HAVING quickened the appetite with a tout of the lesser churches of the transition period, the loiterer should now feel primed for the full enjoyment of the most perfect specimen of the epoch, in which one can best trace the actual passing from Roman to Gothic. This is the sabbatical church of Saint Martin of the Fields.
Of all the ancient religious establishments of Paris, this old priory retains best its monastic aspect. Instead of the general destruction which was the fate of most of these old monasteries at the time of the Revolution, when their orders were suppressed, Saint-Martin was passed intact first to a manufacturer of arms, then, in 1798, to the installation of the then newly founded Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers, still within its protecting enclosure.
The original idea of such an institution is attributed to Descartes, though not put into execution until 1775, more than an hundred years later than the death of the philosopher. Vaucanson, the celebrated engineer, organized the school and bequeathed to the state his collection of machines, instruments, tools, etc., for the benefit of the working classes, and, in 1794, the conservatory was founded by a decree of the Convention. The museum is combined with a technical school, the classes in which are free.
The bequest and scheme for the benefit of the workers was so in harmony with the spirit directing the saner side of the Revolution, and the establishment so well fitted to receive the installation that the transformation from monastery to technical school was effected without demolition.
According to the ancient tradition the original priory, of which this vast enclosure was the out-growth, was erected where Saint-Martin, arriving near the gates of Paris, cured a leper by pressing him against his breast. The priory became an abbey celebrated under the second race of French kings, but having been ruined by wars and other disorders of early days, Henri I, the grandson of Hugues Capet, rebuilt and refounded the abbey in 1060, and his son, Philippe I, confirmed and increased the donation by his chapter of 1067, placing the new foundation under the abbey of Cluny, of which flourishing order it was the third off-shoot.
As the monastery stood without the walls of Paris, it was enclosed by strong, high walls of its own, battlemented and turreted, constructed by the prior Hugues IV, and of this ancient defence is left a picturesque round tower in the Rue Saint-Martin, at the corner of the Rue Vertbois, ceded by the monks to the city, in 1712, for the erection of a fountain, which still exists.
The monks at this time themselves tore down the old wall which once ran along the line of the present Rue Saint-Martin, replacing it by domiciles for their inhabitants, and destroyed the principal entrance, which had been restored in 1575 and decorated with statues of- the two royal founders. Further ” improvements ” undertaken by them necessitated the destruction of the old chapter house, the tower of the archives, the chapel of the Virgin, and the famous cloister, which contained stone statues of three generations of kings, Henri I, Philippe I, and Louis VI, and which Piganiol de la Force describes as unequalled in Paris for its size and the number of its columns.
The priory of Saint Martin of the Fields was conceived upon a scale which destined it to be the most magnificent religious organization of France, and was governed by a long succession of illustrious priors, of which cardinal Richelieu was one.
The old church, so curiously adapted to the uses of a museum of hydraulic machinery, pre-serves its exterior intact, with certain additions, and can be seen fairly well by making a tour of the adjoining streets. It is of two epochs, the actual church being composed of a nave built in the XIVth century and a choir and apse of the XIIth century. A tower, of which we still see the base, rose from the right-hand side, and of the two tourclles on the facade, the right-hand one is original, the other having been added to balance the composition during recent restorations.
The apse of Saint-Martin’s, considered to be an importation from Picardie, is thought to have been inspired by the abbe Suger, when he desired to build the abbey of Saint-Denis. Authorities fix the date between the years 1116 and 1140. This apse is a remarkable document upon the origin of Gothic architecture. It must be classed with the churches of Saint-Etienne of Beauvais, Notre-Dame of Poissy, and of Saint-Maclou of Pontoise, in all of which we find the first traces of that style of which the cathedral of Saint-Denis is the point of arrival.
To gain entrance to the church one must pass through the main part of the museum, stepping at length through a modest door in the left side of the nave. The nave is long, high, and wide, without aisles and without pillars. Its roof is of wood, arched and supported by beams of the simplest, frankest construction. There are sixteen side windows in pairs, surmounted each by a rosace, and the facade is pierced by a large window in four divisions, surmounted by six quatrefoils, and over all a pretty rose. The nave, denuded of all ecclesiastic suggestion and filled with airplanes and other objects of modern invention, still holds a sense of tremendous power on the strength of its proportions alone.
The apse, however, is the most interesting part of the edifice. It is lower than the nave by some half a dozen steps, which descend from the rear of the sanctuary. Here one steps upon large funeral stones with which the church was paved, and upon which may still be seen traces of nearly effaced effigies of the monks and priors interred beneath the choir.
The apse is entirely of stone, very beautiful stone, cut with precision and care, its pillars in groups and pairs not formed of monoliths but of stones of equal size and shape, cemented together. A large chapel with Roman windows at the back and windows slightly pointed at the sides, forms the centre of the round-point and a chain of smaller chapels links the apse to the nave. The construction of these chapels with their undecided arches in which the architect seems to have hesitated and experimented between full roundness and varied degrees of pointing, is exceedingly curious. From this bizarre mixture and tentative design archaeologists have adjudged that the pointed arches of Saint-Martin’s are the first which Paris knew, and that the edifice was one of the earliest in which the Gothic style battled against the Roman.
The ornamentation of the apse is rich and varied. In the capitals of the twin columns which make the tour of the choir, the sculpture passes from something Byzantine in its elements through the Roman forms to the point where the Gothic flower begins to spring. All the carving is strong and able, indicating the hand of sculptors of the first quality.
A XIIth century Virgin in wood, from this church, was transported to Saint-Denis.
The refectory of the priory, now converted into a library, is considered a chef d’oeuvre of the early XIIIth century, and by its extreme lightness and beauty justifies the tradition that it is the work of Pierre de Montereau, the talented architect of Saint-Louis. If it be indeed the work of’ this architect it will be a youthful production, a forerunner of the Sainte-Chapelle and the Virgin’s chapel of Saint-Germain-des-Pres, yet is there nothing tentative in its handsome proportions and its rich detail. Here is indeed no longer the bizarre indecision of the apse of the church, but an art in definitive possession of its style.
It was an architect of more than ordinary prowess who knew how to throw the weight of the vaulting of this high and narrow building upon the walls with their buttresses, and leave himself free to support the roof by this file of tall, slender pillars, which, passing along the middle of the length, divides the interior into two naves. Mullioned windows in pairs, surmounted by pretty rosaces, fill seven of the eight bays into which the long interior is divided, on the north side, and two more pierce the west wall. This arrangement is repeated in blind windows on the opposite walls, rendering the interior perfectly symmetrical.
Placed rather high on the north side of the hall and taking the place of the second pair of windows, is the reader’s pulpit, one of the oldest and most beautiful refectory pulpits in existence. Built against the wall and projecting therefrom, so that the voice might be heard by the most distant of the diners, this pulpit is reached by a stairway in graceful openwork stone, enclosed in the thickness of the wall. Viollet-le-Duc, the famous restorer of Gothic architecture, allows himself a burst of professional enthusiasm for this pulpit:
” On remarquera la disposition ingenieuse de l’escalier montant a cette chaire, pratique dans l’epaisseur du mur; il n’est clos du cote de l’interieur que par une claire-voie.; mais pour eviter que la charge du mur au-dessus n’ecrasat cette claire-voie, le constructeur a pose un arc de decharge qui vient la soulager, et a fin que cet arc ne poussat pas, les premiers pieds-droits de la claire-voie ont ete inclines de faron a opposer une butee a cette poussee. Aujourd’hui on demanderait d’user d’artifices pour obtenir ce resultat de butee sans le rendre apparent; au commencement du Xiiie siecle, on n’y mettait pas autrement de finesses.”
Formerly a painting by Louis Sylvestre, representing the life of Saint-Benoit, ornamented the attic of the refectory, now replaced by symbolic figures of the arts and sciences. The decoration of Saint-Martin dividing his cloak with the beggar is by Steinheil. This incident is sup-posed to have taken place at Amiens.
In conclusion one cannot too much admire the masterly execution of the capitals of the columns, the consoles, the escutcheons which lock the ribs of the vaulting, and the roses above the windows. The whole spirit of this room breathes elevation and nobility.