Lisieux, the city of the Lexavii, taken by Caesar and besieged by Geoffrey Plantagenet; its old houses; its crooked streets and picturesque decay; with its former Cathedral of St. Pierre (M. H.), memorable as the marriage place of Henry III, and Eleanor of Guienne; all go to make up the formula of one of the stock sights of Normandy.
It is scarcely an attractive town, in spite of its picturesque sordidness, made the more so by the smoke arising from many belching factory chimneys. In fact, one has difficulty in thinking of it as a cathedral town at all; and, as such, it hardly claims more than a brief resume of its important features. A much more interesting, impressive, and commanding church is that of St. Jacques, which at least has the stamp of a personality, which in the cathedral itself is entirely wanting, so far as one’s latent sympathies are concerned. In spite of the purity of that which is Gothic in its fabric, it has little of that quality which arouses admiration, and which, regardless of the edict of a certain seer and prophet, is mostly that for which we revere a great monument, – its power to sway us impressively.
Mr. Ruskin has taken great pains to commend the southern portal as being “one of the most quaint and pleasing doors in all Normandy,” – a non-committal enough statement, most will admit, and one with which we are not obliged to agree. A broaderminded observer would have said that the main body of the church presents a unity of design, very unusual in a mediaeval work, -excelled by no other example in France. The greater part of the nave, choir, and transepts is the work of one epoch only; and, as some writers have it, of one man, Bishop Odericus Vitalis, who died shortly after its completion, in the latter part of the eleventh century. As a style, it may be said to be either the last of the transition or of the very earliest Gothic. Certainly this is something in its favour; but the general charm of its immediate surroundings is lacking, and the effect of its interior, with the diminutive windows of the nave and clerestory, does not tend to satisfy, or even gratify, one with the sense of pleasure which perhaps its more creditable features deserve. These are not wholly wanting; for, of course, one must not forget that doorway of Ruskin’s nor the quite idyllic proportions of the nave with its uniform massive pillars.
The lady-chapel was founded in the fifteenth century by the rascally Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais, who, with his brother, prelate of Winchester, so gleefully burned Joan of Arc. This much he did in expiation of “his false judgment,” though, except as a memorial of his significant remorse, the chapel itself would hardly be remarkable. The clerestory of nave and choir is considerably later. The transepts vary as to their windows, and the triforium arches are here at a different level from those in the nave.
The general exterior view of the cathedral is hardly satisfactory from any point. On three sides it is almost entirely hemmed in by surrounding structures, and the frontage, on the great open Place Thiers, is the first and the last opportunity of an unobstructed view. As the Abbe Bourasse wrote of the Cathedral at Arras, it is best seen from a distance, about that, we should say, from which the accompanying drawing was made. The gardens of the Sous-Prefecture, formerly the Bishop’s Palace, should form in a way a cool green setting for the church; but, as a matter of fact, they do nothing of the sort, since the enormous mass of a none too good Renaissance facade extends along quite two-thirds of the length of the cathedral on the north, and blankets it thoroughly, scarcely more than the rather stubby tower of the west front being visible above the roof of the other structure.
Lisieux apparently never ranked as an important see, but depended for the prominence which it attained previous to the Revolution, when the see was abolished, on its association with Rouen, to which it was attached. The neighbouring Cathedrals of Seez, Bayeux, and Coutances far outrank St. Pierre de Lisieux in size, beauty, and importance.