate height. The window space, though, is ample; and, though mostly in blank today, at a future time those blanks might be broken out; hence the necessity for these extra props.
The interior gives, likewise, a grand impression, one of vaster magnitude than in reality exists. The length is probably exaggerated by reason of the lack of transepts; but its breadth, including nave and aisle, is unusually great, and the height is further magni fied by the fact that the aisles themselves have three ranges of openings, above which, in the nave, rise the triforium and clerestory, – surely alone a sufficiently unusual arrangement to account the church as of remarkable planning. Its great beauty may be said to be the magnificent proportions throughout, rather than the preeminent intrinsic value of any specific detail.
The rose window of the west end, though of grand proportions, appears to fail utterly as a supreme effort because of the flatness and depression given to its circumferential outline. Like that of St. Gatien at Tours it is of an uncertain lozenge shape, while the effect is further lessened by the mediocrity of its glass and framing.
The general appearance of the interior is one of symmetrical grandeur, wherein the effect of each dimension is probably enlarged, but with a fine and consistent proportion. Its conventional embellishments are not unduly ornate; though, for that matter, they do not give the impression of being wanting to any great degree either in quality or quantity. In no particular, however, is the sculptured form of figure or foliage of that excellence and magnitude of that of the cathedral at Reims or at Amiens.
The magnificent proportions of the choir well merit the term of ” Burgundian opulence.” Its termination opens with an amplitude often wanting in even a larger building, the piers being wide apart, without screening, which heightens still more its generous proportions.
The two picturesque cardinal’s hats, with cord and tassels, have long been pendant from the vault of the choir, and are now dimmed in colour and thick deep with dust, seemingly destined to fall of sheer old age and decrepitude. Further particulars concerning this picturesque detail are wanting only from the lack of any one in attendance from whom one might get this information, -perhaps some reader of these lines may be more fortunate.
On the pavement of the nave is a brass rule, inlaid diagonally from the north to the south wall. Its original use appears to be clothed in some obscurity, one informative person stating that it is the line of departmental division, and another that it marks the meridian of Paris, which is shown on all French navigation charts. Its real purpose is evidently topographical rather than of religious or symbolical significance.
An ardent French writer deplores the fact that there is no monument here to show respect for Louis XI., who was born at Bourges and baptized in the cathedral; a pity, perhaps, and certainly a subject worthy of the consideration of ” the powers that be.”