The capital of ancient Flanders was removed from Arras to Ghent when Artois was ceded to France, and thus it was that the city became French, as it were, but slowly, its Low Country traditions and customs clinging closely to it until a late day. The former Cathedral of Notre Dame ranked as a grand example of the ogival style of the fourteenth century, in which it was built, and gave to the city of the ” tapestry makers ” the distinction of possessing a church composed of much that was best of the architecture of a fast growing art. Such was the mediaeval rank to which the cathedral at Arras had attained. The new Cathedral of St. Vaast, dating from 1755 to 1833, is of the Grecian style of temple building, little suited to the needs of a Christian church. The crucial plan consecrated by catholic usages of centuries is not however wholly abandoned. There is something of a suggestion of the Latin cross in its design, but its abside faces toward the southeast rather than due south, with its principal entrance to the northwest, a sufficiently unusual arrangement, where most French churches are duly orientated, to be remarked, particularly as there is little that can be said in praise of the structure. The interior follows the general plan of the Corinthian order; the windows, neither numerous nor of sufficiently ample dimensions to well serve their purpose, number nine only in the choir, and five on each side of the nave.
There are, to the abside, seven collateral chapels, some of which contain passable sculptured monuments, removed from the old abbey of St. Vaast, a foundation erected in the sixth century and reconstructed by Cardinal de Rohan in 1754. The remains of the old abbey buildings have been built around and incorporated in the present Episcopal Palace, the extensive Musee, and Bibliotheque; and are situated immediately to the right of the facade of the cathedral.
The grisaille glass seen in the interior is unusual, but mediocre in the extreme.
There are, however, some good statues in white marble in the Chapelle de St. Vaast, while in another chapel, given by Cardinal de la Tour d’Auvergne, is one equally good of Charles Borromee.
There are four great statues at the extremities of the transepts, representing the four evangelists; and three others in the choir, of Faith, Hope, and Charity.
In the north transept, also, are two triptychs of the Flemish school, by Bellegambe, a native of Douai (1528).
The Abbe Bourasse, in his charming work on the cathedrals of France, says, plainly, and without fear or favour: “We have tried to speak impartially of all species of architecture – but why do we not admire the Cathedral of Arras? It is against all traditions of ` notre art catholique.’ We contend that this is not good. What, say you, can we praise? It is a great work -of the stone-mason; you should study it from some distance. It is without life, without movement, without dignity.”
Whatever may be the faults of its cathedral, Arras is, nevertheless, an interesting city, – modernized, to be sure, by boulevards laid out along the old fortifications. The Citadel of Vauban (1670), called ironically ” la belle inutile,” may be classed as a worthless, if not wholly unpicturesque, ruin, though ranking, when built, as among the most wonderful fortifications of the times. The wave of Renaissance which swept northward has left its ineradicable marks here. The Hotel de Ville is a remarkable specimen of that art of overloading ornament upon a square hulk, and making it look like a wedding-cake; though, truth to tell, coming upon it after the chilliness of the cathedral itself, it is a cheerful antidote. Dating from 1510, at which time was built the curious Gothic facade of seven arches, each different as to size and spring. The added wings in elaborate Renaissance are of the late sixteenth century and rank among the most effective examples of the style in France. A belfry surmounts all, 240 feet in height, the ” joyeuse ” of which weighs nearly nine tons.
Arras may perhaps be most revered for its tapestries, its workers taking rank with those of the famous manufactories at Paris and Beauvais. Indeed, it would appear as though experts knew not to which of these three centres to assign precedence, both Arras and Paris claiming the honour of having set up the first looms. It is an ancient art, as the work of craftsmen goes, and more than one writer who has studied deeply the fascinating intricacies of haute and basse lisse, of colour, texture, design, and what not, has not hesitated to proclaim the city as having been the grandest centre of tapestry-making which the world has ever known; and regret can but be universal that it came to an end when its citizens were put to the sword by Louis XI.