Says the Abbe Bourasse, “One of the most beautiful titles to glory in a church is the antiquity of its foundation,” hence, most French antiquaries who have written upon the subject of the celebrated Cathedral of St. Etienne of Sens have enlarged upon its “glorious antiquity.” To prove or verify the fact as to whether St. Savinien or St. Potentien was the first to preach Christian religion here would be a laborious undertaking. Evidences and knowledge of Roman works are not wanting, and early Christian edifices of the Romanesque order must naturally have followed. One learns that an early church on this site was entirely destroyed by fire in 970, and that a new edifice had progressed so far that it was dedicated in 997. This, in turn, was mostly rebuilt, and, two hundred years later (1168), took the form of the present cathedral. It was completed, in a rather plain and heavy ogival style, under the capable direction of the William who came to Canterbury, in response to a call, to rebuild the choir of that English church in 1174. It is this link, and possibly a sight of the vestments of A Becket, now preserved among the ” tresor ” of Sens, that binds its memory with English contemporary life. Whatever may be the contentions waged as to the claims of English Gothic, it is universally and unimpeachably admitted that Guillaume de Sens rebuilt that famous choir of Canterbury, and built it well, and of a newer order of design than any previous work in England. So let it stand.
Taken by itself, the Cathedral at Sens is a high example of Christian art. When, however, it is compared with the grand group, it is relegated immediately to the second rank. The interior, far more than the exterior, shows a visible disparity of unified style. Romano Byzantine, transition, and ogival are all found in the nave and choir, with the flamboyant, of the fifteenth century, in the ornamental tracery of the windows of the transepts.
Some visible remains of the earlier structure are shown, built into the eleventh century walls. Of the same. period are other evidences of a former erection, to be noted in the aisles. The transept and the greater part of the nave are of the century following, and of the early thirteenth, and finally the three arcades, by which the nave is entered, are something very akin to the full-blown Renaissance of the fifteenth century.
The general plan is symmetrical, and severe, only the twenty chapels being ungracefully disposed. Ten of these are in the choir and ten in the nave. For the antiquary, versed in religious archaeology, the Cathedral of Sens would appear, from the very inconsistencies and exuberance of its style, to be of great interest. The fragments that remain of its former magnificent glass, the sculptured monuments, and the tombs and curiosities of the ” tresor,” which escaped Revolutionary spoliation, all combine in a glorious attraction for one who has the time and inclination to delve into the reminiscence of history and association of a past age.
The glass of the choir, and of the chapel of St. Savinien, is of the thirteenth century. The colour is exceedingly brilliant, lively, and harmonious, with the iridescence of a mosaic of precious stones.
The sixteenth-century glass, none the less than the framing itself, of the grand rose windows of the north and south transepts, is equally remarkable as to design and colour. The former represents the ” Glorification of Jesus Christ,” and the latter ” Events in the Life of St. Etienne.”
The “tresor” of the cathedral is very numerous and is considered the richest in all France. The most notable are a reliquary of gold, set with sapphires and pearls, containing a fragment of the True Cross, given by Charlemagne in the year 800; four magnificent tapestries of the time of Charles V., representing the “Adoration of the Magi;” and the pontifical robes of St. Thomas (a Becket), chasuble, aube, stole, manipule, cordon, two mitres, and two collars. This courageous archbishop, persecuted by Henry II., took refuge in Sens in 1162. An elaborate tomb (of the eighteenth century), by Constant, is the mausoleum of the Dauphin, father of Louis XVI.