Le Mans, like Chartres, sprang from an ancient Celtic hill fort, and, through successive stages, has since grown to a Roman, a mediaeval, and finally a modern city. It crowns the top of a very considerable eminence, the like of which, says Professor Freeman, does not exist in England. Like Chartres, too, it has always retained the balance of power which has made it the local civil and ecclesiastical capital of its province. It is, too, more closely associated in English minds than is Chartres, forming as it did a part of the dominion of a common sovereign; also by reason of being the birthplace of Henry IT., and the burial-place of Queen Berengaria, the wife of Richard Coeur-de-Lion.
Le Mans stands, without doubt, in advance of Chartres in the importance and number of its secondary churches, as well as its ecclesiastical, civil, and military establishments in general. In spite of all this, the city has never ranked as of supreme importance as a European city; nor did it ever attain the rank in Gallic times, that the events which have been woven around it would seem to augur. Today it is a truly characteristic, large, provincial town of little or no importance to the out side world. Self-sufficient as to its own importance, and the events around which its local life circles, it gives little indication of ever becoming more of a metropolis than it now is; indeed the census figures would indicate that the department, of which it is the capital, has remained stationary as to the numbers of its population, since the Revolution.
Writers have endeavoured to carry the similarity to English interests and conditions still farther than the events of history really go to prove, and have declared that Maine and England should have united in repelling their common invader. Endeavour has also been made to trace similarity between the communistic principles of days gone by, which took form here and at Exeter across the Channel, and have even remarked the similarity of the topographical features of the surrounding landscape, wherein the country round about differs so from other parts of France, being here rolling, hilly, and wooded, as in certain parts of England; and even stretching a point to include the hedgerows, which, it must be admitted, are more in evidence in Maine than elsewhere in France. But these observations apparently prove nothing except that the majority of persons probably know very little of the real conditions which exist in the provinces of France, preferring rather that their journeyings afield should follow more the well-worn road of their compatriots.
The Cathedral of St. Julien well represents the two distinct epochs in which church architecture, as it remains to us today, was practised here, and shows, to well-nigh the fullest expression possible, the two principal transformations of Christian architecture.
As the Angevin style partakes so closely of northern and southern types intermixed, so the distinctive architectures of Maine, if such there be, may be said to favour the styles of both Normandy and Anjou; at least so far as the cathedral at Le Mans shows a combination of Angevin and Norman detail. The really distinctive southern influence is to be noted in the Romano-Byzantine nave, the exterior of which, so far as the western front is concerned, is far more notable in the rigidness and austerity of its lines, than by any richness of ornamentation or decoration. Nothing could be more simply plain than this portal, and the wall and gable which surmount it. A large bare window, of the variety of that at Angers, stands above the doorway, which, itself, lacks all attempt at embellishment. What decoration the facade bears is after the true Byzantine manner, of the nature of brickwork displayed and set into the wall in geometrically angular fashion. What sculpture there is, two grotesque animals on either of the buttresses which flank the facade, is of minor account. This, then, is the extent of the detail of this severe western facade, the grand portal of the usually accepted great church being entirely lacking and evidently not thought of as a desirable detail when this portion of the struc ture was erected. It has nothing of the prodigious art expression of the frontispieces of the grand Gothic churches of the north, or of the less poverty-stricken Byzantine decoration of its own Meridional portal, which, in so far as the style can be said to take on richness of form, shows the transition tendencies of the early twelfth century. This doorway is surmounted by a tympanum, ornamented by a figure of the Saviour surrounded by the four Evangelists, a subject which has always proved itself a highly successful and popular ecclesiastical symbol, and one which in this case, as in most others, is well made use of. All the figures have suffered considerably from the ravages of time, but retain much of their interest and charm in spite of such mutilation. A tower of Romanesque foundation, but of fifteenth and sixteenth century completion, flanks this south transept.
The ranking portion of this interesting church is its choir, larger in superficial area than the entire cathedrals of Noyon or Soissons. Both from inside and out, it is all that one’s imagination could possibly invent. Its great proportions are as harmonious and graceful as the lines of a willow-tree; in fact, as to general effect, it may be set down as a thing of extraordinary grandeur, worthy to rank with Beauvais or Amiens, and yet different from either, of a quality its very own. At the commencement of the thirteenth century the canons obtained, from Philip Augustus, permission to extend their church beyond the city walls in an easterly direction, and then it was that this wonderful choir took shape. The work was undertaken in 1217 and was completed soon after the middle of the same century, and the body of St. Julien, the first apostle to Le Mans, for whom the church was named, was placed therein by Geoffroy de Loudon, then bishop, who decorated the windows of the choir with the magnificent glass with which they are still set.
From a certain distance to the eastward the cathedral at Le Mans presents a view of the choir, unique in all the world. Other greater ones there are, if mere height be concerned, and others with more perfect appendages; but none give the far-spreading effect of encircling chapels, or are possessed of high springing buttresses of more grace or beauty than are seen here. He was a rash man who ranked the flying buttresses as a sign of defective construction, indicating structural weakness, meaningless and undecorative ornament, and what not. Few have agreed with this dictum, and few ever will after they have seen Paris, Beauvais, and Le Mans.
The interior is one of great interest; the nave, even in its early forms, is none the less attractive because of its austerity. It is, as a matter of fact, far more interesting here than in its exterior, the swarthy circular pillars holding aloft arches with just a suspicion of the ogival style, with narrow, low, and disproportionately small windows in the aisles, where are also a series of strengthening pillars of black and white stone, presenting again a reminiscence of the southern manner, or at least recalling the slate and stone of Angers. In the choir, with its girdling chapels and double ambulatory, we come upon the most impressive portion of all. Slightly orientated from the east and west, it presents by itself, like Beauvais, nearly all of the attributes of a great church. The columns, arcades, and windows throughout are all of an unusual elegance and grace, the vaulting rising with much daring to a remarkable height, which must approach one hundred and ten or more feet, and the equal of certain other ” popularly notable” buildings.
The rose window of the south of the transept is a remarkable example of these masterpieces of the French builder. The framing and the glass with which it is set is of the richest quality, though it dates only from the fifteenth century. The organ case is here found in the south transept, an unusual arrangement in a French church, where it is usually placed over the western doorway. The vaulting, too, is much loftier here than in the nave. The aisles of this remarkable choir have the further unusual attribute of three ranges of openings, while the clerestory, only, rises above, but with great and imposing beauty. There are a few funeral monuments of more than ordinary interest, including that of Queen Berengaria, wife of Richard, the Lion-Hearted, brought from the Abbey de l’Epau in 1821 ; a sarcophagus and statue in white marble of Charles of Anjou, Count of Maine, King of Jerusalem and Sicily (d. 1472), and the mausoleum of Langey du Bellay. In the north aisle are a number of fifteenth or sixteenth century tapestries. The former bishop’s palace was burned by the Germans in 1871.