IN its interior the Cathedral Of Notre Dam is very imposing. We are to picture it, however, as much more so in the old days when the magnificent glass of the original construction glowed in. the nave and choir, throwing all the vaulting of these parts into mysterious obscurity, adding a wealth of color and of strong geometric pattern to the openings illuminated as by sacred fire. The three rose windows are all that remain to speak for the price-less treasures of former times.
Until 1741 the glass was intact, and one expects of course to hear that the vandals of the Revolution are to blame for its suppression, which has so completely altered the aspect of the church. Not so. The destruction of the ancient glass was with the concurrence of the chapter, another of those acts of despoliation undertaken by the ecclesiastical authorities with the idea of rejuvenating the monument, of making it more accessible to practical devotion; the same spirit which during the first half of the XVIIIth century lost us one after another the ancient features of the choir, its Gothic stalls, its rood-loft, the screen of the round-point, the antique high altar, its tombs, the funeral stones of the nave, choir, and chapels, and which culminated in the desecration of the Porte du Jugement, as we have seen.
Pierre Levieil was the maker of the modern windows, and, says Guilhermy, the ” destructeur patente de vitraux anciens.” And it is to his account of the miserable business that we owe some of the precious information concerning the early glass. He recounts that he was commissioned to remove the glass of the nave and choir of Notre-Dame and to replace it with white glass decorated with ciphers and symbols and flowered borders. This phlegmatic Philistine relates with calmness that he thought that most of the windows which he took out dated not later than 1182, and that some of it resembled the glass of the chapels of the apse of Saint-Denis, and was undoubtedly that given by the abbe Suger.
But after all Notre-Dame preserves from the general disaster, by rare good fortune, the most splendid part of the glassthe three roses of the three great portails, intact still and unsurpassed.
Each rose completes the story of its portail. To the west, the full effect broken by the intrusion of the organ pipes, the story concerns the patron of the temple. The Virgin occupies the central compartment, and in the widening circles about her are the twelve prophets, the signs of the zodiac, etc., the whole full of symbolism and history, worthy of exhaustive study. Above the Porte du Cloitre, the window is consecrated to the life and miracles of Mary. The south rose, corresponding to the Porte des Martyrs, presents in four circles the choir of the apostles, an army of bishops, saints, and angels. The three roses are considered contemporaneous with the facades which they complete and decorate. Everything proves ittheir unity of style, the similarity of execution, the intimate relation in choice and composition of subject. Considered purely and simply as geometric designs, of concentric circles, in jewel-like colours, they fill the observer with profound emotion, with rich satisfaction and joy.
The whole church, now so bare of historic memorials, was formerly paved with sepulchral stones, similar to the few contemporary relics to be seen at the Cluny Museum, and history was written large on the floor of nave, chapels, and choir, where one could read inscriptions and study effigies of the most illustrious personages of church and state. ” It was a moving and solemn spectacle,” says a contemporary writer, ” to see all these dead planted till the day of judgment.” The architects of Louis XIV were first to disturb the sepulchres of the choir, to substitute for tombs of bishops and grandees of the earth a mosaic whose rich texture was without signification, and merely a distraction for the eye. From 1771 to 1775 all the ground of the nave, aisles, transept, and collateral chapels of the chevet was repaved with great slabs of blue and white marble, an operation which cost more than three hundred thousand livres besides destroying innumerable stones engraved with effigies in intaglioa flooring, in fact, perhaps comparable to the glorious paving of the cathedral of Siena to-day.
Guides are never lacking to thrust upon one information regarding the superficial treasures of the sacristy and the chapels. The latter are seen with difficulty and are not particularly interesting. Some, however, are by famous sculptors. Against the pillar to the left of the choir is a statue of Saint-Denis by Nicolas Coustou, one of the great sculptors under Louis XIV. It is simple, impressive, and beautifully modelled. Against the opposite pillar is a Gothic statue of the Virgin, of the XIVth century, held in high veneration by the faithful. In the Chapelle Sainte-Madeleine is a kneeling statue of Archbishop Sibour, who was murdered by an abbe in the church Saint-Etienne du Mont, by Dubois, the sculptor of a more famous Jeanne d’Arc, at Rheims. In the Chapelle Saint-Guillaume is a theatrical monument to General d’Harcourt, by Pigalle, an important sculptor of the XVIIIth centurybut the composition is scattered and the group lacks unity.
Great destruction was done to monuments to bishops and nobles at the time of the Revolution, and of all those of bishops, once so numerous at Notre-Dame, there remains but one effigy in marble, that of Simon Matiffas de Buci, who died in 1304. This is a recumbent figure in full costume, with a jewelled mitre, collar, necklace, etc., and a lion sleeping at the feet, in characteristic Gothic style, mounted upon a suitable pedestal. It lies at present directly behind the Pieta, in the ambulatory.
The treasure of Notre-Dame was greatly celebrated for its magnificence. Bishops, kings, and illustrious personages of state loaded it with precious objects. The Revolutionists fell upon it with fantastic fury and greed and its contents were swept to the four winds. When the cult was reestablished the government restored some objects which had been preserved as rarities. The troubles of 1831 menaced again the little that had escaped the former havoc, but little by little it has grown again in importance. Its chief treasure is of course the crown of thorns brought here from the Sainte-Chapelle.
The choir and ambulatory have kept some of the sumptuous decoration given it by Louis XIV in execution of the wish of his father, Louis XIII, who, in 1638, having put his kingdom under the protection of the Virgin, pledged him-self to reconstruct the high altar of the cathedral with an image of the Virgin holding in her arms her Son, descended from the cross, and at her feet a statue of himself ‘offering his crown and sceptre.
Louis XIII died before carrying his vow into effect, and Louis XIV undertook to accomplish it for him some fifty years later. Begun in 1699, interrupted by the preoccupations of war, and rebegun in 1708, the transformation of the choir was not completed until one year before the death of the monarch. Royal ambition and human egoism were manifestly served under the guise of filial devotion and piety. The beautiful jube, or rood-loft, was taken out ostensibly to open the sanctuary to a more intimate relation with the faithful, but at the same time the manifest advantage was a better view of the royal gifts and portraits. The same reasoning seems to apply to the destruction of the round-point of the choir-screen, which was enclosed by hand-some grills.
To the scheme of sculpture proposed by his father, Louis XIV added naturally a portrait statue of himself, so that the Virgin, holding the dead Christ, was flanked by figures of Louis XIII kneeling on her left, offering his crown and sceptre, and of Louis XIV on her right in identical pose without the crown and sceptre. For this work the king employed the three most celebrated sculptors of his reign, Coyzevox and his pupils, Nicolas and Guillaume Coustou. The group of the Virgin is by Coustou aine, the statue of Louis XIII by his brother Guillaume, and for the statue of himself Louis le Grand reserved the master Coyzevox.
The sculptural decoration was continued by the addition of eight bronze angels, two upon the angles of the altar and three each side of the Pieta against the pillars of the apse, modelled by Cayot, Vancleve, Poirier, Hurtrelle, Nagnier, and Anselme Flamen. The antique high altar, with its shrines and brass columns, was torn down to give place to a more magnificent design, with reliefs made by Vasse. Twelve Virtues in relief above the modernized arcades of the round-point were made by Pouletier, Fremin, Le Pautre, Lemoine, Bertrand, and Thierry. Du Goulon was charged with the sculpture of the two bishops’ pulpits, of beautiful woodwork and enriched by ornaments and bas-reliefs, and of the choir-stalls, which replaced the ancient Gothic seats of the canons, their backs covered with reliefs from the life of the Virgin and the New Testament. Above the episcopal pulpits and the stalls were placed eight large paintings in gorgeous frames, painted for the choir by Halle, Jouvenet, Fosse, Boulogne le Jeune, and Antoine Coypel. The subjects were : The Annunciation of the Virgin, the Visitation, the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, and the Assumption.
Old writers describe the altar as of great magnificence. It was made of Egyptian marble, cut in the form of an antique sarcophagus, decorated on all sides by cherubim and other rich ornaments in gilded bronze. Between the two figures of adoring angels, upon the angles, was a raised portion in white marble, carved with an oval relief by Vasse, and upon this elevation stood the great crucifix and six large silver candlesticks of superior workmanship. Three circular steps of Languedoc marble preceded the altar, and the sanctuary itself was approached by four steps in similar, material, bordered by a superb balustrade in marble and gilded bronze, magnificently chiselled.
The high altar, with all its accessories, was destroyed for the second time, in 1793, when the cathedral became a Temple of Reason, and Mademoiselle Maillard, attended by her priestesses, supernumeraries of the opera, was adored as the Goddess of Reason, a la place du ci-devant sacrement!
The altar which one sees to-day was built in 1803. Its Christ before the tomb, in gilded bronze, founded upon the design of Vancleve, comes from the Chapelle des Louvois in the old church of the Capucines of the Place Vendome. The cross and six chandeliers belonged, before the Revolution, to the cathedral of Arras. The beautifully chiselled bronze lectern dates from 1755 and is signed Duplessis, founder to the king.
For many years the statues of Louis XITI and Louis XIV, rescued at the time of the Revolution, were housed in the modern sculpture rooms of the Louvre, but they have been put back in the sanctuary in an effort to restore as far as possible the beauty of the choir. Amongst the many historic monuments which perished during the Reign of Terror was the equestrian statue of Philippe le Bel. A writer in 1736 relates that the chapel to the Virgin having just been reconstructed ” with much magnificence and at the expense of the cardinal de Noailles, archbishop of Paris,” one saw opposite this chapel the equestrian statue of Philippe le Bel. ” It was thus mounted,” continues our scribe, ” that this king came to render thanks to God and to the Virgin, for the victory which he had gained over the Flemish at Mons-en-Pevle, 18 August, 1304.” A colossal statue of Saint Christopher, standing against a pillar near the western entrance, dated from 1413, and was the gift of Antoine des Essars, chamberlain of Charles VI. It was destroyed by the chapter in 1786. One finds constant allusions to this statue which, recalling the patron of the Hotel-Dieu, had many admirers. Coryat, writing in 1611, says : ” I could see no notable matter in the cathedrall) church, saving the statue of Saint Christopher, on the right hand at the coming in of the great gate, which is indeed very exquisitely done, all the rest being but ordinary.”
The zeal of Louis XIV in the embellishment of the sanctuary did not stop with the destruction of the ancient interior of the choir, but, as we have seen, tore away its picturesque rood-loft to open a view from the nave, and extended even to the partial demolition of the choir-screen, of which there remains but a remnant. The work is exceedingly curious, consisting of a frieze of stone figures, painted and gilded, and in its entirety told the complete story of Christ, before and after the Resurrection. The series was so arranged that the cycle, which began at the east or at the centre of the round-point of the apsepassed along the north side of the choir to its western extremity, was continued on the lectern, where the Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection were pictured in front of the congregation, and concluded in a series of panels moving from west to east back to the point of departure.
The handsome grills introduced by Louis’ architect were erected at the sacrifice of the be-ginning and end of the series, presumably the Annunciation and the Ascension. The earlier work, on the north side of the choir, unfortunately at the darkest part of the ambulatory, begins with the Visitation and carries the story in an unbroken chain to the Agony in the Gar-den. The latter series on the south side takes up the narrative after the Resurrection and carries it from the meeting of Christ and Mary Magdalen to the farewell to the Disciples, before the Ascension.
The work evidently was a long time under way, and by artists of very different calibre. The earliest fragment is vividly conceived and executed with great force and virility, as well as surprising realism. One has no need whatever of the ministrations of the officious guide with his fatuous explanations, for nothing could be clearer than this imagery of the story of Christ. It has besides all the touching simplicity of the Gospel itself, and breathes the spirit of the XIIIth century. The exact date of execution is not known.
The artist of the later scenes, however, left his name in an inscription, which has disappeared, as Jehan Ravy, who for twenty-six years conducted the building of Notre-Dame, at the end of which time the series was completed under his nephew, Jehan le Bouteiller, in 1351. There is a distinct falling off in the technique and inspiration of these later reliefs. The sculptor, departing from the continuous scheme of his distinguished predcessors, has divided his subjects into panels, separated by columns, and made a more calborate finish to the frieze in keeping with his thinner style.