To the eastward of Paris, one first finds the true country atmosphere at Meaux, famous for its bishops, its grist-mills, and its generally charming environment.
The picturesque little city is situated on the Marne, some thirty miles from Paris, amid a verdure which, if not luxuriant, is, at least, a ” fringe of green ” that is appealing alike to local pride, and to the artist or stranger within the gates. It is an ancient bishopric (now suffragan of Paris), founded in 375 A. D.
The Cathedral of Saint Etienne de Meaux is called by the French the ” Child of Amiens,” and it would have all the dignity of its mother had but the nave received the same development as the choir. Its general dimensions are restrained, and it shows in no way any remarkable architectural ensemble; but, for all that, its power to please is none the less great. Lacking a certain symmetry, in itself no great fault, the exterior gives the impression of being today much less grand and imposing than was really planned. Battled by wind and weather, its outer walls have that scarred and aged look which is a beauty in itself. There are two towers, one of which is unfinished and capped with an ugly and angular slate roof, so low that it hardly exists at all, so far as forming a distinct feature of the facade is concerned. Its companion, however, rises boldly and in graceful lines to a generous height above the gable.
The interior plan is regular and simple, with a nave of five bays, the first two from the west being divided into the infrequent quadruple range of openings, while the remainder consist of the usual triforium and clerestory only. The double aisles of the nave are of unusual height, in order to admit of this double range of openings.
The transepts, if transepts they can be considered, are very shallow, being merely the depth of the double aisles of the nave and choir, and are bare and unadorned so far as any notable sculpture or glass is concerned, though the arched windows which hold the plain glass are of grand proportions and excellent design as to their framing.
The triforium, throughout, is an arcaded cloister-like effect of slight arches, supported by slender columns, with a series of glazed windows behind. It would be a notable and wholly charming arrangement were the glass of these windows rich in colour, or even old in design.
There is an air of singular lightness, if not actually of grace, throughout the entire nave and choir, superinduced, perhaps, by the recent whitening and pointing of the masonry; but the not infrequent bulging piers, particularly those nearest to the transept crossing, give a suggestion of ungainliness if not of actual insecurity.
The columns of the choir, supporting a series of firm and gracefully poised arches, are of unusual height, something over forty feet, it would appear, -producing a harmony of form and elegance which again reminds one of Amiens.
There are here copies of the nine Raphael tapestry cartoons, the originals of which are preserved at South Kensington, also of frescoes by Guido Reni and Domenichino.
The chief artistic, if not architectural, charm to be seen within the purlieus of the cathedral is that of the ancient chapter-house, across a narrow way, to the right of the church itself. This gem of mediaeval building is perhaps not remarkable as to any of the principles which it sets forth in its manner of construction, but it takes one back some hundreds of years, a sheer plunge far beyond the age of the most prominent features of the main church, and gives a thrill somewhat akin to the emotion which one feels when he comes across a single leaf torn from an old illuminated manuscript. This charming ruin, for it is hardly more than that, being a mere lumber-room, shows in the weathered look of its covered stairway nearly all of the qualities which the painter loves to depict,-colour, texture, and, above all, that indescribable charm which artistic folk, and others who can see as they do, call life.
Clearly, the Cathedral of St. Etienne de Meaux, as an interesting shrine, may be classed well at the head of the secondary cathedrals of the third Gothic period.